By Dave B.
Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist is aptly named. The four-episode true crime documentary recounts the details and subsequent investigation of a 2003 bank robbery in Erie, Pennsylvania where a pizza delivery man, Brian Wells, was allegedly forced to commit the robbery by perpetrators who threatened him by placing a bomb around his neck. When the robbery goes wrong and Wells is apprehended by police, the timed explosive detonates, killing him.
In the documentary’s favor, the crime, and the main personalities involved with plotting it, Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong and Bill Rothstein truly are interesting. These are intelligent people who have some serious mental health issues and lots of warning signs that they are prone to antisocial behaviors.
The details of the crime and investigation are laid out well. However, it’s also abundantly clear from the very beginning of the documentary, that the investigation was botched. The FBI and ATF were almost completely incompetent, overlooking obvious evidence. Their incompetence is mitigated somewhat by the fact that the state police were obstructionist and intentionally ignored information provided to them by informants. The local police actually come off as the most competent organization involved, however they were at the bottom of the investigative food chain and had little to no authority over how the investigation was conducted. Evil Genius lays all of this out skillfully for viewers in a way that doesn’t bash or embarrass the authorities.
I only have one major issue with Evil Genius (and this is where the spoiler comes in): it reaches the conclusion that instead of being intentionally involved with the planning and execution of the robbery, Wells was totally innocent. I disagree with that conclusion because it intentionally overlooks Wells’ false accusations against two black men immediately before his death, and ignoring that to paint him as innocent is inherently racist, although I doubt it was the intent of the documentary’s creators to be so.
As he was in police custody, Wells falsely claimed that two black men had abducted him, put the bomb around his neck, and forced him to rob the bank (while also giving him a shotgun disguised as a cane, in case anything went wrong). It turns out that this was the exact accusation that Diehl-Armstrong, in pre-robbery meetings, suggested that the robber make if he were caught. It’s unsubstantiated that Wells was at these meeting, but the fact that he used the excuse when he allegedly thought he was going to die is telling because of the supposed tendency of people to tell the truth about who killed them and why when they are dying.
That’s part of why dying declarations are permissible in American courts. It’s assumed that someone who knows that they are going to die is inclined to tell the truth, particularly regarding the person(s) responsible for their death. The “victim” in this case straight up, demonstrably lied about who “attacked” him and the authorities were able to quickly determine that he did so. So ask yourself: If you’re completely innocent, you have a bomb strapped to you neck, you have no reason to believe that it’s a fake, and no reason to believe that you aren’t about to die, in the moments before your death are you going to lie about who the perpetrators are that put you in that situation? Probably not.
That leads me to believe that Wells didn’t believe that his life was in danger (he likely assumed the bomb was fake until it became clear that it wasn’t) and went along with the lie that he was instructed to tell. My supposition could be wrong. I totally admit that. But I think that the creators of the documentary had a duty to at least seriously consider and present it as a plausible alternative to their blanket belief that he was innocent. I see their unwillingness to do so as fundamentally racist, although as I previously stated, I don’t believe that is their intention.
Overall, Evil Genius is a decent, but not great documentary. By Netflix standards, it’s firmly middle of the road. Despite my belief that some of the conclusions reached in the documentary reveal subconscious biases by its creators, I juuuuuuust barely recommend watching this. Despite its flaws, the crime itself and the people involved are interesting. 5.5/10
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