Fifteen years ago Brian Wells, a pizza delivery man in Erie, Pennsylvania, strolled into a PNC Bank holding a cane and wearing a bulky t-shirt. He walked up to the counter and handed the teller a note demanding $250,000.
It turned out his cane was more than a prop to help him walk. It was actually a gun, and the shirt awkwardly strewn over his boxy frame was actually concealing an explosive device that had been fastened to his neck with a collar. Wells exited the bank and stumbled his way down the street where he was met with police, with whom he had a stand-off with until the fateful moment where he met his demise.
As Wells sat adjacent to a McDonald’s parking lot, pleading with the police officers on the scene to help him get the bomb off of his neck, I sat on the edge of my seat, heart racing and ultimately sinking to a deep low. I was unfamiliar with the story of Brian Wells before that time, but the depiction of the thrilling twisted tale in Netflix’s new documentary series “Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist” opened up my eyes to this strange event and the even stranger characters that surround it.
The four part series is produced by the Duplass Brothers who also produced the hit cult documentary “Wild Wild Country” that was released on Netflix earlier this year. However, the series was co-directed by Trey Borzillieri, who most notably worked on some historical documentary series such as “The Hunt for the Zodiac Killer” and “Hunting Hitler” on History, and Barbara Schroeder, best known for directing the documentary thriller “Talhotblond.” The two team up and combine their skills to delve into the mysterious circumstances surrounding this strange event and the suspicious, multi-faceted, manipulative people who seem to keep popping up in the investigation.
The series focuses on the Wells case but it could be argued that these surrounding figures are the main subject. At the center of the storm and chaos stand two figures: Margerie Diehl-Armstrong, the titular “evil genius” and her on-and-off lover, Bill Rothstein.
Margerie is a terrifying figure and the documentary does a fantastic job of building her up as such, while also managing to make her understandable and even somewhat sympathetic. Though she is never interviewed on camera, she is characterized through audio recordings of calls she had with Trey, previous interviews, and descriptions by other people in her life. She is a deceitful, lying and manipulative woman. She is plagued with mental illness and hoards to the point where her house is more of a dump than a living space. Most of her significant others seem to not be able to make it out of their relationship with her alive.
The exception, of course, is Bill Rothstein, who is equally as curious. Bill is somewhat of a genius himself. He’s reclusive, handy, smart and friendly, but he is also a master of deceit and manipulation.
This documentary delves into the clash between these two and the strange workings of their histories and relationship.
With the current true crime craze booming, it is easy to get lost in the sea of murder mystery docs but there is something special about “Evil Genius.” This wasn’t just a crime, it was a series of crimes surrounding what seem to be the most random events and places. These crimes were conducted by fascinating individuals, and Borzilleri and Schoeder do an excellent job at presenting and unraveling the mystery.
The run-time seems to fly by as it sucks you in and presents you with this story that doesn’t seem real in a masterful way. Borzilleri and Schroeder seem to have left no stone unturned in their process. They build the narrative in such a way that it doesn’t drag for even a moment, which is difficult to do in a documentary, where most of the story-telling is told, not shown. Creating a good documentary that grips your audience is not an easy task but “Evil Genius” manages to do so with ease. Each episode ended on a perfectly constructed cliffhanger that made me want to dive right into the next one and find out the next step in how all of this unfolds.
I highly recommend it to satiate your true crime fix.