Prosecutor calls Pa. collar bomb suspect 'twisted'

AP News
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Posted: Oct 15, 2010 5:47 PM
Prosecutor calls Pa. collar bomb suspect 'twisted'

A Pennsylvania woman fidgeted and whispered angry denials as a federal prosecutor told a jury that she played a role in a devious scheme to lock a bomb onto the neck of a pizza deliveryman and force him to rob a bank.

"That's a lie," Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, 61, of Erie, hissed into her attorney's ear at one point. "Makes me sick."

Diehl-Armstrong's trial began Friday on armed bank robbery and other charges in the plot that killed 46-year-old Brian Wells. She faces a possible life sentence.

Diehl-Armstrong's trial marks the widest window yet into a bizarre plot that captivated northwestern Pennsylvania in the waning days of summer in 2003. The other people allegedly involved in the case are either dead or have pleaded guilty.

On Aug. 28, 2003, Wells walked into a bank with a bomb strapped to his neck and walked out with $8,702. He was stopped by police nearby and was sitting on the ground in handcuffs when the bomb went off, killing him, as officers waited for a bomb squad to arrive.

In 2007, when federal authorities announced charges against Diehl-Armstrong and her friend Kenneth Barnes, investigators revealed that they believed Wells was in on the plot, at least at the start _ an accusation his family denies.

Though prosecutors had previously asserted that Diehl-Armstrong hatched the scheme as a way to get $250,000 so she could hire a hit man to kill her 91-year-old father, Assistant U.S. Attorney Marshall Piccinini told jurors in his hour-long opening statement that Diehl-Armstrong was "not being charged with being the mastermind" and called her an "aider and abetter."

Prosecutors don't have to prove Diehl-Armstrong led the plot. He must only convince the jury that she was part of it, was aware of the other participants, knew their goals and actions and furthered the plot.

Piccinini said she did those all things. He said she provided two egg timers that another plotter used to build the bomb. She also told a fellow inmate she was there when Wells' neck was measured to make sure the bomb collar would fit, Piccinini said.

Diehl-Armstrong's lawyer, Douglas Sughrue, spent 20 minutes addressing the jury, explaining concepts such as reasonable doubt before briefly spelling out his theory of the case. He acknowledged his client spent time with the plotters but disputed the government's conclusions.

He did not mention Diehl-Armstrong's bipolar and other mental disorders that delayed her case for months _ and which Sughrue said in pretrial filings would form much of her defense. Sughrue told the judge during a pretrial hearing that Diehl-Armstrong will testify in her own defense, but he made no such promise to the jury.

In his opening statement, the prosecutor told the 12 jurors and four alternates about two guilty pleas related to the case: Diehl-Armstrong's plea of guilty but mentally ill for the shotgun murder of her then-boyfriend, James Roden, who was killed about two weeks before the collar bomb robbery; and Barnes' guilty plea to his role in the collar bomb plot, for which he's serving 45 years in prison.

Barnes is expected to be a key witness in the case. The other alleged plotters are dead, Piccinini said, pointing to poster-size photos of the major players while he addressed the jury.

Besides Wells, William Rothstein, the defendant's lifelong friend, has since died of cancer, but not before "diming out" the defendant to investigators, Piccinini said.

Piccinini described Diehl-Armstrong and the others as "twisted, intellectually bright individuals" who "completely outsmarted themselves" when they devised the scheme. Wells was one of the plotters, though Piccinini said he may have initially believed the device would be fake and realized only at the last moment that he was in real danger.

Sughrue, the defense attorney, acknowledged his client "was around, she observed things" the other plotters did, "that might not have been important to her until they started to come together in her mind."

"I don't have a lot of pictures to show you because I think the case is more simple, is simpler, than what the government says it is," Sughrue said. "Where we disagree with the government is whether the evidence will show whether Marjorie did things for the same reasons the government says she did them."