A woman on trial for a bizarre bank robbery plot in which a pizza delivery driver was killed by a collar bomb he was forced to wear said she first saw the man when video of his death was broadcast on the evening news.
Testifying in her own defense Tuesday, Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, 61, of Erie, said, "I never met Brian Wells, and I never knew Brian Wells. I became aware of him on the day that he died."
That testimony clashed strongly with the versions given by other plotters earlier in the trial, who claimed Diehl-Armstrong planned the heist and measured Wells' neck for the bomb collar the day before the robbery, among other deeds.
Diehl-Armstrong is charged with armed bank robbery and other crimes for her alleged role in planning the Aug. 28, 2003, heist and faces life in prison if convicted of all charges. She is already in state prison for killing her boyfriend, allegedly because he knew about the plot.
Prosecutors say Wells was in on the plot, at least at first, and was forced to put on the bomb collar after first being led to believe it would be a fake. He robbed a bank, but was cornered by police in a parking lot nearby. He was killed when the bomb exploded while he sat handcuffed, waiting for a bomb squad.
Despite her legal predicament and Wells' grisly death, Diehl-Armstrong had the jury and many spectators laughing during much of her 90 minutes on the stand. Her wit was in evidence even after recounting horrific childhood sexual abuse that she said left her with bipolar and other disorders that sometime drive her manic moods and nearly incessant talking.
Asked by defense attorney Douglas Sughrue about her narcissistic personality disorder, she said: "I don't go around kissing the mirror. I'm not one who thinks I'm all that and a bag of chips. My (late) husband used to say, 'It's a damn poor dog that doesn't wag its own tail,'" she concluded, drawing chuckles.
When questioned about more serious subjects, including how she knew Wells, Diehl-Armstrong suggested she had been framed by others involved in the plot. She also managed to zing the prosecution.
"His death was being televised. I didn't pay a lot of attention to it. In retrospect I guess I should have," she quipped.
In addition to Wells, prosecutors have identified two others identified as plotters.
William Rothstein, who died of cancer in July 2004, was Diehl-Armstrong's longtime friend and ex-boyfriend. Prosecutors believe the handyman built the bomb collar, and Rothstein implicated her in video statements played for the jury last week.
Diehl-Armstrong's fishing buddy Kenneth Barnes, 57, is serving 45 years in prison after pleading guilty two years ago to his role in the plot. He testified last week that Diehl-Armstrong planned to use the bank robbery proceeds to pay him to kill her father, with whom she allegedly had a dispute over her future inheritance.
Though she denies the plot against her father, much of Diehl-Armstrong's testimony bolstered the government's theory of motive.
She railed against her father for accessing her mother's safe deposit box after she died in 2000 and said he flaunted millions in tax-free municipal bonds that the defendant said she was supposed to inherit.
She also cried the first time she testified about her mother's death.
"My father was an abusive alcoholic and my mother protected me from him. He sexually molested me as a child. My mother always tried to be a buffer and protect me, she was a good woman," Diehl-Armstrong testified.
As to her father: "I didn't like him very well."
Sughrue said the 91-year-old father is now incapacitated in a veteran's home.
Diehl-Armstrong is serving seven to 20 years in state prison after pleading guilty but mentally ill to murdering her then-boyfriend, James Roden, 45, about two weeks before the robbery.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Marshall Piccinini has told the jury that she acknowledged shooting Roden because he allegedly also knew about the robbery plot, but Diehl-Armstrong denied that Tuesday.
"He was getting on my nerves, because he was getting more and more abusive," she said. Denying Roden ever had a role in the robbery plot, she said, "I never asked him to drive a getaway car either, and that's not the reason he got shot."
Diehl-Armstrong talked very little about the weeks leading up to the plot, because Tuesday's court session was cut short by a thunderstorm warning that prompted the judge to release the jury early. Her testimony will resume Wednesday.