What 'Evil Genius' Leaves Out About Brian Wells' Involvement in the Pizza Bombing
Kristy has already offered her review of the new Netflix series, Evil Genius, and the issues concerning director Trey Borzillieri’s personal involvement with the alleged mastermind of the Pizza Bombing case, and she’s also compared the documentary to the movie that it inspired 30 Minutes or Less.
Warning: The discussion below requires that readers have seen Netflix’s Evil Genius, or at least be familiar with the facts of the case.
There is another major question at issue in the Pizza Bombing case at the center of Evil Genius, and that is how complicit the pizza delivery guy, Brian Wells, was in his own death. Was he a victim? A conspirator? Or both. From a legal perspective, there is an important distinction here. A conspirator cannot be charged in the death of a co-conspirator under the felony-murder rule, meaning that — if Brian Wells was a conspirator — his co-conspirators (Ken Barnes, William Rothstein, Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong) could not be charged in his death (and therefore, could not face the death penalty). The issue is largely moot because all of the co-conspirators in the case are dead (or near dead, in Ken Barnes’ case), but much is made in the documentary about whether Wells was involved in the crime that eventually led to his death.
A short restatement of the pertinent facts useful here: On August 23, 2003, Brian Wells — with a bomb strapped around his neck — walked into a bank in Erie, Pennsylvania and handed a teller a letter demanding $250,000. The teller gave him the only cash available to him ($8,700) and he left the bank. Fifteen minutes later, police spotted and arrested Wells. He told police that three black men placed a bomb around his neck and demanded that he complete a scavenger hunt and collect a key that would unlock the bomb.
Police made no attempt to disarm the bomb, and the bomb squad arrived three minutes too late. The bomb exploded, killing Brian Wells.
Years later, police determined through a series of confessions and screw-ups (detailed in Evil Genius) that Ken Barnes, William Rothstein, Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, and Floyd Stockton all conspired to rob the bank by ordering a pizza, and when the pizza delivery guy, Wells, came out to their property, they placed a bomb around his neck, compelling him to rob the bank.
The documentary is less clear, however, on Wells’ involvement, although director Trey Borzillieri elicited a confession from Jessica Hoopstick — a sex worker who frequently slept with Wells (and later had a baby that Wells likely fathered) — who claimed that Wells had no idea when he delivered the pizza to Rothstein’s property that a bomb would be strapped around his neck. In fact, she claimed that Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong and Ken Barnes paid her in crack and cash to find someone who could be easily manipulated, and it was her that recruited Wells.
Borzillieri seems to believe that Hoopstick’s confession is the final word on the matter, although he may have selectively omitted facts that suggested Wells may have been more involved in his own death than the documentary (and Brian Wells’ family) wants us to believe. All the facts taken together, in fact, strongly suggest — as the FBI deduced — that Wells was in on the plot to rob the bank, although he did not know until the bomb was strapped on him that it was real.
— Foremost is the fact that Evil Genius did not place that much emphasis on the fact that Wells told police officers that three black men strapped a bomb around his neck. Why would Wells tell police this when he knew that it was several white people who strapped the bomb on him? It could be because he was in on the plot, and he didn’t want to snitch on his co-conspirators. It’s also possible, however, that he feared he was being watched and, had he snitched, his co-conspirators would have detonated the bomb.
— According to Case File, Wells also had a history of at least some violence. At one point, he was charged and plead guilty to a crime and threatened to shoot the magistrate, for instance. He also had a history of drug and alcohol problems. By itself, of course, Wells’ history with drugs and violence doesn’t make him a criminal here, but it at least suggests that he might have been amenable to a plot to rob a bank.
— What the documentary doesn’t relay, however, is that Wells also had motive: He was indebted to the crack dealer with whom he secured drugs that he would then exchange for sex from Jessica Hoopstick, and he wanted a cut of the bank robbery profits in order to pay off that debt (he may have also known that Hoopstick was pregnant with his child and needed money to take care of their kid).
— Evil Genius sometimes seems to want to suggest that Wells has little or no connection to the conspirators. However, he knew — and spent time with — at least one of the conspirators, Ken Barnes, who sometimes supplied Wells with drugs.
— A major detail left out of the documentary is the fact that, according to Floyd Stockton — the co-conspirator given immunity in exchange for his confession — there was a rehearsal the day before the robbery, in which Brian Wells was fitted with a fake bomb.
The documentary also suggests that Robert Panetti — the other pizza delivery guy who died mysteriously — had no link to the crime. That’s actually not true: According to Floyd Stockton and Ken Barnes, Panetti was in attendance when they strapped the bomb on Wells. In fact, he was paid in drugs — the very drugs that eventually killed him — to ensure that Wells would comply.
Indeed, when all the facts are taken together, it appears that Brian Wells agreed to be part of the plot but believed that the bomb was going to be fake. However, in a legal sense, it doesn’t matter whether he knew if the bomb was fake or not: He entered into the conspiracy and made steps toward executing it. By the time he attempted to bail — when he realized the bomb was not a fake — it was too late. Legally speaking, one only need to take steps toward executing a conspiracy to be considered a co-conspirator, and if he did show up at the rehearsal — as Stockton confessed — then he was a conspirator, meaning the FBI appropriately did not charge his co-conspirators in his murder under the felony-murder rule.