The Creators of Netflix's 'Evil Genius' Explain the Shocking Ending of Their True Crime Series
The following interview contains major spoilers for Season 1 of Evil Genius out on Netflix.
In 2003, a pizza delivery man named Brian Wells died in Erie, Pennsylvania, after a bomb that had been locked around his neck exploded. Minutes before, he was seen robbing the PNC Bank in town. As local and national investigators swarmed the scene to figure out what had just happened, they discovered pages of notes for a scavenger hunt, detailing instructions for completing the heist and other steps Brian Wells would have to follow if he wanted to disarm the bomb. His failure, by design -- it was determined he never could have finished before the timer ended -- opened the investigation of a rare FBI Major Case. People had made bomb threats to rob a bank, but no one had ever died like this before, and certainly no one had done it under such bizarre circumstances.
The city slipped into a whirlwind of panic. Several questions would remain unanswered for years: Who had built the bomb? Whose plan was this? And, perhaps most curiously, why?
Now, the Netflix docuseries Evil Genius aims to re-chronicle the infamous "pizza bomber heist" with a clearer perspective and provide (at least some) answers. From day one, filmmaker Trey Borzillieri was obsessed with the bizarre story; his resolve would mix well with the experience of Barbara Schroeder -- a seasoned journalist whose name you might recognize from the thrilling doc Talhotblond -- who became his partner in the latter stages of the project.
"It was a really great team," Schroeder told Thrillist over the phone, "because I think we were able to move the case in a new direction." Ahead of the series premiere, we called the co-directors to talk about that direction, the shocking confession in Episode 4, and, of course, the future.
Thrillist: What drew you both to this project, and to Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, the alleged mastermind of the heist, in the first place?
Trey Borzillieri: After I watched the first West Memphis Three case documentary, Paradise Lost, that Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky did, I was blown away by that and looking for a story. Ultimately, I started tracking this case the day it happened. Just by chance, I was in Buffalo, New York, which is close to Erie, in August of 2003. After seeing the reported coverage the day of -- that a pizza deliveryman [Brian Wells] robbed a bank and blew up in the process -- the mystery began right there. And then learning that there was evidence that indicated he had been put up to it? Holy cow!
The third mind-blowing event was, a month later, [authorities] discovered this frozen body, in a garage right next to the dirt road where Brian Wells made his last delivery before showing up at the PNC Bank, and the FBI was saying that the two cases were not connected. That just sent me off the couch, and I began the early attempts at making this documentary -- I went to Erie, began knocking on doors. The case went cold for upward of two years, and [Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong] was one of the few people living who could provide insight. Having no objective, but just looking for the truth, was what led me to her. Then, in 2013, after tracking this for a decade, I reached out to Barbara -- I had seen her film [2009's] Talhotblond, which is fantastic -- and we became a team, working together for deeper truths in the story and also in the case.
Barbara Schroeder: When Trey first brought it to me, I was like, Oh, I think I remember that case. Whatever happened? Then here I am, seeing what Trey had amassed: a treasure trove. Not just audio of Marjorie, which was something I found astonishing, but of evidence, like the videotapes of the co-conspirators' and hoarders' houses, seeing them play the FBI. There was also this astonishment that this was an FBI Major Case, a rare designation. It was technically closed, but there were still so many unanswered questions, like who was the mastermind? Who built the bomb? Who wrote the notes? Let alone the involvement level of Brian Wells, something the city of Erie and the people who followed this case were very conflicted about. These were all really intriguing questions and story engines that just made me want to run down the path.
Several secrets have gone to the grave with Marjorie and Bill Rothstein, her ex-boyfriend. Over the years, some have pegged Bill as the true mastermind. What ultimately convinced you that Marjorie was the leader? Do you still think that's the case?
Borzillieri: Yeah, I absolutely feel she was the leader, but there are layers to that. What we were hoping to do here is create something where the audience felt like this was a participatory journey -- to have conversations, to form their own opinions. What compels one to keep going on a cold case, in a mystery, sometimes is not really the who did it, but the why, like why did this happen? That was a huge motivating factor for me. Especially at Marjorie's trial, we began to feel like we knew what was happening and who the players were, but we could never come to terms with the "why."
Schroeder: By profession and by nature, I'm cynical, so Bill Rothstein probably played a big part in this. But to me, the intrigue wasn't about answering the question -- because some of these questions are impossible to answer. And you're right, some of these people took secrets to the grave. So there could be more surprises behind Door No. 3, or any of the doors that remain.
Since many of the key figures here are dead, what real-world impact are you hoping will come from this project?
Schroeder: We'd like to open eyes. If the co-conspirators couldn't truly be held accountable, and if Brian Wells' story wasn't ever told completely, hopefully, we were able to deliver some kind of justice. Not only to the victim, but also in making people aware of how devious these co-conspirators were. They wanted to show the world how smart they were, and in the long run, we're hoping we can show that maybe they weren't that smart after all.
