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Master criminal, or puppet on a dead man's string?
January 11, 2011 11:42 AM   Subscribe

Back in 2003, MetaFilter noted a very strange bank robbery in which the robber was also a particularly desperate victim. Seven years later, the story has become even more gnarled and mysterious, despite the ultimate conviction of a 'mastermind'. The Incredible True Story of the Collar Bomb Heist. posted by dragstroke (45 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite

 
> "The officers called the bomb squad and took positions behind their cars, guns drawn. TV camera crews arrived and began filming. For 25 minutes Wells remained seated on the pavement, his legs curled beneath him. [...] The device detonated, blasting him violently onto his back and ripping a 5-inch gash in his chest. The pizza deliveryman took a few last gasps and died on the pavement. It was 3:18 pm. The bomb squad arrived three minutes later."

Erie is small. You can go from the east to west city limits by surface roads in about 20. The city does not suffer from highway traffic jams.

It's inexecusable that the bomb squad needed a half hour to arrive.
posted by ardgedee at 11:55 AM on January 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


From wikipedia: The bomb squad was finally called at 3:04 PM, at least 30 minutes after the first 9-1-1 call. At 3:18 PM, the bomb detonated, blasting a fist-sized hole in Wells' chest just three minutes before the bomb squad arrived.
The bomb squad only took 17 minutes to get there.
posted by yeoz at 12:02 PM on January 11, 2011


As a professional writer of stories like this, let me be the one to drag out the old canard: truth is stranger than fiction. It's because truth has more guts than we writers do.
posted by Bookhouse at 12:11 PM on January 11, 2011 [4 favorites]


That things like this happen in real life (as opposed to only in horror films) makes me incredibly, incredibly sad.
posted by ocherdraco at 12:11 PM on January 11, 2011 [3 favorites]


Also, bomb squads don't sit around in full body armor with the engines running in real life.
posted by Bookhouse at 12:12 PM on January 11, 2011 [6 favorites]


I'm from western ny and I remember the news reports on this.

Wikipedia and wired fail to mention mention the B-movie Deadlock with Rutger Hauer that... I'm nearly 100% sure inspired this murder-heist insanity.
posted by nutate at 12:12 PM on January 11, 2011


Here's another Metafilter thread from 2007.
posted by Burhanistan at 12:13 PM on January 11, 2011


Wikipedia and wired fail to mention mention the B-movie Deadlock with Rutger Hauer that... I'm nearly 100% sure inspired this murder-heist insanity.

I dunno, I'd assume True Recall is more likely; it used the same 'collar bomb' idea.
posted by graventy at 12:14 PM on January 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


And may I mention (mention) that Deadlock (aka wedlock) came out in 1991 so... in this case b-movie fiction came before truth.
posted by nutate at 12:15 PM on January 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


That things like this happen in real life (as opposed to only in horror films) makes me incredibly, incredibly sad.

I'm still reading the article, but this is so freakishly absurd. I'm really bummed out now.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 12:20 PM on January 11, 2011


There's a very good reason you don't do "bomb-around-the-wrist", or "bomb-around-the-ankle".
posted by Xoebe at 12:22 PM on January 11, 2011


graventy:

To beat this into the ground:
TV Tropes on Explosive Leashes

Running Man

based on Steven King's The Running Man. I dunno if the book had the bomb collars, but according to wikipedia at the end an airliner runs into a skyscraper.

So, I blame Steven King...
posted by nutate at 12:22 PM on January 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh this is lovely, " A comedy movie loosely based around the events, 30 Minutes or Less (2011) starring Danny McBride and Jesse Eisenberg is also filming"
posted by octothorpe at 12:24 PM on January 11, 2011


> A comedy movie loosely based around the events

It's funny when a desperate drug addicts has his ribcage visibly blown apart in front of dozens of people in broad daylight.
posted by Burhanistan at 12:32 PM on January 11, 2011 [3 favorites]


Oh shoot, Burhanistan, I missed that one! I was so nervous about a double, too.

As far as movies, this looked almost tailor-made for the Coen brothers..
posted by dragstroke at 12:32 PM on January 11, 2011


Such an amazing story. I saw the film of the detonation on television (the cameraman was at some distance and Wells was on the other side of a police car) and, knowing the story, don't think I've ever felt so much suspense and horror at one of those stupid police clip shows.

I have no idea what it was actually like for Wells that day; just trying to imagine it is terrible. I know he wasn't totally innocent in this and I don't particularly care. He was trapped in an awful and fascinating way.
posted by heatvision at 12:38 PM on January 11, 2011


There's a scene in the 2008 movie The Hurt Locker that is a lot like this story, except without the pizza and the bank, just the bomb strapped to an unwitting accomplice.
posted by crunchland at 12:52 PM on January 11, 2011


Wells was a loyal employee—in 10 years, the only time he had called in late for work was when his cat died.

