In August 2003, a pizza delivery man named Brian Wells walked into the PNC Bank in Erie, Pennsylvania. He was wearing an oversized t-shirt with a large protrusion underneath and carrying a bizarre looking cane, later discovered to be a homemade shotgun. Wells handed the teller a note demanding $250,000, claiming that he had a bomb locked around his neck. The bank had 15 minutes to give him that money, or the bomb would be detonated. Unable to access the bank’s vault, the teller handed over less than $9,000. Not long after leaving the bank, Wells was arrested on the street. The bomb around Wells’ neck was locked around him like a giant handcuff, with a series of three locks, the keys to which he would supposedly find by following a complicated set of scavenger hunt instructions after the robbery. Sitting on the pavement, his hands cuffed behind him while police kneeled behind their cars waiting for the bomb squad, Wells pleaded for his life, telling them that it wasn’t a joke. Shortly before the bomb squad arrived, the device detonated, killing Wells.
The new Netflix documentary Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist breaks down this strange incident over four episodes. After detailing the bank incident and Wells’ death, the filmmakers jump forward almost a month, when a man named Bill Rothstein called the police to calmly inform them of a body hidden in his freezer, and that they should arrest his longtime friend and onetime lover Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong for the murder of her boyfriend. The FBI, ATF and Pennsylvania State Police had been stumped by the “pizza delivery robbery” but would soon find connections to Rothstein, Diehl-Armstrong and several other acquaintances.
While an intriguing story, Evil Genius takes four 47-minute episodes to detail what might have been told in one two-hour documentary. Knowing that the ranting, wild-eyed Diehl-Armstrong was once a beautiful, talented woman is tragic and interesting; hearing it five or six times gets old. And Rothstein, a fascinating and talkative character who was convinced he was always the smartest guy in the room, almost disappears after the second episode. It’s an extraordinary case, but the filmmakers need to work on their pacing and structure.