Trial starting in bizarre Pa. collar-bomb case

PITTSBURGH - October 12, 2010

On Tuesday, jury selection began in Erie in the federal trial of the woman accused of masterminding the bizarre 2003 bank robbery plot that ended with the death of the 46-year-old pizza deliveryman.

Prosecutors say Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong needed money from the robbery to pay a hit man kill her estranged father. She's accused of arranging for someone else to order pizzas, rig Wells with the bomb, force him to rob a bank and, afterward, stop the time bomb.

Wells got $8,702 from a PNC bank teller - far less than the $250,000 he demanded according to the nine pages of handwritten instructions he was allegedly forced to follow to commit the robbery and get free of the bomb. Shortly after leaving the bank, state police caught up with him. He died sitting handcuffed in a parking lot, waiting for a bomb squad and shouting to troopers taking cover nearby: "I'm not lying! I'm not doing this! This isn't me!"

Defense attorney Douglas Sughrue tried to get the trial moved to another federal court district, arguing that years of news coverage have made it impossible to pick an unbiased jury.

"I believe it will be a long and arduous task to pick a jury from the Erie division of federal courts," Sughrue said.

Defending Diehl-Armstrong on charges of conspiracy, using a destructive device in a crime of violence and armed bank robbery, which could result in a life sentence, doesn't figure to be any easier. She has publicly feuded with and fired two previous attorneys and allegedly given incriminating statements to the FBI.

She has admitted killing two lovers. The first, a jury ruled, was justified during an abusive relationship in the 1980s. She's serving a seven- to 20-year prison sentence for shooting the second man because, federal prosecutors contend, he knew too much about the bank robbery plot.

Diehl-Armstrong's former fishing buddy, 56-year-old Kenneth Barnes, is serving 45 years in prison after pleading guilty to his role and will be the government's key witness. Prosecutors said Barnes is the would-be hit man on her father.

But the fates of those men have been overshadowed by Wells, who died Aug. 28, 2003. Wells' family was incensed that he was identified as an unindicted co-conspirator in the July 2007 indictment charging Diehl-Armstrong and Barnes.

The family has not returned repeated phone calls from The Associated Press, but it has argued that it is inconceivable Wells would volunteer to be a walking time bomb. Federal prosecutors believe he either knew of or helped plan the robbery without realizing he'd be forced to carry it out.

Diehl-Armstrong's trial was delayed for months when U.S. District Judge Sean McLaughlin determined she was mentally incompetent in July 2008. That occurred after Sadoff testified she once stored 727 pounds of cheese, 389 pounds of butter and 37 dozen eggs at her home - without refrigeration.

Now cleared for trial, Sughrue said in pretrial arguments Tuesday that Diehl-Armstrong will take the stand. He revealed it when he asked McLaughlin to allow testimony by her longtime psychiatrist, Dr. Robert Sadoff.

Sughrue argued that Sadoff's testimony is necessary to explain to the jury how Diehl-Armstrong's mind works, and therefore to explain some of the things the jury is likely to see and hear when she testifies. McLaughlin agreed to allow Sadoff's testimony, providing he doesn't render his opinion that Diehl-Armstrong's mental illness diminished her capacity or her culpability for the alleged crimes.

Diehl-Armstrong, who has a history of outbursts, exploded in a torrent of obscenities at her defense attorney Tuesday, apparently because she didn't get her medication Tuesday morning. After Sughrue briefly told her how she might better raise that issue with jail officials, she blew up.

"I don't want to hear about how to talk to the prison people," she said in a rant peppered with obscenities. "I don't need Doug Sughrue, who's never been in prison a single day, telling me how to act."

Sughrue is the third defense attorney to represent Diehl-Armstrong. She fired the other two because she was dissatisfied with what she perceived to be a lack of competence, and even criticized how one of them dressed.

In 2005, Diehl-Armstrong pleaded guilty but mentally ill to fatally shooting William Roden, 45, about two weeks before Wells' death. His body was found in a freezer at the home of another former boyfriend, William Rothstein, who called police shortly after Wells' death.

Rothstein, who has since died of cancer, said he came forward after Diehl-Armstrong suggested using an ice crusher to get rid of the remains. He also is listed as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Wells case.

An electrician, substitute teacher and handyman, Rothstein is alleged to have crafted the collar bomb. And the federal government says Rothstein ordered two pizzas from a pay phone to draw Wells to a dead-end road. That's where Wells told police he was forced at gunpoint, never naming by whom, to wear the collar bomb.

The defendant's 91-year-old father, Harold Diehl, did not return a call to a friend's home, and his listed telephone number is disconnected. But he told the AP shortly after his daughter's indictment that she was capable of planning the bank robbery and his murder.

"She, in my estimation, she'd have a tendency to do anything that's possible because I think her mind is a little bit goofed up," Diehl said.

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