For Diehl-Armstrong, pizza bomber case is ‘sad epitaph’
ERIE, Pa. (AP) — They are two men who knew Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong better than most.
And they lived to talk about their experiences.
Leonard Ambrose and Doug Sughrue are unique characters in the convoluted history of the pizza bomber case, which originated 15 years ago with the bombing death of pizza deliveryman Brian Wells after he robbed a bank in Summit Township on Aug. 28, 2003.
The two defense lawyers represented Diehl-Armstrong in the bookend stages of her murderous career, in which prosecutors linked the mentally ill Erie resident to the untimely deaths of three men, including Wells and two of her boyfriends. The body of one of them, James Roden, ended up in a freezer as part of the pizza bomber plot.
Ambrose, one of Erie’s best-known defense lawyers, represented Diehl-Armstrong in her first homicide trial. She argued self-defense and was acquitted in Erie County Court in 1988 in the killing of her boyfriend Bob Thomas, who was shot six times as he rested on a couch in their rented, squalid and food-packed house on Sunset Boulevard in Erie in 1984.
Sughrue, based in Pittsburgh, was court-appointed to represent Diehl-Armstrong in her final trial: her prosecution in the pizza bomber case, in which she was convicted in federal court in Erie in 2010 of being complicit in Wells’ death and was sentenced in 2011 to life plus 30 years.
Though Diehl-Armstrong is dead — she died of breast cancer at 68 while at a federal prison in Texas in April 2017 — she lives on through the recollections of people like Ambrose and Sughrue, as well as through projects such as “Evil Genius,” the Netflix docuseries about the pizza bomber case that started streaming in May.
‘She should have never been tried’
For Ambrose, Diehl-Armstrong should have never played a starring role in “Evil Genius” or even in court. Forty years after he won the acquittal in the Thomas homicide, Ambrose continues to believe that Diehl-Armstrong, diagnosed with bipolar disorder and other forms of mental illness, should have been placed in a mental institution rather than prosecuted in the Thomas case.
“She should have never been tried,” Ambrose said. “She should have been institutionalized for the rest of her life, with maybe yearly reviews.”
If Diehl-Armstrong had been housed in a mental institution indefinitely, “there would have been no pizza bomber case,” Ambrose said. “No trial. No one in a refrigerator. It was inevitable that once she was acquitted, she would have been involved in something of a similar nature. It was inevitable.”
“She would have been better off” in a mental institution, Ambrose said. “And maybe two, three people would still be alive.”
Diehl-Armstrong accepted that she was bipolar. At the Thomas trial, she and Ambrose built her case around her claims of self-defense and abuse as well as the deterioration of her relationship with Thomas based on the couple’s shared history of mental illness.
In what has become part of Erie criminal lore, their house on Sunset Boulevard was stuffed with rotting government surplus butter and cheese as well as other food items that the two collected at food pantries throughout the city.
“You really get to the point where you are burned out,” Diehl-Armstrong testified at the Thomas trial, explaining her state of mind when she fired all six shots from a revolver into her boyfriend’s chest. “You didn’t stop to think. If you stopped and thought, you wouldn’t be getting beatings and you wouldn’t have 4,000 pounds of rotten food in your house and standing in the food line if you had your mind together.”
Ambrose experienced the intensity of Diehl-Armstrong’s mental illness. Like she did with so many lawyers and others she came to know over the years, Diehl-Armstrong called Ambrose constantly from prison, frequently ringing him at all hours at home. Diehl-Armstrong, whose bipolar symptoms include “pressured speech,” or incessant talking, would ramble for hours.
Because Diehl-Armstrong was on the other line for so long at times, Ambrose said, “I had no phone service, sometimes all night.”
Whether Diehl-Armstrong was evil, a genius or even the mastermind behind the pizza bomber case are all matters of debate. But as she told Ambrose or anyone else who would listen, she never disputed that she was highly intelligent. And as she told anyone who would listen, she graduated with straight A’s from Academy High School in 1967, ranked 12th among her 413 classmates.
But Diehl-Armstrong forever denied she was evil or a criminal mastermind who designed the pizza bomber plot. Her undeniable criminal exploits nonetheless proved to Ambrose that intelligence and mental illness are not mutually exclusive.
“Intelligence has nothing to do with delusional beliefs,” Ambrose said. “Brightness does not mean you can’t develop mental illness.”