I can't help but feel sorry for this guy every time I reacquaint myself with this story. I know he was one of the conspirators in a bank heist, but he's just such a patsy among bad people. The fact that the police seemed to have treated him rather callously doesn't help.
posted by oneirodynia at 1:02 PM on January 11, 2011 [5 favorites]


I was just thinking about this case the other day - strange that I never heard that someone was caught/convicted.

It seems easy to point the finger at Rothstein, since the dude can't defend himself, but the evidence against Rothstein as presented in this article, seems really weak.
For proof, Fisher points to a profile of the Collar Bomber produced by the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit.
An FBI profile is not proof. It's an investigative tool - like a lie detector test, it's a tool that can be incorrect, and can be manipulated by the investigators to produce a specific result.
posted by muddgirl at 1:34 PM on January 11, 2011 [6 favorites]


Agreed muddgirl. The article drops this other Rothstein theory on us with only a couple paragraphs left. It left me wondering about any physical evidence involved that would point one way or another.
posted by boubelium at 1:38 PM on January 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


That was the most grimly compelling thing I've read since the article about the dude who had his testicles ripped off by rampaging chimpanzees was posted to the blue.
posted by afx237vi at 1:38 PM on January 11, 2011


I liked the article up until the "Oh, this particular high-IQ dysfunctional and marginal person couldn't have done this, but this high-IQ dysfunctional and marginal person could have done it, because an FBI profile says so!" That's an annoyingly abrupt and inconclusive ending, but I don't know whether it is attributable to the writer or to an editor.

truth is stranger than fiction. It's because truth has more guts than we writers do.

I think it's because fiction has to make sense, whereas truth labors under no such constraint.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:06 PM on January 11, 2011 [11 favorites]


boubelium: "It left me wondering about any physical evidence involved that would point one way or another."

I wondered this as well. Until I realized that the people who had access to the physical evidence and "1000s of interviews" and presumably access to all the physical evidence ended up charging Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong and Fisher, who disagrees, is a retired FBI guy who "pored over the media coverage of the case and studied every piece of evidence released by the FBI."

Maybe the story becomes even more intriguing if we don't really know who did it (though seriously Wired isn't it incredibly sick and fascinating enough), and I guess if there is a possibility it should be mentioned (heck, isn't that what long form journalism is for?) but closing the article on it gives the theory much more credence than it should otherwise get. Sure it's possible that Rothstein was the mastermind who got away with it (by dying first!) but at this point, Fisher seems much like the poor relatives of Brian Wells who shouted "Liar!" at the press conference -- potentially right but not likely.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 2:50 PM on January 11, 2011


If this was a movie I'd laugh. "Yeah, right, who lives next to a TV tower? Bombs don't go 'beep beep beep' before they go off. The threads tying all these people together are a bit convenient, aren't they? What's with that guy's beard and overalls - is he Amish? How many criminal supergeniuses live in the podunk town, anyway?"
posted by obiwanwasabi at 3:06 PM on January 11, 2011 [13 favorites]


I think that they tossed the Rothstein theory in, very near the end of the article, because it's such thin gruel. However, I can understand why it appeals to some people, as the substitution of someone who's dead as the mastermind in charge makes them feel safer than accepting that someone who's still alive--and could possibly escape to wreak more havoc--did all this. I mean, the whole thing is in itself a paranoiac's nightmare.
posted by Halloween Jack at 3:15 PM on January 11, 2011


This is kinda like password swordfish...and didnt it come out right atound this time?
posted by hal_c_on at 3:18 PM on January 11, 2011


MCMikeNamara: Until I realized that the people who had access to the physical evidence and "1000s of interviews" and presumably access to all the physical evidence ended up charging Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong and Fisher, who disagrees, is a retired FBI guy who "pored over the media coverage of the case and studied every piece of evidence released by the FBI

I agree completely; it is most likely the case of a retiree with too much time on his hands. But there is always the chance that the FBI or prosecutor fell victim to the pressure of needing to close such a high profile case and prosecuted whoever was handiest. The article made it sound like Diehl-Armstrong was convicted solely on shady witness testimony. But surely they must have had physical evidence or other damning testimony that was left out of the article. I am pretty confident that it sounds as if justice has been done.


But really, that Diehl-Armstrong seems far too crazy to stand trial in the first place.
posted by boubelium at 3:47 PM on January 11, 2011


Erie is small. You can go from the east to west city limits by surface roads in about 20. The city does not suffer from highway traffic jams.

It's inexecusable that the bomb squad needed a half hour to arrive.


Perhaps they were merely on call and not sitting somewhere waiting? That could make it a good response time.

Also, they cover 13 counties in Western PA... so they could definitely have been more than 20 minutes away.
posted by Jahaza at 3:52 PM on January 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


My theory is that Rothstein was and easily manipulated type with technical skill that became the organ by which Diehl-Armstrong added some really creepy technology into what would have otherwise been a rather simple double-cross.

