Feds: Pa. collar bomb defendant's words show guilt

AP News
Posted: Oct 28, 2010 5:18 PM
Feds: Pa. collar bomb defendant's words show guilt

The defendant's own words are some of the best evidence that she was "up to her eyeballs" in a bizarre plot that ended in the death of a pizza deliveryman after he robbed a bank with a bomb strapped to his neck, a federal prosecutor told jurors in his closing argument Thursday.

Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, 61, of Erie, testified in her own defense over the better part of two days, but Assistant U.S. Attorney Marshall Piccinini referred jurors to statements she allegedly made to federal investigators and fellow inmates in the months and years after the Aug. 28, 2003, bank heist.

"This woman was involved in this plot. She was involved in it up to her eyeballs," Piccinini said. "The things that she told people over the years prove that beyond a reasonable doubt."

Defense attorney Douglas Sughrue disputes that, saying Diehl-Armstrong's spoke about things she learned through media accounts or her attorney at the time.

But he also wanted the jury to view her with empathy, despite the grisly allegations and the bipolar and narcissistic personality disorders that he said are behind her loud outbursts and regular profanity during the nine-day trial.

"Your job's not to like her or invite her over for dinner or have a birthday party for her," Sughrue said. "Did they prove a conspiracy exists? Yeah, maybe. But did they prove that Marjorie is a part of it?"

Diehl-Armstrong is charged with armed bank robbery and other crimes for her alleged role in planning the heist and faces life in prison if convicted of all counts. She is already in state prison for killing her boyfriend, allegedly because he knew about the plot.

The pizza driver, Brian Wells, robbed a bank with a bomb locked onto his neck. 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.

Prosecutors say Wells, 46, 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.

After the closing arguments, U.S. District Judge Sean McLaughlin instructed the jury in the law. They were expected to return for deliberations on Friday.

Sughrue and Diehl-Armstrong said she was friends with two of the plotters, but wasn't in on their plan. On the stand, she adamantly denied knowing Wells.

But Piccinini said statements she gave to federal agents and some fellow inmates show otherwise.

Diehl-Armstrong has been incarcerated since her arrest in fall 2003 for the Aug. 10, 2003, shotgun slaying of her live-in boyfriend, James Roden, 45. She was sentenced to seven to 20 years in prison after pleading guilty but mentally ill to murdering him.

Piccinini contends Roden was in on the collar bomb plot and was killed for threatening to reveal it, but Armstrong testified she killed Roden because he was abusive and because he didn't work hard enough to help her find the people responsible for stealing money from her in a home invasion several months before the bank robbery.

Sughrue scoffed at the prosecution's claim that Roden might have been asked to be the collar bomb getaway driver, saying he was too closely linked to the defendant for that to make sense.

"Jim's the getaway driver? They're joined at the hip. Why use him? It would implicate her" if Roden got caught, Sughrue said.

Another key to her defense relates to the government's star witness: Kenneth Barnes, 57, who is serving 45 years in prison for pleading guilty in the collar bomb case.

Diehl-Armstrong said she believed that Barnes had helped set her up to be robbed in May 2003. She claims she was so angry at Barnes for that break-in that she wasn't associating with him anymore, let alone plotting a bank robbery with him.

But Piccinini detailed statements Diehl-Armstrong made to investigators and fellow inmates tying her to several aspects of the collar bomb plot.

Among other things, the prosecutor said the evidence shows she solicited Barnes' involvement, because she wanted to use the bank robbery money to pay him to kill her father; accompanied Barnes as a lookout, watching Wells rob the bank through binoculars; and even fit the metal collar on Wells' neck in a meeting the day before the robbery.

Piccinini said she also told federal agents that she provided two kitchen egg timers that another plotter, William Rothstein, used to make the bomb collar. Rothstein has since died of cancer.

She also acknowledged to federal agents that Roden's death was linked to the collar bomb case but stopped short of explaining that and other details, saying she wanted immunity first, Piccinini said.

Sughrue suggested Rothstein was the brains behind the bank robbery, manipulated everyone _ law enforcement and the other plotters _ and hung Diehl-Armstrong out to dry when he called police in September 2003 to tell them he had Roden's body in a freezer in his garage.

"My client's reason for killing Jim Roden isn't normal, it isn't rational _ but normal isn't Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong," Sughrue said. "If the shooting is done consistent with the conspiracy theory of the government it would have been well-planned ... (and Roden's body) wouldn't have ended up in a garage, wouldn't have ended up in a freezer."