Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist created by Barbara Schroeder (Netflix, Duplass Brothers Productions)

Starring Trey Borzillieri.

On True Crime Formatting

The success of true crime rests in creating doubt in the viewer’s mind. Typically, the format must follow two paths. One, is someone innocent and the system has failed them? Or second, a successful format outlines the abuse of power. Here, someone is clearly guilty, but wealth and status keep him or her from just desserts.

Evil Genius operates as flawed yet still interesting programming between these two formats. The criminals in the story committed the crime. We don’t have any doubt there. Likewise, these people aren’t a part of a ruling class where they can brush typical sins off their backs. The case is closed, and they are the culprits.

I have many questions about the details of the case and I don’t think the official position feels completely accurate, but the intrigue in this documentary rests in its implausibility.

A Heist Made for Cinema

The bank robbery and resulting murder feel like some cinematic mix between Ocean’s Eleven and Saw. And yet, the event occurred in real life, in Erie, Pennsylvania.

“The Pizza Bomber” sits at the center of this mystery. On an unassuming day, Brian Wells waltzes in to a bank with a bomb strapped around his neck and a gun fashioned as a walking cane. The thief hands over a list of complicated instructions for the bank teller.

He robs the bank but is quickly pulled over during the escape. When the police discover the bomb strapped around Brian’s neck, they set up a perimeter and a standoff ensues.

As time passes, Brian Wells becomes more agitated, talking about the steps he stills needs to complete before the bomb can be diffused. Eventually, the ticking of the bomb escalates, and it explodes, ending Brian’s life.

For law enforcement, the series of events baffles them for months. Why would someone strap a bomb to themselves and then steal money?

Soon, a narrative of the coerced bank robber emerges. Brian went on a pizza delivery and never returned. Surely, the person that called in this pizza is the mastermind behind this diabolical plot.

But, detectives are stumped. Until, a random call about a dead body in a freezer opens a separate case.

Movement in the Case

Bill Rothstein, a man who lives near the pizza drop-off point, called the cops to come clean about helping dispose a body in his freezer. His claim? His close friend, Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong murdered her boyfriend and called Bill to help take care of it. But, Bill’s conscience got the best of him.

The subsequent trial brings to life the mental instability of Marjorie, and during one of her rants with the cameras rolling, she mentions Bill Rothstein ought to be charged in the murder of Brian Wells.

This offhand comment opens the door to an investigation that establishes the basis for a complicated conspiracy for this scavenger hunt bank heist.

Stranger than Fiction. And too Good to Be True?

While the details appear to be stranger than fiction, the case ultimately closes when the key stakeholders die, Bill a couple of years after the heist and Marjorie more recently.

Evil Genius presents these key players as smart and cunning criminals, but I’m not convinced. While they certainly have higher levels of intelligence, I’m confused about the details of the case. The way they brought attention to themselves for a separate murder seems odd if they are wanting to avoid the spotlight for the more public pizza robber mystery. It all doesn’t quite add up. Unless they were just bored?

And for that reason, Evil Genius doesn’t quite reach the bar of the benchmarks in the genre. Evil Genius doesn’t critique the justice system for locking up the wrong person; the people of interest clearly committed the crime. Likewise, these criminals can’t skate on their wealth like Bob Durst did for so many years. The people alive when everything got uncovered went to jail.

So, the only true intrigue is the case itself. The fact that a group of people conspired to put a bomb on a pizza delivery man and made that person rob a bank as a part of a complicated scavenger hunt is so strange that it makes the series worth watching. But, it still feels like something is missing.

Verdict: 3 out 5

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