Borzillieri: The series and its conclusion also bring us to a second chance at justice. We want to have conversations afterward, and perhaps come away with bigger questions that can be posed -- one that comes to mind has to do with the man [Floyd Stockton] who locked the collar around Brian Wells' neck. He received immunity in this case. What was that based on? Was that based on truth?
Schroeder: Yeah, the man who latched the collar around Brian Wells' neck didn't have to testify at trial, got full immunity, and is living life freely.
If you could interview Floyd today, what would you ask him?
Schroeder: I would want to ask him about those notes -- did you help write those? We'd also like to find out what he said to the grand jury, how involved he was in building the bomb.
Borzillieri: Regarding the grand jury for this case, those records are not available -- it's very unlikely that they will be made available. But if there's a public outcry, and it's deemed within the state for them to be released because of public interest, that would be fantastic.
The Jessica Hoopsick confession, in which she claims Wells was innocent, was a huge get, but it made me wonder if she'd then be named as a co-conspirator. Given what comes out of that interview, what do you anticipate will happen to the subjects who are still living?
Schroeder: Before we talked with Jessica, she was worried, like could anything happen to her? So we talked with all the different law enforcement agencies, and technically she could still be charged, but every one of them said they don't have any plans to do that. So when we talked with her, we couldn't guarantee that she wouldn't be charged. But even in the face of that, she was willing to come forward. That's a pretty compelling interview, for someone to do that in the face of possible charges.
Borzillieri: And it poses the question that if the investigation got that wrong, what else did it get wrong, specifically pointing toward Floyd Stockton?
"If that's not the truth, I don't know what is."
It seemed like the final phone call to Ken Barnes, Marjorie's "fishing buddy," gave you confidence in the veracity of Jessica's statement, but what convinced you she was telling the truth? Do you believe her?
Borzillieri: I don't mean to use a cliché, but in terms of Jessica and her interview and the new information, she was compelled to tell us. It had been eating her up inside. It was a huge release for her.
Schroeder: And look, she was the first one to tell us, "I'm a hooker, I've lied, I've stolen -- who's gonna believe me?" But I've done a lot of first-time confession interviews, and if you're gonna get the truth out of anyone, that's when you're gonna get it. You could visually see the relief on her face when she was able to come clean. Here's this hardened, cocaine-addicted, on-and-off-again hooker, who I think gives us the full emotional range in that moment, when she starts crying. If that's not the truth, I don't know what is.
What were the biggest challenges you faced in getting the other subjects on camera?
Borzillieri: Obviously, these interviews began a long time ago, so it was great that I got in on the day-of, which enabled me to have a unique perspective in that we could carry [the story] all the way to the end. But it was super challenging, and I have to underline that.
The case went cold for two years, and reaching out to Marjorie was just an attempt at getting any information. Law enforcement was under a federal gag order, in essence, so nobody would speak. All the interviews you see with law enforcement in the series come after they've retired and they finally felt comfortable enough to speak publicly about the case. Because of the event and the explosion with Brian Wells, it was such a sensitive topic. These guys really had waited until their retirement to speak about it.
Necessity is the mother of invention, so when you don't have a detective that you can just call up and talk to about the case, and the family won't participate because they're so shell-shocked from the horrific event and no one will listen to them, you start to go down paths and work extra hard just to get any information.
Why was it important to show the public execution of Brian Wells, and its aftermath, on camera?
Schroeder: I'm glad you asked that, because we didn't want to use it gratuitously. We're very aware that his family is probably going to watch this, but I hope you notice that we use it strategically. So at the beginning we don't show the whole event. At the end [of Episode 4], we do show it, but we blur it. The last scene [of his face] is also blurred. It was important to use that to reinforce how heinous it was that this is a victim who was publicly executed and nobody has been charged with this man's murder.
Do you hope someone is charged?
Schroeder: It would be unfair to characterize it as hoping anything happens because for us it was more about just exposing what was left behind in that case -- that being a lot of unanswered questions and a lot of truths. It's not our job to do that; our job is to shine a light on injustice. If justice can come from this, that'd be great.
Borzillieri: And one of the levels of justice is giving more information to the Wells family and to the residents of Erie because obviously we know what the Wells family endured, but the citizens of Erie also lived in fear for a good long while. A lot of this information, the new information we see in the series, they haven't had access to.
Schroeder: Good journalism can still hold people accountable, and hopefully, we've done that with this.
Since this is the kind of story where things can develop further, and with similar true crime projects like The Staircase and Making a Murderer coming back to Netflix, do you have plans for a follow-up?
Schroeder: Yeah, I mean, this is the kind of story that gets under your skin, and I think whether there was another outlet for more episodes or not, we'd still be following it because we want to chase down some of these answers. We don't know who wrote those notes, and who for sure built the bomb. Plus, we also have a long interview with Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong -- no one's ever been able to get this unbelievable character on camera before, so there are some deep dives that would be great to get into. We'd love to do a second season.
Borzillieri: For sure.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.