Netflix's 'Evil Genius' Explores a Case Straight Out of Your Nightmares
The series' creator shares what it's like to meet and form relationships with a real world horror movie villain.
Photo courtesy of Netflix
This article contains mild spoilers for Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist.
August 28, 2003 was supposed to be just another summer’s day in Erie, Pennsylvania. This average American city, however, transformed into the set of a twisted horror movie the moment a middle-aged pizza delivery man walked into a bank with a homemade explosive locked around his neck.
The man was Brian Wells, whose name will forever be synonymous for what is known as one of the most heinous and chill-inducing robbery plots in recent history: a morbid scavenger hunt “gone wrong.” But he was only one of many characters who made this multiple murder case into something you think you'd only see in theaters.
One month after the deadly attempted robbery, Bill Rothstein, who lived near the radio tower where Brian Wells’s fate was sealed on one final delivery, made a call to the police that would forever change the life of Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong. Labeled everything from a femme fatale to a mentally ill convict to a victim of her own crime, Diehl-Armstrong died in prison in 2017. This is where the new docu-series, Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist comes in to play.
Myriad podcasts, primetime specials, and even in-depth articles made the high-profile pizza bombing heist something true crime junkies know well. However, in the Duplass Brothers' newest Netflix Original—which follows their recent success Wild Wild Country—we see these victims and conspirators in a new light thanks to filmmaker Trey Borzillieri, who formed a journalistic relationship with the late Diehl-Armstrong that would be the foundation of this documentary, more than ten years in the making.
VICE talked to Borzillieri along with Evil Genius co-director Barbara Schroeder in the days leading to the release of their new docuseries, which is now on the service:
VICE: There are so many twists in this case that I assume it must have been insane to be so immersed in it from the near beginning.
Trey Borzillieri: Right? An interesting, unique thing about [Evil Genius] is that because someone like Marjorie can participate in it, we could go inside of the conspiracy, if you will, and hear firsthand on the deeper truths.
Barbara Schroeder: When Trey first came to me with all this information, I was like, “Wait a minute. This is a very layered case, but there’s also a dark love story behind it.” Then I was really interested. The mastermind might be this woman who had a string of dead lovers. It’s a one-of-a-kind case. That’s the best way to describe it.
It’s so interesting to see Marjorie in a way we never will again, because she’s passed on. What exactly was your relationship with her like, maybe in a way we didn’t see in the series?
Borzillieri: Well, she just was an endless energy. Because I reached out to her before she was publicly labelled a suspect in this case, I became a sounding board for her. To be honest, it was grueling because of everything she was. She was obviously a sociopath, intimidating because she had killed before. And she was a really good liar. So trying to ferret it out and capture truths from her was challenging. For many years I developed this relationship hoping that someday it would all be worthwhile.
Schroeder: The verbal abuse that Trey put up with and dealt with was astonishing. At one point, she said she would “sue his fucking balls off.” She was a handful, and he hung in there.
One thing that really stuck with me, Trey, was the creepy scene when you tried to talk to Bill Rothstein. Now knowing the information that’s come out and subsequent bone-chilling theories revolving around him, when you look back on that moment, what do you see?
Borzillieri: It was scary. He had been deemed not a suspect at that point by the FBI, and so I had faith and thought that I would be approaching a man that was going to clear his conscience about being falsely accused. What I got was just the opposite. That experience wreaked of guilt for me. I felt something there. Looking back on it pretty quickly afterward I thought, Wow, that was a close call. Getting the courage to walk up to where the body [of James Roden] was placed and just the bizarre nature of him and the situation, it could have ended very tragically. I feel like I was definitely story plot in that moment, because I just had no business approaching him at that time.
Schroeder: But we’re glad you did!
This story is not only interesting to people who are into true crime, but also fans of horror movies. Even if not completely related, films like Saw III, 30 Minutes or Less, and even that Black Mirror episode “Shut Up and Dance” parallel this case. Even ones that are not about the case similarly include deadly scavenger hunts, not-so-innocent victims, criminal masterminds, major twists, femme fatales, and the demonization of mental illness. When you were making this docuseries, did you relate it to film and feel that same terror?
Borzillieri: Absolutely. I grew up on horror movies. They influenced me in odd ways. Being young in the 80s, it was everywhere. Stepping into this, I read that there was a remote television tower where Brian Wells would deliver that final delivery. It just reminded me so much of the movie Se7en. Then to read that there was a body right next to that dirt road in a freezer. That was like Fargo. They all come together in this. Believe it or not, they were filming Saw when this story broke. So it sort of preceded that. Saw was not a byproduct of this.
Really? I always thought the filmmakers read about the case and thought it was a good idea. That’s how much of a terrifying story this is. The minds behind the Saw franchise came up with something so similar. But that’s also why the Black Mirror came to mind, which is crazy to me because it seems no one associated it with the case.
Schroeder: I saw it and was like, “wait a minute.” I called my husband and said, “Watch this. This is like Evil Genius.”
Borzillieri: I mean, with 30 Minutes or Less, no one was imagining a black comedy coming out on this case. Marjorie was pissed off about it for sure. [Laughs] She was, she was. She was saying it had bad effects on her publicity. Negative publicity for her. But she loved attention, so I’m sure she was chuckling over it.
How have you seen cases like this effect pop culture?
This was very shocking. Obviously it was intended for being in the media. That was part of the whole scheme. I think that it has just grown from there. These bizarre cases, whether they be massacres or unusual crimes, are covered up every day now. But when this came out, the memory was that Brian Wells’s death was captured on video. When that happened, there was a viral email that was spread around that showed the explosion. You could go on dark web websites and watch it. This was sort of the beginning of these type of death viral videos. Then obviously what was to come was the rash of beheadings and all the videos that went along with that. It’s gruesome stuff, but it was the beginning of where we are now.
You used the footage in the documentary.
Schroeder: We did, but I hope you noticed we blurred the actual explosion at the end, and then we blurred quite a lot of the last shot too. Families could be watching this, who knows? We didn’t want to use it gratuitously. We only used it to reinforce how heinous it is that this poor guy was blown up. It was a public execution, and no one was ever charged with his murder.
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