Burning Questions We (Still!) Have After the Wild Ending to Netflix's 'Evil Genius'
Netflix is no stranger to true-crime docuseries: In the last few years, the streaming service has gone on a true-crime spree of buzz-worthy shows, beginning with Making a Murderer to this year's cult saga Wild, Wild Country. Now, it's tackling a crime that's profound in its unnecessary complexity, the story of a bomb, a bank, a scavenger hunt, and the maniacal woman who machinated it all.
The series is Evil Genius, which dropped on Netflix this month, and it's the kind of story that would only work as airport fiction had it not actually happened. In four tightly wound 45-minute episodes, the story of Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong and her twisted, murderous ways are recounted via FBI investigators; local police in Erie, Pennsylvania -- where the crimes took place -- journalists; and the friends and family of those involved. But is Diehl-Armstrong the true evil genius, or is she merely a spoke in a larger wheel of death and deception?
Those are the questions Evil Genius attempts to answer, though there are plenty left by the time it's over. Here are the lingering questions we have about the crime, the characters, and what it all means in the end.
How involved was Brian Wells?The crime at the center of Evil Genius revolves around Erie resident Brian Wells, who walked into a local PNC Bank on an afternoon in late August, 2003, and passed a teller a note that said he was there to rob the bank of $250,000. The note also informed the teller that he had a bomb strapped around his neck, but the teller couldn't access that much cash, so she filled a bag with $8,702, and Wells left, grabbing a lollipop on his way out. Wells was quickly apprehended by police and cuffed, but they backed off when he told them there was a bomb fastened around his neck.
Wells, a pizza delivery man, explained that while out on a delivery, a group of black men held him down and chained the bomb to him, then forced him to rob the bank. Before the bomb squad could arrive, the device detonated, and Wells was killed. In his car, officers found a homemade gun fashioned to look like a cane, and an elaborate scavenger hunt of sorts, with notes that directed Wells to different locations that would eventually show him how to remove the bomb. Police followed the hunt themselves, but the clues ran dry after a few stops. It was never meant to be solved -- Wells would've been blown up no matter what happened. When the dust settled years later, prosecutors called Wells a co-conspirator, but why would he agree to strap a live bomb to his neck?
The documentary offers its opinions, but there are a few questions related to Wells' involvement that never receive answers over the four episodes of Evil Genius.
What was with Wells' casual demeanor in the bank?The lollipop and his reported attitude don't seem to indicate trauma. Surely he knew more than he was letting on... right?
Why did Wells tell the police the people who strapped the bomb to him were black?This one is particularly strange: If Brian Wells thought the bomb was real, he surely would've given an accurate description of the people who forcibly strapped the bomb to his neck, right? Once the cops had him cornered and cuffed him, why would he have continued to lie about his captors?
Why did Wells' landlord tell the documentarians he loved scavenger hunts?In the first episode, Linda Payne, who rented a house to Brian Wells, said he loved scavenger hunts; at the very least, it appears likely that the co-conspirators had some insight into Wells' personality, enough to convince him he was going on a scavenger hunt and didn't have a live bomb around the neck.
What motive did Brian Wells have to participate in the plot?Payne also said that Wells and coworker Rob Pinetti -- who died shortly after the bombing -- would go out gambling together. Wells also had frequent meetings with sex workers, the names of whom he documented in a notebook, and with whom he allegedly traded crack for sex. Most of this information appears in the first episode, then winds up dissipating as the series progresses and the filmmakers conclude that Wells was a completely innocent victim.
Which leads back to the first question: How involved was Brian Wells?
Evil Genius never provides a thorough answer to this mystery, though it lands firmly on the side of his total lack of foreknowledge. According to the documentary, Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong allegedly wanted to rob the bank for what amounts to revenge and personal gain: She was angry at the PNC for allowing her father to blow through his fortune, and she wanted to hire a hitman to off him. Bill Rothstein and local crack dealer Kenneth Barnes helped plan the heist -- Barnes was supposed to be the hitman, but they needed to rob the bank to get the money to hire him -- and the three of them executed the plot.
