The Frustrating Portrait of Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong in Netflix’s Evil Genius

Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, in a scene from Evil Genius. Photo: Netflix/Netflix

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.

Other women related to the case are minimized, too. In episode three, we learn that several female inmates told Erie police that, while in prison, Diehl-Armstrong said she shot Roden because he had threatened to reveal her involvement in the pizza bomber case. One prisoner, Kelly Makela, even played the James Comey in this situation, taking detailed notes about everything Diehl-Armstrong said to her and passing them on to the cops. All of the information gathered from Makela and others was shoved into a folder called “Snitch Letters” and never shared with federal investigators, who didn’t uncover them until years later. Jason Wick, an ATF agent who worked on the case, says in Evil Genius that the letters may have gotten buried because of the traditional mistrust that often develops between local and federal officials. Sure, that may have been a factor. I also have to think that the fact that all the sources were women made it easier for cops to discount what they said as mere gossip, confessions from “snitches” that could easily be shoved away in the back of a desk drawer.

Evil Genius implies repeatedly that certain people get the benefit of the doubt in society and others don’t, and that’s not always about gender either. On more than one occasion, when Diehl-Armstrong is attempting to argue in her own defense, she plays up her status. “I’m an old, rich woman,” she says at one point, adding that it’s impossible to believe someone like her could have been involved in the Wells bank scheme. She also talks about the other women in prison with her as if they belong on a lower societal rung. While it’s true that Diehl-Armstrong came from a middle-class family and had a fair amount of money, most of which she kept stashed away amid the clutter of her home, little about her demeanor or life choices suggest she’s superior to anyone who’s locked up with her. In her skewed way, she is convinced that class can save her because it so often serves as a shield that protects a person from attracting suspicion.

So does race, a subject that isn’t addressed much in Evil Genius (all of the suspects and victims in the docuseries are white), with one exception: Diehl-Armstrong reportedly instructs Wells that, if he gets caught, he should tell the cops that two black guys put the bomb on him and forced him to rob the bank. Wells actually does say this, but the misdirect never leads anywhere. It’s telling that Diehl-Armstrong is so certain police will buy into the “African-Americans are to blame” theory while completely ignoring the “rich” white lady and her white accomplices. She is smart enough to understand how unconscious bias works, perhaps because she’s been a victim of it herself: not because of her race, but as a woman with a mental illness. She’s also mentally ill enough to believe that she can outsmart the cops forever. Which, she can’t.

As fascinating as Evil Genius is, it misses a real opportunity to further explore the underlying “how” question in this story: How did Diehl-Armstrong go from being an intelligent, admired young woman to a murderer who would ultimately die in prison in 2017 and get buried in an unmarked grave? Some answers are provided. Her mental illness got worse with age, and it’s obvious that she didn’t get the kind of treatment she needed. Borzillieri interviews her father and notes that her parents never seemed to grasp the severity of their daughter’s illness.

A TV reporter also mentions that while taking the stand during her trial, Diehl-Armstrong says she was abused as a child. She’s prone to falsehoods, but I was still curious to know if there was some truth to that. If there was, it wouldn’t absolve her of her crimes. As a judge rightly states during her sentencing, there are plenty of people who are bipolar or have other mental-health issues and don’t do the kinds of things she did. But it would help explain, in part, what turned a woman who should have been an American success story into a tragic cautionary tale. Given how often troubled people snap in this country and wind up killing people, true crime shows like Evil Genius have a responsibility to dig into this aspect of their narratives.

What happened to Diehl-Armstrong was terribly sad. Evil Genius acknowledges that, but at the same time, often casts her as the villain in a horror movie. Jerry Clark, the lead FBI agent on the case, remembers walking down a long prison hallway to interview her for the first time and talks about how the moment reminded him of a scene in Silence of the Lambs. The closing moment of the series, and one that appears in the opening titles, shows a picture of a bright, young, beautiful Marjorie morphing into the mugshot Marjorie, her smile turning to a frown and her eyes losing their spark in a matter of a few chilling seconds. It’s a really creepy image, and it’s the last thing the show leaves us to consider.

But what I keep thinking about is the courtroom sketch artist who was on duty when Diehl-Armstrong faced trial for her role in the Wells robbery. In an interview with Borzillieri, he says he initially drew her with lots of shading to emphasize “the evil” in her, which made me wonder how often courtroom sketch artists editorialize without us even realizing it. But as he began to observe her more and realize she was an actual person, he says he lightened up her features.

What I saw in Evil Genius made me certain that Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong was responsible for the death of James Roden and, though not solely, responsible for the death of Brian Wells. But what I saw in Evil Genius also made me think that once some people developed a particular picture of her in their minds, they could not be bothered to adjust that image, or to effectively help Marjorie figure out how to shift away from dark and back toward light.

Evil Genius’s Frustrating Portrait of Diehl-Armstrong