It would be rather nice to know anything about the physical evidence they doubtless ought to've found. Traces of explosives, a shop with the necessary equipment to build the gun and collar, prototypes or other evidence of prior testing/planning...
posted by Matt Oneiros at 4:43 PM on January 11, 2011


Whenever I read about something like this, where someone has attracted followers/caused people to do crazy stuff/whatever, I always expect to find them crazy good-looking when I see their photo--and they're almost always pretty ordinary in appearance. Makes me think charisma/pheromones is what you really want to wish for.
posted by maxwelton at 6:29 PM on January 11, 2011


400 pounds of butter and more than 700 pounds of cheese
posted by jtron at 7:47 PM on January 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


I dunno, I'd assume True Recall is more likely; it used the same 'collar bomb' idea.

The Ahnold movie you're thinking of is The Running Man.
posted by zardoz at 7:58 PM on January 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


I wish they had explained the home made gun.
posted by Mitheral at 8:25 PM on January 11, 2011 [3 favorites]


Yeah... cool that they followed up and totally a great read, but it left plenty of questions unanswered. Maybe they're unanswerable....
posted by ph00dz at 8:58 PM on January 11, 2011


Aw, dammit I knew that felt wrong but I haven't seen either in a long time.
posted by graventy at 9:21 PM on January 11, 2011


I wish they had explained the home made gun.

Yeah, that got kind of lost in all the excitement. Kind of suggests 'Rothstein' - a man with the technical abilities and facilities to melt down a gun (the incriminating one in the other case) - would be likely able to build such a, uh, device.

Interesting, weird, sad story.
posted by From Bklyn at 12:39 AM on January 12, 2011


Utterly fascinating, thanks for posting. And as for the bomb squad, I'm amazed that Erie even has one, let alone one that was able to arrive at the scene in under an hour.
posted by emd3737 at 1:07 AM on January 12, 2011


And as for the bomb squad, I'm amazed that Erie even has one

Yeah, it is a little . . . strange? Odd? What's the word I'm looking for?
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 4:12 AM on January 12, 2011


And as for the bomb squad, I'm amazed that Erie even has one

I go through Erie all the time, and I've never thought to myself: "You know, this is the kind of town that's going to be utilizing a bomb squad frequently." But then again, I never heard about this either, so what do I know?
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 7:37 AM on January 12, 2011


The article was a great idea for a post, a facinating read. And, as always, Mefite commenters are adding to my understanding and causing me to question things I might not have otherwise.
posted by santaslittlehelper at 9:03 AM on January 12, 2011


But there is always the chance that the FBI or prosecutor fell victim to the pressure of needing to close such a high profile case and prosecuted whoever was handiest.

Yeah, this is absolutely true as well, and from the Wired article it seems like most of that "eyewitness testimony" was "this lady who has demonstrative issues with sanity bragged about it to me," which raises a lot of questions, but then again we're not getting the whole investigative picture from one article.
posted by muddgirl at 9:45 AM on January 12, 2011


It would be rather nice to know anything about the physical evidence they doubtless ought to've found.

In the case of Jim Roden, Rothstein "painstakingly melted down the murder weapon and scattered the pieces around Erie County."

"'There is only one way you can survive and that is to cooperate completely,' the notes read in meticulous lettering that would later stymie handwriting analysis."

The article makes Rothstein out to be very meticulous about disposing of evidence.

The article drops this other Rothstein theory on us with only a couple paragraphs left.

Not really. The whole thing is written with an eye to Rothstein as the leader.
Rothstein expressed his apologies "to those who cared for or about me," identified the body in his freezer as that of Jim Roden, and noted that he "did not kill him, nor participate in his death." The note opened with a curious disclaimer: "This has nothing to do with the Wells case."
posted by mrgrimm at 10:05 AM on January 12, 2011


I saw all that, mrgrimm, but it's not even circumstantial - it's guess-work.

To me, I think the most damning stuff is the testimony of the living co-conspirators. If Rothstein really was the sole mastermind and Diehl-Armstrong was merely a co-conspirator, what incentive do the others have to lie? She would clearly be locked up either way - one co-conspirator has already been charged with over 40 years in prison.
posted by muddgirl at 10:36 AM on January 12, 2011


I wish they had explained the home made gun.

Probably vetoed by an editor fearing copycats. Also, what about the collar-bomb photo at the top? Was a reconstruction fabricated, or is that just an artist's rendition?
posted by Rash at 3:41 PM on January 12, 2011


> Also, what about the collar-bomb photo at the top? Was a reconstruction fabricated, or is that just an artist's rendition?

Had to be a rendition, given that the original was blown to bits and I doubt there are any schematics.
posted by Burhanistan at 3:49 PM on January 12, 2011


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