This piece contains spoilers; proceed with caution if you haven’t watched Evil Genius.
Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist is essentially a whodunnit. Over four episodes of the crime docuseries that landed on Netflix over the weekend, co-directors Trey Borzillieri and Barbara Schroeder attempt to determine who is responsible for the 2003 death of Brian Wells, an Erie, Pennsylvania, pizza-delivery man who robbed a PNC Bank with a bomb collar strapped around his neck. He died a short time later, in front of police, when the explosive device detonated. But Wells didn’t act alone. The series spends most of its time exploring exactly who participated in setting him up to enter that bank, including and most notably Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, and what their motives were.
The twists and turns in the investigation of Wells’s death — or, as it became known in the national media, the pizza bomber case — make Evil Genius compelling. But its portrayal of Diehl-Armstrong, the mentally ill woman to whom the title “evil genius” refers, is what breeds the most fascination and frustration.
While watching Evil Genius, I had no doubt that Diehl-Armstrong was an intimidating and ultimately dangerous woman capable of offing people with little sense of remorse. As the series reveals, she admitted she killed two former boyfriends, including one, James Roden, who threatened to tell police everything he knew about what happened to Wells. She deserved to be punished for the crimes she committed.
But my hackles were raised, repeatedly, by the ways in which she was depicted and, often, marginalized: by friends and family, by law enforcement, and by a mental-health system that, according to one of her attorneys, spit her back out on four separate occasions after that lawyer had Diehl-Armstrong involuntarily committed. Many of the sources who speak on-camera during Evil Genius unintentionally reveal their comfort with sliding Diehl-Armstrong into the “crazy lady” category. As a result, they sometimes fail to consider other people and factors that had an impact on what happened to Wells.
Consider Bill Rothstein, the former boyfriend of Diehl-Armstrong who, as the series explains, played a role in building the bomb that ended up on Brian Wells. He eventually calls the police to report that the body of James Roden is in a freezer in his garage, where he placed it after Diehl-Armstrong killed Roden and asked for his help getting rid of the body. Rothstein’s phone call leads police to the corpse, and to arrest Diehl-Armstrong in Roden’s murder. There is no question she’s responsible for Roden’s death — she outright admits it. But it’s striking how much leeway is given to Rothstein, especially since he tells police he recently attempted suicide and offers a suicide note as evidence. The first line item in that note states that his desire to die has “nothing to do” with the Wells case. Which is a pretty big non sequitur if neither he nor Diehl-Armstrong had anything to do with the bank heist.
Rothstein is characterized in the documentary as someone who, like Armstrong-Diehl, was “not normal” as a kid. Also like Diehl-Armstrong, he had an inflated sense of self, talked a lot, and, as an adult, displayed the kind of extreme hoarding tendencies as his former girlfriend. But no one in Evil Genius ever calls him crazy. A police trooper named Ron Morgan, who says Rothstein was the best man in an in-law’s wedding, says he initially didn’t suspect that Rothstein could have been involved in Roden’s murder or the death of Wells because it just didn’t seem possible.
In video taken by cops who searched both Rothstein’s home and Diehl-Armstrong’s, Rothstein acts almost like a tour guide, providing all kinds of information, but of course, nothing that could implicate him. Police come across as deferential to him, at least in the footage we see. Granted, Rothstein had never been convicted of a major crime, whereas Diehl-Armstrong had already gone on trial once before for murder (she was acquitted) and was linked to other suspicious events. There is good reason for investigators to think she’s responsible. Still, it’s amazing to watch how skillfully Rothstein is able to divert police attention, at least initially. It’s also revealing to listen to the language he uses to describe her.
“You know what manic depressives are?” he asks cops while being interview, explaining that Diehl-Armstrong has the condition. At another point, Rothstein describes her end of a conversation by saying she went into “histrionics.” The subtext of the way he talks about her has a ring of “You know how crazy women are” to it. Clearly, Diehl-Armstrong didn’t do herself any favors: In the only on-camera interview with her, she comes across as easily agitated and often does not sound anywhere close to rational. But the system in place — a bunch of male law enforcers who may be inclined to trust Rothstein and mistrust her — also seemed designed to work against her.