(Spoiler alert: Do not read on if you haven’t watched “Evil Genius”)
While Netflix’s “Evil Genius” ends with unanswered questions, directors Barbara Schroeder and Trey Borzillieri have clear thoughts on who they think was behind the big heist, and who wasn’t.
“Evil Genius” tells the story of the “pizza bomber heist” and the murder of Brian Wells in 2003. The 46-year-old from Erie, Pennsylvania, was a pizza delivery man who got involved in a bank robbery that included a scavenger hunt and a homemade bomb strapped around his neck. When he was arrested after robbing the bank, the bomb went off and killed Wells.
In the 15 years since the incident happened, there was been debate over Wells’ involvement and who the real mastermind was — or who the masterminds were — in the crime. Prosecutors claimed Wells was in on the heist but thought the bomb was a decoy.
Two co-conspirators, Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong and Kenneth Barnes, were indicted on charges of bank robbery, conspiracy and weapon charges. Prosecutors argued that Diehl-Armstrong hired Barnes to kill her father over a dispute of inheritance and needed $250,000 to pay him, which is what Wells allegedly was supposed to take from the bank. The defense noted that Wells only took $8,701 from the bank. Barnes was sentenced to 45 years in federal prison, and Diehl-Armstrong was sentenced to life in prison, where she died in 2017. Another man who had died prior, Bill Rothstein, was also indicted as a conspirator in the crime, along with Wells. Diehl-Armstrong had claimed that Rothstein was the mastermind of the plot and many believe he was the one who actually built the bomb.
“There’s misinformation and there’s disinformation within this case,” Borzillieri told TheWrap. “You had four conspirators who got out ahead of it, because the case went cold for two years and they were infusing information about the case to their benefit, trying to avoid the death penalty. In terms of Brian Wells — is his behavior being described correctly? … Like many in the beginning, I felt he was a part of this, but because I got in early and stayed with it the length of time I did, my opinion was able to evolve. With everything I read and everything I heard, I believe that he was completely innocent. But I didn’t see it with my own two eyes, so I can’t be positive.”
Schroeder agrees: “For me, being cynical by nature and by profession, I’m 99 percent sure he’s innocent. But there’s always that doubt.”
The reason, she says, is because the elusive key witness that came forward in the final moments of the series. Jessica Hoopsick, one of Wells’ favorite prostitutes, admitted to her involvement in the plot. She claimed she recommended Wells to Barnes for the heist in exchange for drug money, but expressed regret and said Wells had no prior knowledge of the robbery.
“I have never talked with someone who was as passionate and came across as truthful as our elusive eye witness,” said Schroeder. “If she’s not telling the truth, then I don’t know who is.”
At first, Hoopsick didn’t want to get involved out of fear. Borzillieri explained when he read a 2007 document that was unsealed, he knew Hoopsick had more information than she had previously let on.
“Furthermore, her statements contradicted each other,” he said. “It seemed like this person had information. It took five years of persistence to eventually get her to a place where she was comfortable revealing a deeper truth to the story.”
Schroeder added, “Trey was at the right place at the right time when she wanted to cleanse her conscience, to get her true confession for the first time. It took a long time to get.”
Something that shocked many viewers of “Evil Genius” was Borzillieri’s relationship with Diehl-Armstrong. The two corresponded for years for the documentary, even when Diehl-Armstrong was behind bars, and he stuck with her even when she verbally assaulted him over the phone.
“It was blind faith and at the time I reached out to her, it was extremely difficult to get information. Law enforcement was really tight-lipped, and Rothstein had died,” said Borzillieri. “It looked like Marjorie could be the only one who had any insight into the case, and that’s where the relationship started. It went through all the twists and turns of the investigation that you see in the documentary. It continued on for years afterwards, and the hope was to collect information and shed light on the truths within the case. It did so, by her participating in the documentary.”
He added, “The relationship evolved. It started as a chance at information and it turned into a real relationship. There was a friendship after corresponding that long. And there were times when she showed her soft side.”
In fact, Borzillieri said that he was the last phone call Diehl-Armstrong made before she died. And he was the first person to find out she had passed away.
“That’s what’s interesting about Marjorie,” added Schroeder. “She believed she could control people and she thought she had people at her beck and call, but when she died, there was no one to claim her body and she was buried in an unmarked grave. In her mind, she had a lot of people paying attention to her but in the end, she was never really loved.”
The documentary takes on the mental health system. Throughout the documentary series, it is alleged that Diehl-Armstrong’s had a variety of mental health disorders and sought help numerous times. Moreover, in 2008, U.S. District Court Judge Sean J. McLaughlin found that she was mentally incompetent to stand trial due to a variety of mental disorders.
“We do hope that the documentary spawns questions about mental health and that the light that is shining on Marjorie now — can we use that light to reflect where we are today with mental health?” said Borzillieri. “Are examples of Marjorie happening around the world?”
Schroeder added, “It’s easy to say she was mentally ill and the system didn’t do what it should’ve done, her parents didn’t do what they should’ve done — maybe everyone bears a little blame … The saddest moments for me are the amount of therapy and analysis she had. For her to have the self awareness to say, ‘I used to be the prettiest girl in town’ but she took herself to see someone at 23 because she felt there was something wrong with her mind and no one taking her that seriously, that’s when I felt sorry for her … Her level of self awareness was dazzling.”
For Schroeder and Borzillieri, the story is far from over. When asked what’s next for the directing duo, Schroeder said, “We would love to do another deep dive into the characters in here, to reveal new information. We could do a ‘Good Genius,’ too.”
Watch “Evil Genius” on Netflix now.