Jessica Hoopsick, a sex worker who had a relationship with Wells, confesses in the series' final moments that she suggested Wells to Barnes because of his kind and unquestioning nature. Barnes, in his own confession, agrees that Wells was mostly innocent, but that he was still aware of the scheme.
But Diehl-Armstrong, who grew close with Evil Genius director Trey Borzillieri during the course of their years-long correspondence, says that Wells was more involved that anyone knows, pointing to his casual demeanor during the crime.
Diehl-Armstrong had a vested interest in portraying Wells as a co-conspirator, because it meant she couldn't face the death penalty, and both Diehl-Armstrong and Wells could have had monetary motives for robbing a bank. But, as certain elements of the crime suggest, money was never the true objective here, and Wells was always going to die. Whether or not he was involved at any point, he was certainly a victim.
Did Ken Barnes and Brian Wells know each other before the robbery?This remains unsettled. According to Hoopsick, Wells used to drive her around to obtain drugs, often at Barnes' home. Depending on whether you believe Hoopsick or the investigators, the extent of the relationship between the two men was nothing more than casual acquaintances through Hoopsick, or a "one-stop-shop" setup at Barnes' home, where crack, money, and sex were exchanged. If Hoopsick is telling the truth, Wells was merely a pawn in the larger scheme who was brought in last minute -- not an actual member of the core group of planners.
Was the death of Rob Pinetti linked to the case at all?One of the more puzzling aspects of Evil Genius is the mention of Rob Pinetti, whose death occurred days after Brian Wells'. The men were friends and co-workers at Mama Mia's Pizza-Ria in Erie, and Pinetti died under semi-mysterious circumstances: a drug overdose shortly before he was supposed to talk to investigators. Floyd Stockton -- Rothstein's roommate and convicted child rapist who admitted to locking the collar bomb on Wells the day of his death -- allegedly told FBI investigator Jerry Clark that Pinetti was given an "ultra-powerful dose of drugs to kill him."
What did Pinetti know? And was he the original intended collar bomb victim? It's hard to say. Wells' family thinks that Pinetti might have known too much and was offed by Rothstein and Diehl-Armstrong's crew after Wells died to tie up loose ends. Unfortunately, the series doesn't give us much more than that to glom onto, and so it remains another loose end to wonder about.
Why did authorities give Stockton immunity in the case?As mentioned, Floyd Stockton was a convicted child rapist and admitted to locking the collar bomb around Wells' neck, which seems like it should carry some penalty, especially given that he never revealed Rothstein's actual role.
Why didn't we get to see the notes in Wells' car?Throughout Evil Genius, we see bits and pieces of the scavenger hunt notes that were given to Wells on the day of his death, but never in detail, and never in totality. In fact, we're never totally privy to just how insane some of the demands were. Luckily, People was able to obtain full access to the notes, so they can finally be read in full. (Previously, police only released one of the pages.)
In the notes, the writer -- who has never been identified -- instructs police to keep the story away from the media, or face an ambush. They also threaten anyone who might "fuck up" the robbery: "It will be our life's mission to fuck up your lives!" The meticulously handwritten pages (which investigators believe were traced from a typewritten note to disguise the handwriting) also include drawings and maps. It's unclear why, exactly, the documentary never fully dug into the bizarre specifics.
Is Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong or Bill Rothstein the actual mastermind?The documentary certainly thinks the answer is Marjorie; the title is taken a statement Diehl-Armstrong makes in prison, claiming she's "not an evil genius." Throughout the series, we're told what a master manipulator she is, and she's definitely no innocent bystander. The murder that first implicates her in connection to the robbery -- that of her former boyfriend, Jim Roden -- is something she confesses to, and that was the SECOND of her partners she'd shot to death (then there are the romantic partners who died under mysterious circumstances). That's too coincidental to be an accident, and her close ties to the crime are impossible to deny.
