Saturday, December 15, 2012

Pizza Bomber: The Untold Story of America’s Most Shocking Bank Robbery (Berkley Publishing)

Full disclosure: I literally had a front row seat for much of the early portion of this horrific story. I am a recovering radio talk show host; my morning show was broadcast from a studio situated on State Street in Erie, Pennsylvania, which was directly across the street from the office building that housed the Erie office of the FBI. On a regular basis during the early days of the investigation of what would be dubbed the Pizza Bomber case, I attended press conferences that were held in the FBI office or a block down in Erie City Council chambers.

I waded through much of the same information that Erie Times News reporter and co-author of this book Ed Palatella did and regularly saw Jerry Clark, the FBI agent in charge of the investigation and co-author standing to the side of the podium where the latest information was being discussed. With that front row seat, I regularly saw law enforcement types including Clark, parade the string of bizarre characters involved in this story through the side entrance of the Highmark Building and into the FBI office for questioning.

On one occasion my co-host had the opportunity to pepper William Rothstein, a large, bearded, character decked out in his trademark bib overalls, with questions live on the air, while he stood on the sidewalk outside the studio waiting for a ride. Rothstein remained tight lipped, not responding to any question posed.

They say that truth is stranger than fiction and if any fiction writer had ever proposed a book laced with such a bizarre cast of characters and such a truly far-fetched story, they would likely have been laughed out of any publisher’s office. It is that dysfunctional, gang who couldn’t shoot straight and the tenacity of Clark and his fellow investigators that make this story so interesting.

It was a beautiful, sunny day on Thursday, August 28, 2003. The events that would unfold on the busy retail hub that the locals in Erie call “upper Peach Street” were incredible to the point of almost defying description. Brian Wells, a pizza delivery man walked into a branch of PNC Bank wearing and oversized T-shirt covering a large, metal contraption that was fitted around his neck, carrying a large, black device that was fashioned to resemble a cane, that would later be determined to be a cane gun, and demanded money from a teller.

Shortly after the bank robbery was completed, Wells was stopped by police and placed on the ground in front of his vehicle. It was at this point Wells began a rambling dissertation about the device that was locked around his neck. Police quickly determined that the collar could indeed be an explosive device as Wells claimed. The first responders backed away and called for the Erie Police Bomb Squad to respond to the scene. As time dragged while the bomb squad attempted to work their way through the usually hectic Peach Street traffic, Wells became increasingly agitated, pleading with those on scene to help him and remove the locked collar.

At 3:18 PM, three minutes before the bomb squad would arrive on scene, the device detonated, killing Wells and sending this story into the national spotlight. It would also start the clock on the investigation that would consume hundreds of man hours, cost participants in the investigation their marriages and take countless twists and circuitous turns before concluding with indictments of the conspirators who were involved in the twisted plot to rob a bank.

Central among that group was Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, a near-infamous women who was serving time for the murder of her boyfriend, James Roden. Investigators believe Roden had made the fatal mistake of claiming he would expose the bank robbery plot to law enforcement which led to his untimely demise. Further twisting the tale was that fact that Roden’s body ended up in the freezer at Rothstein’s house. Armstrong had first come to attention of law enforcement when she was acquitted of the murder of another of her beaus in the late 1980s.

As I worked my way through the book I was amazed to remember how many of those that played a role in the extended tale had succumbed to illness or had died under mysterious circumstances. The story has told by Clark and Palatella has a disjointed feel to it, but when you reflect on just how twisted this tale became and the manic mental state of those involved in the plot, that disjointedness seems almost fitting.

Despite that front row seat, the book does reveal some amazing detail of how investigators honed in on this group, picking up threads of the story that would lead to not only the indictments, but also the convictions of those central to the story. Palatella details his nearly daily conversations with Diehl-Armstrong, as she called collect from whatever correctional facility she was currently housed in to berate, rant, rave and regularly, loudly, proclaim her innocence. It made me feel sorry for him and glad she didn’t have my number.

While some, including Wells family may disagree with the outcome of the case, Pizza Bomber is a fascinating look into the day-to-day inner workings of the investigation into what certainly is and will remain one of the strangest crimes in U.S. history.

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