It was the crime that felt more like a scene from a Tarantino film than real life in western Pennsylvania. A man is fitted with a bomb collar and forced to rob a bank before it goes off. Except that the police catch up with him after the heist. They call in the bomb squad, but they are too slow. The device detonates.
Seven years after the events of 28 August 2003 at the PNC bank in the city of Erie, jury selection began yesterday in the trial of the woman described by prosecutors as their instigator. Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, 61, they allege, orchestrated the robbery because she needed cash for a hit-man to kill her estranged father.
Ms Diehl-Armstrong is accused of arranging for someone else to order pizzas, rig their victim with the bomb when he arrived with the food, and force him to rob the bank. She was then to stop the time bomb.
But things went badly awry. When the victim, Brian Wells, a 46-year-old pizza delivery man, entered the bank, he told the teller that his walking stick was a disguised gun and showed her the bomb locked around his neck. But instead of collecting $250,000 as planned, he fled the branch with just $8,702.
It was then that the police intercepted. He collapsed to his knees in a car park and shouted that he was not responsible for the robbery, but had been coerced. "I'm not lying," he cried. "I'm not doing this. This isn't me." Before the bomb experts could get there, the device went off and Mr Wells was killed instantly.
Defence lawyers for Ms Diehl-Armstrong tried in vain to have the trial moved away from the Erie area because of the notoriety of the case. Experts expect the process of jury selection to be especially lengthy because of that.
The defence team, led by Douglas Sughrue, faces additional difficulties. Ms Diehl-Armstrong has already admitted to killing two boyfriends and is serving a 20-year prison term for the killing of the second man because he knew too much about the bank plot.
Moreover, the hit-man she intended to hire, Kenneth Barnes, 56, has already pleaded guilty to his role in the botched robbery and the death of Mr Wells. He is serving a 45-year prison term and is expected to be the government's key witness at the upcoming trial.
Court papers show that the defence will rely heavily upon testimony from a former president of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, Robert Sadoff. He managed in earlier court hearings to have the defendant declared mentally incompetent after revealing that she had stored 727 pounds of cheese, 389 pounds of butter and 37 dozen eggs at her home, without a fridge.
Since then, however, she has been declared competent, narrowing the options for the defence. Mr Sughrue is expected to argue that while she was not insane, Ms Diehl-Armstrong, in the flurry of murdering her boyfriend and plotting the murder of her father, could not at the same time have planned the bank job. He will also make the case that she had lost the ability to tell right from wrong.
Mr Sughrue's dealings with his client have not been easy. Ms Diehl-Armstrong, who has already fired two previous lawyers because she felt they were inept, unleashed a tirade against their successor yesterday, swearing at him and shouting: "I don't need Doug Sughrue, who's never been in prison a single day, telling me how to act."
The trial, when it finally gets under way, may not offer much solace to the Wells family, even if the defendant is convicted on all charges. To the fury of his surviving relatives, Mr Wells was identified in 2007 by the FBI as a co-conspirator in the robbery. Prosecutors will say that he helped plan every detail of the heist but never knew that he would be the man forced to wear the bomb collar.
A third man, William Rothstein, was also identified as a defendant in the case, but he has since died of cancer. The body of the first boyfriend, William Roden, was later discovered in a freezer in Mr Rothstein's home.
He later told police that Ms Diehl-Armstrong had suggested that the two of them dispose of the body with the help of an ice crusher.Reuse content