But is she really the focal point of the plan? Again, the documentary says yes, but here's what we know about Diehl-Armstrong: She was highly intelligent but also prone to mania; she grew up with a magnetic personality that was contagious, but also exhausting to those around her; she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and had narcissistic tendencies; she was a hoarder, her home filled with mountainous piles of trash; she was erratic, fast-talking, impromptu, argumentative; and the documentary presents no evidence that suggests she had the technical knowledge to conceive of a bomb like the one that killed Wells, or the wherewithal to draw up an elaborate scavenger hunt. Could a woman like that actually concoct an elaborate faux-robbery that mystified investigators for years? That seems… unlikely.
Why didn't investigators look at Bill Rothstein more carefully from the get-go?Prosecutors' version of the case suggests Rothstein built the bomb, and we know it was Rothstein who called the police and told them that Diehl-Armstrong killed Jim Roden. It was also Rothstein who tipped authorities to the possibility that these web of crimes were interlaced somehow.
In a 2010 Wired article about the collar bomb heist, retired FBI investigator Jim Fisher is adamant that it was Rothstein who hatched the plan, not Diehl-Armstrong. Fisher believed that Rothstein created the scavenger hunt to send the police on a useless chase, and tipped them to Roden's murder as another means of distraction. When he first confessed that he allowed Diehl-Armstrong to store Roden's body in his freezer, he told officers that he thought about killing himself to get away from the guilt, and even showed them a suicide note. The opening lines: "This has nothing to do with the Wells case."
Rothstein passed away from lymphoma in 2004, and denied his involvement with the heist until his dying days. In the Wired article, Fisher says he believed Rothstein was "controlling the narrative," presenting himself as an open book to deflect suspicion. Indeed, Evil Genius paints him as another victim of Diehl-Armstrong's man-eating ways, and he's regarded with far more esteem among those interviewed than she is. Why is Diehl-Armstrong slapped with the "mentally ill" label throughout, while someone like Rothstein -- another hoarder, desperately linked to this woman from his past, happy to store dead bodies in his freezer -- largely forgiven by the narrative?
That leads us to our next question...
What was the real motive of the robbery and the murder?No matter who was pulling the strings, the crime as a robbery remains unnecessarily perplexing and largely ludicrous, and as a murder even more so. A scavenger hunt that leads nowhere, a bomb always meant to go off, a cane gun in the passenger seat, a hapless pizza delivery man murdered. What's the point? Was there a larger motive, or is this merely a case of a mentally ill group of friends outwitting investigators fettered by sheer incompetence and lack of communication?
It appears to be the latter, with Rothstein and Diehl-Armstrong's conflated egos and combined intelligence sparking some maniacal desire to be seen, no matter cost. As the Wired piece suggests, Rothstein seemed fixated on outsmarting police, maybe because he never managed to "achieve" anything someone with his smarts might be expected to: He never graduated college, was unmarried, lived alone, and was battling his siblings over money. Several investigators noted that he apparently wanted to prove his superior intelligence, and the fact that he willfully drew police attention to himself fits with that portrait. Perhaps, together with the ex-girlfriend he couldn't let go of, he actually pulled off the elaborate, nonsensical crime that would give him a certain level of infamy and notoriety.
Or maybe it was about the money, after all. These were all low-income folks, largely living on the fringes of monied society. Wells lived alone with his cats, his pizza-delivery money used to fuel relationships with sex workers. Barnes is a former crack addict and dealer. Diehl-Armstrong showed no evidence of a life beyond her mania. Rothstein was a handyman and loner whose vast intelligence and large personality had no proper showcase. Perhaps the promise of wealth fueled their journey.
Whatever the case, they succeeded, in a perverse way. Rothstein and Diehl-Armstrong are both dead (she passed away from cancer in 2017), and Barnes will spend the next 40 years in prison, but people are still talking about them, still debating the particulars and oddities of the case. If the point was to be seen and known, they pulled it off. We'll always wonder why, and we'll never truly know.