Mystery of the Collar Bomber

In a small US town, a phone call to a pizzeria set in motion a bizarre series of events that culminated in the horrific death of a delivery man - killed by a bomb locked to his neck. A year on, reports Andrew Buncombe, the FBI are still baffled
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The Independent US

The call came shortly before 2pm. It was an order for the delivery of two small sausage and pepperoni pizzas to an address that the pizzeria owner Tony Ditomo didn't recognise. He passed the phone to one of his two delivery men, Brian Wells. Wells left the Mama Mia Pizzeria in the Pennsylvania city of Erie soon afterwards, putting the pizzas in his green Chevrolet and setting out for the address the caller had given - 8631 Peach Street. It should have been a five-minute drive.

The call came shortly before 2pm. It was an order for the delivery of two small sausage and pepperoni pizzas to an address that the pizzeria owner Tony Ditomo didn't recognise. He passed the phone to one of his two delivery men, Brian Wells. Wells left the Mama Mia Pizzeria in the Pennsylvania city of Erie soon afterwards, putting the pizzas in his green Chevrolet and setting out for the address the caller had given - 8631 Peach Street. It should have been a five-minute drive.

No one knows precisely what happened next, who was involved and even whether Wells had any inkling of what was about to transpire. But the call to the pizzeria that August afternoon last year set in motion a bizarre series of events that would lead to Wells's death in the most horrifying of circumstances and leave an unsettling and frightening mystery lingering over this small lakeside city. It would also add a new name to the annals of extraordinary, unsolved crimes - the Collar Bomber or, as the locals call him, the Pizza Bomber.

"I have heard nothing, there is nothing I can tell you," the white-haired, heavily accented Ditomo insisted one lunchtime, as he prepared pizzas in the kitchen of his restaurant. "I am working with the FBI, but they do not want me to say anything."

That afternoon, on 28 August, Wells never returned to the pizzeria. He was next seen at 2.38pm when he walked into the PNC Bank in the nearby suburb of Summit Township. He waited patiently in line, and when he got to the teller he pulled up his T-shirt to reveal a homemade bomb apparently locked round his neck. He handed the teller a note informing her that he wanted $250,000 (about £130,000) in cash. He said the bomb would detonate in 22 minutes.

Wells, 46, a single man who lived alone with his cats in a rented flat near the pizzeria, left the bank soon afterwards with a bag of notes, having told the teller he could return later to collect the remainder. He got into his car and drove to a nearby McDonald's restaurant, where he dropped the bag near the sign for the drive-through window.

He then set off again, hurrying to beat the clock. A few minutes later, state police - alerted by the bank - surrounded Wells's car and ordered him out. Compliant, he sat on the road, leaning against the front of his car, and raised his T-shirt to show them the crude bomb. As a local TV news team filmed the drama, Wells insisted to the police that he was not a willing accomplice to the plot. "This is not me," he could be heard saying. "It's going to go off. I'm not lying."

He wasn't. At 3.18pm - three minutes before the bomb squad arrived - the device around Wells's neck exploded, killing him. In his car, detectives found a cane-shaped gun and written instructions for Wells laying out details of a "scavenger hunt" he was to complete within 55 minutes if he was to survive. The bank and the McDonald's were the first of several locations he would need to visit if he was to finish the challenge and receive instructions on how to defuse the bomb. At the bottom of the note was the warning: "ACT NOW, THINK LATER OR YOU WILL DIE."

In the days afterwards, police revealed perplexing details about the case. The call to Mama Mia's came from a payphone less than a mile from both the pizzeria and the address to which the pizzas were delivered. And that address wasn't a house, but a satellite transmission tower screened by trees at the end of a dirt road.

Then, three days after Wells's death, it was reported that his fellow delivery man at Mama Mia's, Robert Pinetti, had been found dead from an apparently accidental overdose of methadone and antidepressants. Coincidence? What was going on in Erie?

The city of Erie is situated in the jut of land at the very top of Pennsylvania, on the southern shore of Lake Erie. North over the lake lies Ontario, Canada. Erie has a history as a straight-talking and hard-working blue-collar community. Its tidy, restored city centre is proof of lingering civic pride. It advertises itself as home of the brig Niagara, the flagship of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry during the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813. He saw off a squadron of British ships with the words: "We have met the enemy and they are ours."

