Clark, Palattella talk the ‘Pizza Bomber’ case, investigation and book

Category:  News
Wednesday, April 5th, 2017 at 8:20 PM
Clark, Palattella talk the ‘Pizza Bomber’ case, investigation and book by Anna Ashcraft
Photo: Anna Ashcraft

What has become known as the Pizza Bomber case is one of robbery, scandal and murder. A bank robbery gone wrong, an overdose and shooting all turned out to be plotted murders, turning “Collar Bomb” into a case that took four years to crack and almost seven years to completely wrap up, involving seven co-conspirators.

Jerry Clark, the retired lead FBI special agent who cracked the case, and Ed Palattella, courts and investigative reporter at The Erie Times-News since 1990, who reported on the case, spoke at Edinboro University on March 27. With 150 people in attendance, Clark spoke in depth about the details of the case, as found in the book Clark and Palattella co- authored.

They had copies of their case-detailing 2012 book, titled “Pizza Bomber: The Untold Story of American’s Most Shocking Bank Robbery” for sale after the lecture. The two have co-authored three books together, including, "History of Heists: Bank Robbery in America," and their new book to be released in September about the psychology of Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, one of the co- conspirators in the case.

Armstrong died in a federal prison in Texas on Tuesday.

“Collar Bomb,” FBI major case #203, began Aug. 28, 2003 in Erie, Pennsylvania when pizza deliveryman Brian Wells robbed the Summit Towne Centre PNC Bank with a collar bomb around his neck. Police soon found Wells and took him into custody, where he claimed people forced him to do it, and that he needed to discover a series of clues and find keys to disarm the bomb. While he was in custody, the bomb detonated, killing him.

Clark spoke about some specifics of the case. Clark was the lead FBI special agent assigned to the case, working at the Erie office out of the Pittsburgh division.

“A bomb detonating resulting in death after a bank robbery...that doesn’t just happen; it’s a very rare occurrence. The FBI elevated it and it was major case #203 in a long line of very important, major cases. It was an extremely important event for the FBI,” Clark said.

During the presentation at Edinboro, Clark mentioned that the co-conspirators in the case set up Wells. There were only two working keyholes out of four on his collar bomb found after police reconstructed it. When police searched the areas Wells was meant to find the keys, notes were found leading to other locations, but never any keys. Also when Wells robbed the bank, it can be seen on the security footage that he, according to Clark, seemed almost comfortable with a lollipop in his mouth, which was very interesting to the psychologist. He thought he was in on the plot, but in reality was never meant to make it out alive.

“The use of a destructive device during a bank robbery made it very unique, and having that destructive device being an active working bomb...you don’t see that very often,” Clark said.

According to the book website, three days after Wells was killed, a second pizza deliveryman, Robert Pinetti — friend and co-worker of Wells — was found dead of an overdose. It was later found Pinetti had been a co-conspirator in the case and was most likely given a hot shot (lethal combination of drugs) by the conspirators, according to Clark. Not long after, another body was found.

Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong was found guilty of killing the third victim, her former boyfriend, James Roden. He was later suspected of being a co-conspirator as well, but was killed by Diehl-Armstrong when he threatened to turn her in to the police.

She was storing Roden’s body in her former fiancé William Rothstein’s freezer when he turned her in to authorities. However, she could not be used as a witness until 2005, because she was deemed incompetent to stand trial. Rothstein, another co-conspirator in the plot, died from cancer in 2004.

It turns out that the entire reason for the bank robbery was so that Diehl-Armstrong could hire a hit man — Kenneth Barnes — to kill her father for his $2 million dollar inheritance. However, Barnes wanted $250,000 upfront before doing anything. And thus, the plot was born.

The Erie Times-News confirmed that Diehl-Armstrong died Tuesday at 68 of cancer, while serving her sentence at the Federal Medical Center in Carswell, Texas. She had been suffering from cancer for some time.

There were seven co-conspirators in the case, but only two were indicted and charged, with the final trials taking place in 2010. Some died over the course of that four years and one was given immunity.

Diehl-Armstrong was sentenced to life plus 30 years in prison. Barnes turned himself in, pled guilty in 2008 and was sentenced to 45 years in prison. Floyd Stockton, Rothstein’s roommate at the time of Roden’s murder, reached an immunity deal with the government in exchange for testifying against Diehl-Armstrong and Barnes.

Palattella followed the case from the beginning. He has won a number of awards throughout his career, including a staff award for his coverage of the “Collar Bomb” case.

He transferred to The Erie Times-News in 1990 from Point Reyes Light in California. He received his bachelor's degree from Washington University in St. Louis and has a master’s degree in journalism from Stanford University.

"When it initially started, I was one of the reporters who worked on it (Collar Bomb Case) and as it went along it and started to drag out, I was assigned to follow it to the end," Palattella said.

When asked about what it was like to cover such an extensive case, he answered: “It was just so long. It happened in 2003 and indictment in 2007 and trial in 2010. It was strung out so long. It was just keeping your eyes open and your ears open as to what might be happening. I was always trying to figure out what Jerry was doing.”

Clark, retired from the FBI, currently teaches a variety of criminal justice courses, including forensic psychology at Gannon University — which is his favorite course and area of study from his master’s program at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. He also teaches criminal law and procedure, investigative concepts and other classes.

He said about his motivation for going into teaching: “I have always loved doing what I did. I always felt that if I could take that passion of being an FBI agent — which to me, was my goal as long as I can remember — and then achieving that goal and coming back to my hometown of Erie, and working in the office of the town that I was from, then being able to take all that knowledge and experience that I gained and share that with other people and kids that have the same aspirations...I felt was so rewarding to me,” Clark said.

Clark explained that he and Palattella decided to write the book because there was a lot of information that was not released about the case, and people were not getting the whole story.

“It's funny, I would have never in a million years thought of writing a book. I was an investigator. I investigated, that’s what I did,” said Clark.

“What had happened was, there was so much of this case that was never able to be released due to the integrity of the case. So, a lot of people had misconceptions about what actually happened.”

Clark mentioned why he was motivated to write the book: “Number one, it will help people understand the complexity of the case. Number two, and maybe the more important reason why I did it, was to help law enforcement understand the operation and the trials and tribulations of a major case.

“I think it's helpful to the investigators and it's helpful to the general public in understanding just what happened,” he said.

You can find full details of the case in the book or at Pizzabomber.com.

Anna Ashcraft can be reached at eupnews.spectator@gmail.com. 

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