‘It all went downhill’
In November 2007, five months after she was indicted in the pizza bomber case, Diehl-Armstrong made yet another one of her declarations over the telephone from prison. The call, as so many of them were, was placed to the Erie Times-News.
“I am 1,000 percent innocent,” Diehl-Armstrong thundered. “I am trying to get extricated from this maze. I am trying to see daylight. My time is running out here.”
She made the comment in the context of trying to fire her first lawyer in the pizza bomber case, Thomas Patton, a highly regarded federal public defender then based in Erie. Diehl-Armstrong succeeded in getting rid of Patton, which led then-U.S. District Judge Sean J. McLaughlin to appoint Doug Sughrue to represent her.
McLaughlin warned Diehl-Armstrong that any dissatisfaction with Sughrue would force her to represent herself. She never seriously attempted to fire Sughrue, though she was prone to berating him in the courtroom.
Sughrue responded with a laconic but unblinking demeanor that seemed to defuse much of Diehl-Armstrong’s ire.
Looking back, Sughrue said what he will most remember about his famous client were the long talks they would have about her youth. They talked about how she grew up in Erie as a smart and smartly dressed teenager who appeared to be headed for some type of long and rewarding career, such as teaching or counseling high school students.
Even in Diehl-Armstrong’s periods of rage and pressured speech, Sughrue said, “she still could be directed to a time when everything was going her way and she had the world by the tail.”
He said Diehl-Armstrong would focus on the good grades she had in school and how she worked as a secretary in various offices around town. Diehl-Armstrong graduated from what was then Mercyhurst College in 1970 with bachelor’s degrees in social work and sociology and in 1975 earned a master’s degree in education, with a focus on guidance counseling, from what was then Gannon College.
Diehl-Armstrong had 21 credits toward a doctorate in education, but never got a job beyond office work. By the mid-1970s, her mental illness, which first surfaced when she reached puberty, in her early teens, had enveloped her mind. She was never the same again.
“Once the mental illness took hold in the middle of her life, it all went downhill,” Sughrue said. “It was almost impossible for her to deal with the ordinary aspects of life.”
Diehl-Armstrong was an only child. Sughrue believes the death of her mother, Agnes Diehl, 83, in July 2000, left Diehl-Armstrong fully untethered. Her mother could be overbearing, and she was a perfectionist, but Diehl-Armstrong loved her deeply. With her mother gone, Diehl-Armstrong lost an anchor.
“My mother was a clean-living woman,” Diehl-Armstrong told a psychiatrist in November 2000, five months after Agnes Diehl’s death. “I loved my mother. I might have had differences with her, but she was all I had.”
Said Sughrue, “If her mother would have lived longer, I think that would have helped.”
A fractured intellectual
Three years after her mother’s death, on Aug. 28, 2003, Diehl-Armstrong became forever linked to the pizza bomber case.
Searching, perhaps, for some kind of stability, she had fallen in with a bunch of misfits who called themselves the fractured intellectuals. Each was part of the pizza bomber case: Bill Rothstein, her former fiance; Ken Barnes, a pimp and crack dealer and her fishing buddy; and Jim Roden, her boyfriend who ended up shot in the back and his body stuffed in a freezer in Rothstein’s garage.
The bombing death of Brian Wells showed how, without a doubt, the disarray of Diehl-Armstrong’s life had reached a level beyond repair.
No one in any of her major criminal cases — the killing of Bob Thomas and the death of Wells — has ever argued that Diehl-Armstrong’s penchant for criminality, her inclination to evil, could be excused completely due to her mental illness.
Diehl-Armstrong was mentally ill, but she also knew what she was doing. She was a danger to society who, at the very least, needed to be institutionalized, in Ambrose’s view, and who, in the end, was sentenced to more than a lifetime in prison — her final resting place.
“A coldly calculated criminal recidivist and serial killer,” is how one federal magistrate judge described Diehl-Armstrong in denying one of her many appeals.
That description is accurate.
So is the description offered by two of her lawyers, who had a professional obligation to get inside her troubled and sinister mind.
She was, according to Leonard Ambrose and Doug Sughrue, a mentally ill woman whose potential for achievement — what could have been a brilliant career — ceded to a disordered life filled with mayhem, murder and incarceration.
“It is just a sad epitaph,” Ambrose said. “It really is.”
Information from: Erie Times-News, http://www.goerie.com