Mystery Still Looms Over Pa. Bank Robber's Death Six Months Later
ERIE, Pa. (AP) -- It seems logical to conclude that a pizza deliveryman who died when a bomb on his chest exploded minutes after he robbed a bank in this lakefront community was nothing but a pawn.
There was a nine-page note found in his car warning him to "cooperate and you will survive." The bomb was locked by a metal collar around his neck. He pleaded for police to help him before the bomb detonated.
Yet only Wednesday did the medical examiner rule that Brian Wells' death was a homicide. Investigators said they have made progress in the six months since the bizarre case topped national headlines and a federal and state task force of 50 toiled around the clock chasing leads. But no arrest has been made and no suspect has been publicly identified.
"Whenever we think about it, we think they're still looking for one little thing -- like who did it," said Linda Payne, who rented a cottage behind her home to Wells.
Wells, a soft-spoken 46-year-old, died Aug. 28 when a bomb hung from a triple-banded collar around his neck exploded while he sat handcuffed minutes after robbing a PNC Bank branch in Summit Township, south of Erie. While surrounded by police, Wells told officers a man had locked the bomb to his neck, started its timer and forced him to rob the bank.
Erie police's bomb squad was a few miles away when the device detonated. No one else was injured in the blast. Later, the rambling note and a cane-shaped gun were found in Wells' car.
Since August, only a few new details have emerged. Authorities this month released portions of the handwritten note, revealing a controlling personality who may be out for revenge and one of the places Wells was directed to go to after the robbery.
Without a clear lead, FBI officials say the investigation will take time. A toned-down task force is tracing forensic evidence from the unique collar and gun, profiling the note's author and tracking leads filtering through e-mails, calls and letters from the public. Authorities are still offering a $50,000 reward in the case.
Criminologists note the case is particularly baffling with a dead witness, no obvious suspects and the fact that money might not be the only motive. Time also is working against investigators. Charles Wellford, a criminology professor at University of Maryland, said the likelihood of solving a murder drops after six months.
The lack of answers has discouraged Wells' family and friends, who wonder if the case will ever be solved.
"The family is as good as can be expected, and frustrated," said John Wells, 41, a toolmaker in Arizona, and one of six children in the family. "They won't come out and totally exonerate him. He was a totally blameless victim."
John Wells, Brian's younger brother, said he believes his brother had no knowledge of the scheme, let alone knew his captors.
The FBI has only hinted they believe Brian Wells was an unwitting victim and say the medical examiner's ruling won't affect their investigation.
Erie County Coroner Lyell Cook said he approved Wells' death certificate on the basis that his life was taken by another. "At this time, we have no evidence within medical or scientific certainty to suggest anything other than that," Cook said.
John Wells believes a group of men chased his brother through the woods, fired a shot at him and clamped the device around his neck when he made his last delivery of the day -- two pizzas to a television transmission tower.
Owners of Mama Mia's pizzeria declined to comment. They have said they didn't hesitate to send Wells to the address because workers have called from work sites before.
John Wells said the family is angry that state police didn't help Brian take off the bomb. Nor did police immediately go search for keys Wells believes were planted in various locations to disarm the bomb.
"This was just a group of psychotics who went on an elaborate murder scheme," John Wells said. "This was nothing more than a murder by psychotics desperate for attention."
John Wells said he runs countless scenarios by his siblings -- from domestic terrorism to mistaken identity. Was a T-shirt with a Guess brand logo draped over the bomb meant to taunt authorities?
"There's just more unanswered questions that do not add up to anything," Wells said.
Family and friends would like more of the note released, arguing that's how Theodore Kaczynski's brother began to suspect him as the "Unabomber" before his 1995 arrest.
Federal investigators contend releasing more would compromise the investigation. Bob Rudge, of the FBI in Erie, said what was released should be enough to give clues.
There have been cases of necklace bombs placed on people in Columbia and Venezuela for ransom, though investigators haven't found any international link to this case. The Erie case remains the only known U.S. robbery of its kind where a timed bomb detonated, said Kenneth McCabe, FBI Pittsburgh special agent in charge.
"It's not like TV and movies where things jump out at you," McCabe said. "It's a gumshoe investigation. What we have to do is look at every angle."
Wells was instructed to go to a McDonald's sign yards away from the bank, followed by a fire hydrant near an eyeglass shop. Police surrounded his Geo Metro at the parking lot of the shop.
Wells was to have gone on to an exit along Interstate 79 where he was to get more information near a sign. From there, Wells was to have stopped at a sign marking the McKean Township line, Rudge said. A site under the Grubb Road overpass on Interstate 90 was to serve as an "emergency site" if those sites failed, Rudge said.
Evidence was collected from those places, Rudge said, though he declined to say what was found. He also declined to say whether the sites provided information to disarm the bomb.
Rudge said it was "not plausible" for Wells to reach all the sites before the bomb blew up, but he declined to say how long Wells was given.
The first 911 call of the bank robbery was recorded at 2:38 p.m. The bomb detonated at 3:18 p.m.
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