ERIE, PA In the last moments of his life, before the bomb around his neck blew a postcard-size hole in his chest, Brian Wells gave police a tantalizing clue about the man who had locked the device on him and then sent him on a timed mission to rob a bank.
"He pulled a key out and started a timer," Wells told officers who stopped and handcuffed him near the Summit Towne Centre PNC Bank shortly after 2 p.m. on Aug. 28. "I heard the thing ticking when he did it. ... It's gonna go off.
|"I don't have much time," Wells told officers as they waited for a bomb squad.|
What police didn't know then, one law enforcement source says, is that Wells was carrying a note that told him to go to four locations after robbing the bank and that when police stopped him, Wells had less than 30 minutes to make three more stops. So if Wells' only chance to survive was to complete the journey and meet again with the unidentified man who had the key, his death was virtually ensured when he was arrested by police.
Every detail that emerges in the investigation into one of the most unusual bank robbery plots in decades seems to compound the horror of Wells' death. More than two weeks after the fatal explosion that drew national attention, the bizarre case remains awash in questions, authorities say.
Investigators don't know who locked the bomb on Wells, and they aren't sure why the mild-mannered deliveryman who seemed unimpressed by money was chosen for such a mission. Several investigators believe Wells probably was a patsy who wasn't initially involved in the robbery plot, but they aren't certain.
What if murder, rather than robbery, was the plot's goal all along?
|Investigators don't know who locked the bomb on Wells, and they aren't sure why the mild-mannered deliveryman who seemed unimpressed by money was chosen for such a mission. Several investigators believe Wells probably was a patsy who wasn't initially involved in the robbery plot, but they aren't certain.|
Federal agents are investigating that possibility because of the bizarre nature of the robbery plot. Why, they ask, would any plotters risk the success of the bank robbery by directing Wells to stop at four separate locations after the robbery the first one, a McDonald's drive-through sign, less than one-tenth of a mile from the bank to retrieve additional directions?
"Was it part of a game, or was it about the money?" asks Patrick Berarducci, a senior special agent of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. "We won't know until we catch the people involved." FBI spokesman Bill Crowley says that investigators "still have a pretty open field of ideas."
Whoever locked the bomb around Wells' neck apparently gave him nine pages of detailed instructions about how to carry out the robbery, and then what to do afterward.
The instructions a four-page set that Wells gave a teller at the bank and five more pages that authorities later seized from Wells' Geo Metro sedan also suggest that Wells would have understood that he was being watched at the bank and at every planned stop thereafter, a law enforcement source says.
Two shaggy-haired men
Investigators have since circulated two sketches of shaggy-haired white men they want to question. One was seen walking out of a wooded area not far from the bank near the time of the robbery. Another was seen running near a local freeway exit that was designated in the note as the second stop on Wells' staggered getaway from the bank.
A third sketch of a black man was pulled back after investigators located the man and eliminated him as a suspect and witness.
|Dozens, perhaps hundreds, in blue-collar Erie would have the skill to make the collar.|
Law enforcement sources said last week that investigators have no evidence that Wells was willingly involved in the robbery plot.
And although initial descriptions of the bomb compared it with similar devices used by foreign terrorist groups such as a Colombian group known as FARC, there is no evidence to suggest the incident was a sophisticated terrorist plot.
In fact, officials say, dozens of people, perhaps hundreds, in the blue-collar workforce of Erie, the fourth-largest city in Pennsylvania, could possess the industrial skills to manufacture the unusual metal collar that attached the bomb to Wells' neck. The actual explosive device dangled over Wells' chest and was partially obscured by a T-shirt.
In recent days, local callers to the police tip line have described the collar as resembling a device used in industrial plumbing.
"This is not great intellect at work here," Berarducci said. "This is just the work of a brutal person or persons."
Started on a dirt road
It all began about 1:30 p.m. on Aug. 28, when someone called Mama Mia's Pizzaria and ordered two sausage pizzas to be delivered to what was described as a nearby construction site. Wells was dispatched to make the delivery, just as he had hundreds of times before in more than a decade that he delivered for Mama Mia's.
Wells' was described as a gentle, withdrawn man who would not have put up a fight.
|Mama Mia's owner Tony Ditomo declined to comment on Wells' activities that day. But Wells' neighbors and landlord say Wells was generally at the restaurant to tend to noon-time deliveries.|
Investigators believe Wells was likely met there by the person, or persons, behind the plot that would lead to his death.
Authorities have constructed a timeline that allowed enough time for Wells to prepare willingly or unwillingly for the robbery.
Friends and neighbors who believe strongly in Wells' innocence described him as a gentle, withdrawn man who probably would not have put up a fight if confronted with a dangerous or threatening situation.
"Somebody had to take advantage of him," says Linda Payne, Wells' landlord for the past two years. She said she was unaware of any physical or emotional problems involving her tenant. "He was not somebody who would fight back. I'm convinced of that."
