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Baffling End to a Mundane Life

Brian Wells died yoked to an explosive device that detonated during a bank robbery. Lawmen are stumped: Was pizza deliveryman a victim, or the mastermind?

September 03, 2003|Stephen Braun | Times Staff Writer

ERIE, Pa. — Brian Wells lived a pizza deliveryman's mundane life, fond of his green Geo Metro and three lazy cats. He died yoked to the locked metal collar of an explosive device that detonated last week during a bizarre bank robbery -- a horrifying public episode that has left baffled investigators uncertain whether Wells was the aborted crime's mastermind or victim.

Five days after Wells, 46, was killed by the crudely constructed explosive ring, investigators were pursuing several theories, unsure "whether he put the device on himself or someone forced it on him," FBI Special Agent Bob Rudge said Tuesday.

Federal agents and police detectives have canvassed dozens of businesses in the industrial sections of this factory town in northwestern Pennsylvania, trying to find a machine shop capable of rigging up the triple-banded plate-metal collar that was fastened around Wells' neck with four separate locks. But a police search of Wells' rented shack turned up no drill bits, metal parts or other suspicious materials, leaving authorities desperate to learn more about a lowly gofer whose simple routine betrayed no hint of criminal intent.

In Erie's transient fraternity of pizza deliverymen, Wells was a lifer -- a quiet, seemingly contented man who had spent years tooling through blue-collar neighborhoods with the back seat of his Geo piled high with pizza boxes. He had worked at several different shops, even disappearing a year ago for several months to try life in Arizona with his brother. But he always returned to a deliveryman's life, seemingly unfurrowed by ambition or stress.

"Brian was happy with what he had," said Jim Sadowski, a pizzeria owner and former co-worker. "This is something he could never have dreamed up."

The case grew in complexity over the weekend when police responded to an emergency call and found the body of one of Wells' co-workers. The man, who had a history of drug abuse and had been questioned by police after the bank robbery, had traces of methadone and Valium in his blood, said county prosecutor Bradley Foulk. Further tests are needed, Foulk said, to tell whether the death was a suicide or an accidental overdose -- but on Tuesday, police appeared to downplay the man's possible involvement.

The chain of events that led to Wells' death started when he turned up at 2:40 p.m. Thursday at a PNC Bank branch. He handed two handwritten notes, nine pages in all, to a teller. One, Rudge said, contained threats to the bank. A second was addressed to the robber. After the teller gave Wells an undisclosed amount of money, he retreated to his car and drove off.

Stopped a quarter-mile away by a state police patrol officer, Wells emerged peacefully and was quickly handcuffed. Oddly, police now say, as officers approached, Wells made no mention of the device hidden beneath his white T-shirt -- and did not warn them.

According to State Police Cpl. Mark Zaleski, Wells mentioned the device only after a patrol officer noticed the bulge beneath the shirt and cut it away, revealing the bomb.

Police retreated and Wells began pleading with officers to help him. Television cameras caught him sitting cross-legged in front of a squad car, shouting to police. "I'm not lying," he wailed. "Did you call my boss? ... I'm not doing this. This isn't me. I'm not doing this."

Officers called the Erie County bomb squad, but before it arrived, the explosive -- described as a crude device similar to a pipe bomb -- suddenly detonated. County pathologist Korac Timon said Tuesday that the shock of the blast caused lethal damage to Wells' heart, leaving a stamp-sized impression on his chest.

Wells was last seen before the robbery at Mama Mia's, the pizza shop where he had worked for the last several years. An anonymous caller had ordered two small pizzas. Wells took the order. After the pies were baked, he drove them out in his Geo. The address turned out to be a desolate, fenced hill near a television transmitter.

At Mama Mia's, owner Tony Ditomo said he could not talk about his friend, adding: "It hurts too much inside." But several of Wells' former co-workers said it was not uncommon to make deliveries to remote sites.

"We'd go out all the time to street corners, yards, you name it," Sadowski said. "We never thought twice about it. But we are now."

Rudge said investigators have questioned numerous co-workers and friends of the dead man. They have also interviewed family members, among them a sister who retrieved Wells' possessions Thursday and a brother who Sadowski said once worked in the construction trade in Erie.

A neighbor who had seen Wells the morning of the robbery said the balding, slightly stooped man had displayed no hint of nervousness. "He came by, waving, like he always did," said Barry Porsh. "He went down the street, got his usual coffee and his usual paper. A guy who lived like that couldn't hurt a flea."

Sadowski and Wells' landlord said the bombing victim had displayed an ability to make subsistence-level repairs to his home and car.

But the landlord, who declined to be named, said he had never seen any evidence that Wells could work with metals or had access to the heavy machinery that would have been needed to construct the blue plate-metal yoke and locking device that banded around his neck.

"He knew how to fix small things, like taking off one part of a car and putting it on his. That's how he kept his car so long," the landlord said. "But he wouldn't even know where to begin to look to make a bomb like that. It was beyond him, believe me."

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