evil genius review

Netflix’s engrossing, captivating, and shocking new true crime series Evil Genius investigates the bizarre “pizza bomber” case. In the process, a tragic, unsettling story unfolds involving a series of manipulative, destructive people with no moral compass to speak of.

pizza bomber

The Pizza Bomber

There’s a haunting moment at the end of the Coen Brothers’ pitch-black comedy Fargo. Several people have met bloody, untimely demises, and the film’s hero – police chief Marge Gunderson – has one of the few surviving culprits in custody. She’s driving him off to jail, and she can’t reconcile all the terrible things that have unfolded; the string of crimes that were ultimately all about money. Marge rattles off a list of victims, then asks her suspect: “And for what? For a little bit of money? There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’t you know that?”

If only someone had given such a speech to the real-life figures at the center of the stranger-than-fiction docu-series Evil Genius. Yet another true crime winner from Netflix (better than Wild Wild Country, though not quite as good as the recent The Keepers), Evil Genius tries to get to the bottom of the bizarre case of the so-called “Pizza Bomber.”

On August 28, 2003, 46-year-old pizza delivery driver Brian Wells strolled into a bank in Erie, Pennsylvania and pulled off a very strange, very low-stakes robbery. Wells was carrying a homemade gun crafted to look like a cane, but that wasn’t the most shocking part. Wells also had a huge metal collar locked around his neck. Essentially a giant handcuff, the collar was a device that might have been constructed by the serial killer Jigsaw from the Saw films.

Wells also had on him a very detailed but also rambling note instructing him to rob $250,000 from the bank. Wells only got $8,702, then left the bank to continue on with a strange “scavenger hunt” that was mentioned on the note. He didn’t get far – soon police swarmed in and surrounded him. This was when Wells told everyone that the device locked around his neck was a bomb. Wells claimed someone put the bomb around his neck, and then ordered him to rob the bank or else the bomb would go off.

At first, the police thought this was a fake. As one officer explains, bombs are often used in bank robberies, but these devices almost always, without exception, turn out to be phony. That wasn’t the case here. And while the police decided what to do, the bomb went off, blowing a huge hole in Brian Wells’ chest, and ultimately killing him (all of this was captured on video – which we see part of in Evil Genius).

suspects

The Suspects

So what the hell happened here? Who would come up with such a strange, and ultimately diabolical scheme? Police and FBI were baffled, and things only got stranger. A few days later, another pizza man – Thomas Pinetti – who worked at the same pizza shop as Wells also died, under mysterious circumstances. Could he have been involved with the crime? Did he perhaps commit suicide out of guilt?

Less than a month later, a man named Bill Rothstein called the police, and said he had a man’s dead body stored in his freezer. According to Rothstein, the man was murdered by a woman name Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, and Diehl-Armstrong wanted Rothstein to cut up the dead body and get rid of it. Both Rothstein and Diehl-Armstrong were in custody.

If there is an evil genius in Evil Genius, it’s Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong. She’s at the center of everything, and Evil Genius attempts to figure out just what her ultimate goal was here…if she even had one at all. We learn that Diehl-Armstrong was extremely smart. We also learn that she was extremely disturbed, suffering from bipolar disorder and other mental health issues.

She’s clearly an un-well woman – but was she the mastermind behind the death of Brian Wells? Or was the more cool and collected Bill Armstrong to blame? And, even weirder still – was Brian Wells in on the bank robbery? How could that be? Why would someone knowingly agree to strap a bomb around their neck?

Other shady figures surface throughout the course of the narrative. There’s Ken Barnes, called a “fishing buddy” of Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong who may or may not have set most of the events into action. And there’s Floyd Stockton, one of Rothstein’s friends who has several sex offenses to his name.

As Evil Genius unfolds, producer Trey Borzillieri and director Barbara Schroeder attempt to shine light on a sordid cast of characters, each more damaged than the next. A motley gang begins to take shake, consisting of drug addicts and prostitutes, all of whom orbited around Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong for one reason or another.

swans evil genius

A Little Money

It ultimately makes for a fascinating, though somewhat hard-to-stomach docu-series. Diehl-Armstrong and her suspected accomplices are so uniformly creepy and downright sociopathic that it’s impossible to have any empathy with them. Even as the film underscores Diehl-Armstrong’s mental illness again and again, it also keeps reminding us of manipulative and dangerous she was (Diehl-Armstrong died in 2017 of cancer).

Yet Evil Genius is meticulously crafted, and tailor-made to make your draw drop. Each episode save the last (there are 4 total) is designed in such a way that by the time the credits start to roll, you can’t help but immediately want to start the next chapter. One strange, shocking revelation after another pops-up, to the point where the events unfolding seem almost too bizarre to be true. But they are true, and as a result, they leave a bad taste in your mouth.

The filmmakers piece together archival footage as cops comb through the houses of the several subjects, and a pattern begins to emerge – they’re all hoarders, living in squalor, their daily lives little more than crumbling ruins. Had they not turned to such destructive ways, they might be tragic figures. One could argue that it was their unhealthy lifestyles that ultimately drew them to crime, but that almost seems like a cop out. You can’t help shake the feeling that deep down, the people at the center of the “pizza bomber” story were just inherently broken, inherently bad. Evil, even.

Yet there’s a haunting quality here as well. We see old photos of a young, smiling, healthy Diehl-Armstrong, which clash dramatically with the unkempt, frequently raving individual who occupies most of the footage. And we learn about Bill Rothstein’s borderline obsession with Diehl-Armstrong – an obsession that caused him to bend to her will, no matter how dangerous that might have been. Not that that lets Rothstein off the hook – it’s clear from his archival interviews (Rothstein died in 2004) that he was just as manipulative, perhaps more so, than Diehl-Armstrong.

Borzillieri, who narrates the film, spends a large chunk of the four episodes trying to get close to Diehl-Armstrong. He talks with her on the phone several times, and a rapport of sorts develops between the two. On even gets the sense that Borzillieri begins to like Diehl-Armstrong, or at least pity her. And perhaps that’s the most disturbing element of Evil Genius – the audience, removed from the immediate action, can see what a bad idea it is to get close to Diehl-Armstrong in any capacity. But Borzillieri, caught up in it all, is almost unknowingly sucked in her orbit, before thankfully stepping back from the brink. It is as if Diehl-Armstrong has some sort of hypnotic power over the people she speaks with.

And what of Brian Wells? The police eventually implicated him in the robbery, but the filmmakers aren’t so sure about that. If there is a truly tragic figure at the heart of this all, it’s Wells, who is presented as a simple but ultimately good intentioned person. What happened to Wells was truly ghoulish – after his death, the bomb squad was so unsure about whether or not the collar bomb had any boobytraps left in it that they opted to just cut off Wells’ head at the scene of the crime to slip the collar off. Here was a nice, easy-to-manipulate man who met a violent end. And for what? For a little bit of money.

By the time the last episode of Evil Genius ends, you can practically hear the voice of Marge Gunderson saying, “There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’t you know that?”

***

Evil Genius is now streaming on Netflix.

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