At some point, Wells with the collar locked around his neck and the bomb ticking steered his sedan back onto Peach Street for the 2-mile drive to the PNC Bank. Investigators aren't sure whether Wells had read through both sets of written instructions, but his later comment to police about not having much time before the bomb would go off suggests that he had read at least some of them.
Authorities who believe that Wells was coerced into taking part in the plot said it was likely that Wells thought he was under surveillance or that he was too frightened to deviate from his course to call for help.
Once in the bank, Wells presented a bank teller with a four-page note, demanding $250,000. A bag containing an unspecified amount of money was later found in his car. By all accounts, Wells followed the written instructions and did not call attention to himself. Even so, his calm exit from the bank about 2:30 p.m. triggered a wave of panicked 911 calls from bank employees and customers.
A stop at McDonald's
About 10 minutes later, police received a call that said Wells, instead of speeding away from the bank, had stopped just down the street at a McDonald's restaurant. Police learned for the first time that Wells might be carrying a bomb.
Wells' instructions had told him to stop at the McDonald's, where federal investigators said he retrieved a message before continuing to his next stop. Investigators declined to comment on the contents of the message or on the form in which it was delivered.
|Some believe Wells knew the bomb would explode soon after he was stopped, and he may have resigned to dying.|
Wells' behavior in the last minutes of his life has baffled investigators and led to some disagreements about his role in the plot.
Besides telling police that a man had put the bomb on him, Wells asked police at one point, "Why is it nobody's trying to come get this thing off me?"
But then Wells became quiet, and he did not mention any others involved in the robbery plot or how he landed in the middle of such danger. Wells was arching his back in what appeared to be a brief fight against the tight collar strapped to his neck when the bomb detonated at 3:18 p.m., according to video of the violent explosion captured by Erie's local ABC affiliate, WJET.
Investigators say Wells did not act like someone who was fighting for his life. His lack of visible panic or agitation has led a few investigators to hesitate in declaring that he was a victim and that his case should be considered a homicide.
Those investigators believe that Wells' steadiness in his final moments could be an indication that he was involved in the robbery plot. If Wells had known that his life was in jeopardy, some investigators wonder why he didn't become more animated or plead for help more desperately.
Others believe that Wells likely knew that the bomb would explode soon after he was stopped by police, and that while waiting for a bomb squad to arrive he may have resigned himself to dying.
Since the incident, federal and local investigators, who represent the FBI, ATF, Pennsylvania State Police, the Erie Police Department and the department's bomb squad, cast a wide net. They have interviewed and re-interviewed Wells' co-workers and family members and have attempted to trace the source of the metal collar and bombmaking materials.
Last Friday, agents were back at Mama Mia's during the busy lunch-time rush where Ditomo was back taking orders and manning the counter. "I'll just let the FBI agents do their job," Ditomo says.
'No mystery about Brian'
About a week ago, Payne says, FBI profilers arrived at the small, white cottage behind her home where Wells lived for the past two years with three small cats. Payne says they asked questions such as, Did he have a lot of visitors? How did he behave? Who were his friends? "I know what they are trying to do," Payne says. "But there is no mystery about Brian. My husband would not have let him come here if he thought he was a threat. He didn't have much, and he didn't need much."
"I don't think he had more than a mattress and a tv, but he seemed happy with that."
|Payne and her husband, LaVerne Payne, say Wells passed the time reading newspapers, doing crossword puzzles and tinkering with cars. She says Wells was working toward building his own car from odd parts and kept two car doors in the bedroom of his cottage so he could work on them day or night.|
He was so uncomfortable with materialism that he took the hubcaps off his small car because he thought they were too gaudy.
The Paynes think it impossible that Wells could have been involved. "No way," LaVerne Payne says. "No way."
Many others in the quiet, working-class neighborhood have expressed support for Wells. Neighbors John Bell, Gary Porsch, Danelle Stone and Marsha DePaoli and her husband, Cy, are convinced Wells was incapable of planning or willingly participating in a bank robbery plot.
"I don't think he had more than a mattress on the floor and a television sitting on a desk" in his cottage, Bell says. But "he seemed perfectly happy with that."
Bell says he understood that Wells was looking forward to a family gathering the weekend after the robbery.
Wells' mother lives in the Erie area, as do other relatives. And neighbors believed that others might have been planning to visit from out of town. "He wouldn't be planning that if he was gonna rob a bank," Bell says.
For the most part, Wells' family has refused to discuss the tragedy. But Wells' sister, Jean Heid, thinks there is no way her brother could have been a willing participant.
"My brother was an innocent man, totally innocent," she said from behind the glass storm door of her Erie home.
Porsch says the last time he saw Wells was early on the day the deliveryman died. "He was on his way to get the newspaper," Porsch said of the ritual Wells followed every day about 7:15 a.m.
"I just remember it was a great day outside. He waved and had this great big smile on his face. What happened later that day just didn't fit with the person."