crimesider

Trial Starting in Pa. Bank Robbery That Ended with Pizza Deliveryman's Death by Collar Bomb

Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong (AP Photo, file)
Trial Starting In Bizarre Pa. Collar-Bomb Case
Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong (AP Photo, file)

PITTSBURGH (CBS/AP) All but anonymous in life, Brian Wells now has his own Wikipedia entry, and bootleg TV news video of his grisly demise by a time bomb strapped to his neck is available online.

On Tuesday, jury selection begins in Erie in the federal trial of the woman accused of masterminding a bizarre 2003 bank robbery plot that ended with the death of the 46-year-old pizza deliveryman.

Prosecutors say Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong needed money from the robbery to pay a hit man to kill her estranged father. She's accused of arranging for someone else to order pizzas, rig Wells with the bomb, force him to rob a bank and, afterward, stop the time bomb.

Shortly after Wells took $8,702 from a PNC bank teller - far less than the $250,000 he demanded according to the nine pages of handwritten instructions he was allegedly forced to follow to commit the robbery and get free of the bomb - state police caught up with him. He died sitting handcuffed in a parking lot, waiting for a bomb squad and shouting to troopers taking cover nearby: "I'm not lying! I'm not doing this! This isn't me!"

Defense attorney Douglas Sughrue tried to get the trial moved to another federal court district, arguing that years of news coverage have made it impossible to pick an unbiased jury.

"I believe it will be a long and arduous task to pick a jury from the Erie division of federal courts," Sughrue said.

Defending Diehl-Armstrong on charges of conspiracy, using a destructive device in a crime of violence and armed bank robbery, which could result in a life sentence, doesn't figure to be any easier. She has publicly feuded with and fired two previous attorneys and allegedly given incriminating statements to the FBI.

She has admitted killing two lovers - the first, a jury ruled, was justified during an abusive relationship in the 1980s, though she's still serving a seven- to 20-year prison sentence for shooting the second man because, federal prosecutors contend, he knew too much about the bank robbery plot.

Diehl-Armstrong's former fishing buddy, 56-year-old Kenneth Barnes, is serving 45 years in prison after pleading guilty to his role and will be the government's key witness. Prosecutors said Barnes is the would-be hit man against her father.

But the fates of those men have been overshadowed by Wells, who died Aug. 28, 2003. Wells' family was incensed that he was identified as an unindicted co-conspirator in the July 2007 indictment charging Diehl-Armstrong and Barnes.

The family has not returned repeated phone calls from The Associated Press, but it has argued that it is inconceivable Wells would volunteer to be a walking time bomb. Federal prosecutors believe he either knew of or helped plan the robbery without realizing he'd be forced to carry it out.

Sughrue won't comment on his defense strategy except to say it includes testimony by Dr. Robert Sadoff, a past president of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law.

Diehl-Armstrong's trial was delayed for months when U.S. District Judge Sean McLaughlin determined she was mentally incompetent in July 2008. That occurred after Sadoff testified she once stored 727 pounds of cheese, 389 pounds of butter and 37 dozen eggs at her home - without refrigeration.

She's since been deemed competent, but pretrial court documents suggest Sughrue's defense will focus on her mental condition. He's not claiming legal insanity; that is, a mental defect so profound that Diehl-Armstrong couldn't tell right from wrong.

Instead, the documents suggest Sadoff will testify that Diehl-Armstrong was too preoccupied with her then-boyfriend's murder and the plans to kill her father to devise the bank robbery plot.

In 2005, Diehl-Armstrong pleaded guilty but mentally ill to fatally shooting William Roden, 45, about two weeks before Wells' death. His body was found in a freezer at the home of another former boyfriend, William Rothstein, who called police shortly after Wells' death.

Rothstein, who has since died of cancer, said he came forward after Diehl-Armstrong suggested using the ice crusher to get rid of the remains. He also is listed as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Wells case.

An electrician, substitute teacher and handyman, Rothstein is alleged to have crafted the collar bomb. And the federal government says Rothstein ordered two pizzas from a pay phone to draw Wells to a dead-end road. That's where Wells told police he was forced at gunpoint, never naming by whom, to wear the collar bomb.

The prosecution wants to limit Sadoff's testimony. The judge will hold a brief hearing before jury selection begins to rule whether Sadoff can testify about a report he filed last month saying Diehl-Armstrong "participated to the extent she did in order to achieve her goals and not because she was part of a willing conspiracy to rob the bank and to kill Mr. Wells. She had no reason for doing that, as she had money to pay for what she wished to have done."

That is, having Barnes kill her father.

Harold Diehl, 91, did not return a call to a friend's home, and his listed telephone number is disconnected. But he told the AP shortly after his daughter's indictment that she's capable of planning the bank robbery and his murder.

"She, in my estimation, she'd have a tendency to do anything that's possible because I think her mind is a little bit goofed up," Diehl said.