Erie's residents will tell you that this is a quiet, unremarkable place. It is small enough for people to know each other, and each other's business. It has its share of small-town crime, but the events of that August day on Peach Street have left people bewildered. A woman who lives near the transmission tower, who was at home that afternoon, said last week that she had heard a gunshot from the direction of the tower. "It's kind of scary," she said. "It's weird."

Part of this unease is caused by the lack of obvious progress by the FBI and police. In February, the Erie County coroner, Lyell Cook, ruled that Wells's death was a homicide - he had met his death at the hands of another. But even now the authorities say they cannot determine whether Wells was simply an unfortunate victim or part of the plot to obtain money. FBI special agent Bob Rudge told me: "It would be inappropriate to say one way or another when we just don't have the evidence. He may be a total victim. I know that would be better from the family's view, but I just can't say. We just don't have the evidence to say whether he was involved or not." The reward for information has been doubled to $100,000.

Wells's family have made several appeals for information. In a statement released on the anniversary of Wells's death, his sister Jean Heid offered forgiveness to the killer. "It is so difficult for me to believe that someone's heart could be so hardened as to continue to leave our family with so much grief," she said. "Please don't be afraid to come forward in confidence if you know who took Brian's life. You have the key to unlock our grief and heal our pain. If you killed my brother and are reading this, please come forward to personally receive my and God's forgiveness."

A behavioural profile suggests that the person who wrote the notes may have written similar letters before, with the same themes of power, control, ultimatums, revenge and dire consequences. The construction of the collar bomb - built by hand, using scrap metal and crude explosive - indicated that the person behind the plot "is a frugal person who saves scraps of various and sundry materials in order to reuse them in various projects," the FBI said.

"Someone who knows the bomber might refer to him as a 'pack rat' because of this behaviour," Rudge said. "If the bomber lives with others, his frugality and pack-rat-type behaviour could be a source of irritation and arguments because he saves everything."

Another aspect that troubles locals - and which has kept internet enthusiasts gripped - is the series of "coincidences" - such as the overdose that took the life of Wells's colleague - that may or may not be linked to Wells's death and the bank robbery.

On 20 September 2003, for instance, police received a call from William Rothstein, who lived in the house at the start of the dirt road down which Wells made his ill-fated delivery. Rothstein told police that there was a body in a freezer in his garage. Furthermore, he told them that his former fiancée, Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, had killed the man, James Roden, five weeks earlier. He said Roden had been her boyfriend.

The following day, police arrested Diehl-Armstrong on suspicion of murder and accused Rothstein of accepting $70,000 to help cover up the death, including putting the body in his freezer. But was Rothstein linked to Wells's death? Rothstein's lawyer, Gene Placidi, confirmed that on the day of Wells's death his client had made a telephone call from the same public telephone at the Shell garage from which the order for the two pizzas was placed. It also emerged that a fugitive had been living at Rothstein's house. The fugitive, Floyd Stockton, was wanted in Washington state over charges that he had raped a mentally disabled 19-year-old woman in the summer of 2002.

The FBI says it has no evidence to link Rothstein to Wells's death, but the county coroner, Lyell Cook, disagrees. He told Associated Press that he believed that there was a connection, even if he could not prove it. He said it was too much of a coincidence that Rothstein - described as eccentric and brilliant, and someone who tinkered with electronics and mechanics - lived where he did and had used the same phone that day. This may never be explained; while Diehl-Armstrong's case is now before the courts, Rothstein died of cancer in July.

As time passes, the people of Erie try to forget all this. On a cold day last week, with the wind blowing in from the lake, Leonora Maccagia was hurrying into a bookshop. "I don't think people think about it too much," she said. "I think they believe it was a sad thing that happened, but that the people who were involved have moved away."

But the rumours and theories and gossip persist. Did Wells have any idea what was going to happen that afternoon when he left the pizzeria? Was he set upon by a gang in the woods, who forced him at gunpoint to do their bidding? Was one of those men, as the FBI believes, watching later when the bomb exploded? Was it, one local wondered, all linked to the roleplay game Dungeons and Dragons, as she'd heard?

For Wells's family, it is distressing to have so many questions and so few answers. His brother John, who lives in Arizona, said the family was simply waiting for the day when those involved in this disturbing crime are brought to justice.

The coroner, Lyell Cook, has suggested that, apart from any killers still at large, the pizza delivery man had suffered a further insult. "The tragedy is that a person lost his life and his identity," he told reporters. "Brian Wells will always be known as the Pizza Bomber; people won't remember who he was. To me, that's a shame. It's an additional indignity. How sad it is to lose your life and identity in such a violent way."