GUY RAZ, Host:
Even the most creative fiction writers would have a hard time coming up with this next story, perhaps because it's all true, a story that appears in the latest issue of Wired magazine.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: And it begins at a PNC Bank in Erie, Pennsylvania, on August 28, 2003. A middle-aged pizza deliveryman named Brian Wells walks in. He's wearing a loose white T-shirt that hardly conceals a giant bulge in his neck.
RICH SCHAPIRO: In his right hand, he's holding a bizarre-looking cane. He walks up to the teller. He hands the teller a note declaring a bank robbery.
RAZ: And 15 minutes later, state troopers track Brian Wells down at a parking lot of an eyeglass repair shop, and this is where the story gets weird.
SCHAPIRO: Unidentified Man #1: The following is an Action News 24 special report.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ACTION NEWS 24")
SEAN LAFFERTY: Good afternoon. I'm Sean Lafferty. We have breaking news at this hour.
SCHAPIRO: This scene played out for roughly 20, 25 minutes, when finally the device around Mr. Wells' neck started to beep. And 10 seconds later, it exploded.
(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)
RAZ: Wells dies within minutes. Inside his car, police find that walking cane. And on second inspection, they realize it's disguising a homemade, high-powered shotgun. And they also find cryptic notes that read like a scavenger hunt.
SCHAPIRO: You know, go to the McDonald's and you'll see a flowerpot. There is a picture of where the pot is in relation to the arch.
RAZ: About an hour before the robbery, Brian Wells was sent to deliver two pizzas to a remote spot on the outskirts of the city by a TV transmission tower. Some reporters from the Erie newspaper went to check it out the next day. Only one person lived in the area, and he was standing on his front porch, curious about all the investigators and reporters milling about. His name was Bill Rothstein.
SCHAPIRO: He wore overalls. And he's a large man, about 6'2", and he started to talk to them and was very frank and was very open and was clearly very intelligent. Those reporters said they were struck by the sight of this man, who looked almost like a lumberjack and spoke like a college professor.
RAZ: Rothstein was as baffled as anyone else. And for police, the trail went cold.
SCHAPIRO: It was less than a month later Bill Rothstein makes a call to the state police, saying he has a dead body in his freezer.
RAZ: So they raced to his home. And though Bill Rothstein was forthcoming, they also found a suicide note.
SCHAPIRO: The first page of which read: This has nothing to do with the Wells case.
RAZ: The dead man in the freezer was James Roden, and Bill Rothstein said he kept the body there for a friend, a woman named Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, who he said killed James Roden. Diehl-Armstrong was arrested and sent to a county jail. And as for Bill Rothstein...
SCHAPIRO: Just a few months after he called police to report this body in his freezer, he dies of lymphoma.
RAZ: For two years, the case of the pizza collar bomber baffled police, until one day, they got a call from Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong. She had information about the Brian Wells case.
SCHAPIRO: She thought she would get some kind of immunity deal. She was getting very poor legal advice. And she spoke at length with detectives.
RAZ: She basically sold herself out.
SCHAPIRO: That's correct.
RAZ: Now, Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong was convicted of the crime last fall, and next month, she'll be sentenced. But from her jail cell, she continues to deny any involvement.
MARJORIE DIEHL: I mean, if I was part of the crime, I'd be scared to death to keep my mouth shut and say: Good God, I hope they never take a look in this direction. You know what I mean?
SCHAPIRO: But questions remain. Who made the high-tech collar bomb? Who turned a walking stick into a high-powered shotgun? Who wrote the scavenger hunt? All questions that puzzled a former FBI agent named Jim Fisher, who started his own investigation, and that led him to a different conclusion.
JIM FISHER: The man at the center of this is Bill Rothstein. You simply cannot discuss this case in any form or any aspect without speaking about him. All the arrows point to Bill Rothstein.
SCHAPIRO: Rothstein lived alone. He spoke fluent French and Hebrew and sang in the synagogue choir. People who knew him liked him a lot. They said he was a genius. So why would he do it?
FISHER: The bank robbery and the murder had to do with a pathological desire to mystify the authorities. This was what I would call a vanity crime. This crime was engineered to make Bill Rothstein feel better about himself.
RAZ: Now, we will never know if that is really the truth. Remember, Bill Rothstein died of lymphoma a few months after Brian Wells was killed.
FISHER: Rothstein had the last laugh, in a sense. He died without going to prison. He died without being convicted of anything. And he took with him all of the big questions surrounding this case.
SCHAPIRO: I thought many times while I was writing it that had this appeared in a work of fiction, it would almost be too outlandish, and people would just discard it. It almost wouldn't make sense.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.