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Woman convicted in collar bomb bank robbery

Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong
Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong is seen before a hearing at the Erie County Courthouse in Erie, Pa., on Jan. 20, 2004.Janet B. Campbell / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A 61-year-old woman was convicted of participating in a bizarre plot in which a pizza delivery driver was forced to rob a bank wearing a metal bomb collar that later exploded, killing him.

The jury deliberated about 12 hours Friday and Monday before convicting Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, of Erie, on charges of armed bank robbery, conspiracy and using a destructive device in a crime of violence for her role in the bank robbery that killed 46-year-old Brian Wells. She faces a mandatory life sentence.

The verdict was the final piece of the puzzle in a robbery plot so complicated it seemed to spring from the pages of a Hollywood script.

Brian Wells walked into a PNC bank on Aug. 28, 2003, with a metal collar bomb locked onto his neck. He walked out with $8,702 but was stopped nearby by police, who put him in handcuffs and waited for a bomb squad to arrive. Before it did, the bomb exploded, killing Wells.

Prosecutors later revealed that they believed the crime had been plotted by five people. Wells was in on it, at least at first, and probably only realized as he was forced to wear the bomb collar in the minutes before the heist that his life was in danger, they said. Diehl-Armstrong and three other men were also involved, prosecutors said. One had died of cancer. Another was killed by Diehl-Armstrong. The third pleaded guilty and testified against her.

Wells' family still believes he is an innocent victim who was never in on the heist. His brother, John Wells, on Friday called the case a "circus show trial" that would bring the family no justice. Wells, 47, of Phoenix, didn't immediately return a call for comment Monday.

In a brief teleconference from Pittsburgh, U.S. Attorney David Hickton said the verdict was the result of "thousands of hours of difficult and painstaking work by our law enforcement partners and this office."

"While we are pleased with the verdict today, out of respect for the sentencing process still to come, we're unable to answer any further questions," Hickton said.

Defense attorney Douglas Sughrue argued that Diehl-Armstrong's mental disorders and a hostile relationship with at least one of the plotters made it unlikely she participated. In bombastic, expletive-filled testimony over two days, Diehl-Armstrong acknowledged knowing two other plotters — but not Wells — and argued they were framing her.

She sparred with Sughrue throughout the trial and criticized his questions when she testified. After the verdict, she took a parting shot.

The two whispered as Diehl-Armstrong asked Sughrue whether she could keep $1,200 worth of clothes he had purchased for her court appearances, the lawyer said. He told her he would "take care of" it.

"Like you took care of this case that you didn't do your job on?" she said loudly. "There'll be an appeal, that's all I have to say," she announced before U.S. Marshals led her from the courtroom.

Sughrue said afterward that he had no reaction to the verdict and would continue representing Diehl-Armstrong. Her sentencing is Feb. 28

Diehl-Armstrong's life sentence is driven by her conviction on the armed bank robbery charge, because the heist resulted in Wells' death. Prosecutors had the option to pursue the death penalty but didn't.

The defense had largely tried to blame one of the plotters Diehl-Armstrong acknowledged knowing.

That man, William Rothstein, was a handyman and substitute science teacher who prosecutors say constructed the bomb collar using two egg timers supplied by Diehl-Armstrong. He has since died of cancer.

Another plotter, Kenneth Barnes, 57, pleaded guilty and is serving 45 years in prison. He testified Diehl-Armstrong planned the heist because she wanted to use the money to pay Barnes to kill her father.

Despite her denials, Assistant U.S. Attorney Marshall Piccinini told the jury Diehl-Armstrong was involved "up to her eyeballs."

Among other things, he said Barnes put her at a meeting the day before the heist in which she allegedly tried the bomb collar on Wells to make sure it fit. Barnes said the original plan was to outfit the collar with a fake bomb to scare the bank teller, but that Rothstein had a live device attached to the collar that Wells wore to the real robbery.

Piccinini also contended that Diehl-Armstrong killed her live-in boyfriend, James Roden, 45, more than two weeks before the robbery because he was in on the plot and threatened to reveal it.

Diehl-Armstrong is serving seven to 20 years after pleading guilty but mentally ill to his murder, but said she killed him because he was abusive and didn't do enough to help her investigate a robbery at her home that May, which she claimed was orchestrated by Barnes.

Sughrue defended Diehl-Armstrong's behavior in and out of the courtroom, in light of the grisly allegations, telling the jury in his argument before the verdict: "Your job's not to like her or invite her over for dinner or have a birthday party for her."

The jury of seven women and five men sat calmly as the judge's clerk read the verdict. Then, each one stood to affirm they agreed with it. The jurors refused to speak as the left the courthouse.