A pizza deliveryman with no criminal history, strapped to a live bomb, robbing a bank. It sounds more like a farfetched summer movie plot than a real-life mystery, but wild and bizarre bank robberies have been making headlines for more than 100 years.
In recent years, bank robbers have used fake bombs, commando tactics and heavy duty weaponry, and even trained a dog to act as a weapon. And famous felons from American history — like Jesse James, Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, and the legendary Willie "The Actor" Sutton — all cemented their reputations with bank capers.
Nevertheless, most bank robberies are relatively straightforward crimes — typically a single assailant who has done only a modest amount of planning for the heist. The holdup is usually quick and simple and often the robber does not even show a firearm.
"It's like a spur-of-the-moment thing — it's like gambling," explained Duane Swierczynski, a journalist who wrote This Here's a Stick-Up: The Big Bad Book of American Bank Robbery.
Banks tell employees to cooperate, making it easy for criminals to get some quick loot. A "note job" might net a couple thousand dollars at most. A more elaborate and risky "takeover heist" could bring in tens of thousands.
But it often doesn't take long for authorities to catch up with them.
"There are very few smart bank robbers," Swierczynski said. Between eyewitness accounts, surveillance footage, and exploding dye-packs which stain the stolen money, investigators have many tools to help identify a robber.
Of the 7,000 or 8,000 bank robberies in the United States each year, only a few make the headlines, and even fewer are as bizarre as the case of Brian Douglas Wells, the 46-year-old pizza deliveryman who was killed by a bomb locked around his neck outside a Pennsylvania bank on Aug. 28. Wells told police he had been forced to rob the bank.
Wells' friends said he lived a quiet life and could not have masterminded the crime. Investigators say they found a hidden gun-like weapon on Wells' body, but have not come to a conclusion about whether he was a victim or involved in the heist.
Whatever the explanation, the case is a far cry from a standard holdup.
"I'm sure this is not unprecedented, but it's highly unusual and rare," said Ronald Akers, a professor of sociology and criminology and former director of the Center for Studies in Criminology and Law at the University of Florida.
Other Wild Crimes
Law enforcement officials are hard-pressed to recall a similar case, but there have been many extraordinary bank capers in recent years.
In the 1980s, a string of "sleepover heists" caught national attention and eventually inspired the movie Bandits. The robbers went to the home of a bank manager and then coerced him or her into helping them get money from the bank.
In 1997, two heavily armed men robbed a Bank of America and sparked a wild gunbattle with police. The two robbers — who had body armor and armor-piercing ammunition in their guns — were killed in the shootout, which also wounded 15 others, including 10 policemen.
Just last month, a Missouri bank robber with a fake bomb prompted police to shut down part of Interstate 61 while they examined the device.
In July, a man tried to rob a bank in Canada with an attack dog as a weapon. Police killed the animal and took the man into custody.
Last January, bank robbers in Miami sparked a wild chase in which they used a stolen car, a hijacked boat, and a rented taxi.
Also last month, police finally arrested a couple accused of a string of at least 12 bank jobs across America. A tip led authorities to South Africa, where Craig Pritchert, 41, and Nova Guthrie, 28, were laying low.
There have been at least a handful of cases that echo the Wells case.
In July, Cleveland police arrested a man for bank robbery who was about to be sentenced for another bank robbery, in which he pretended to be a hostage and strapped a fake bomb to his leg.
A "necklace bomb" killed 53-year-old Elvia Cortes in La Palestina, Colombia, in May 2000. A bomb technician was also killed by the device as he tried to defuse it.
According to eyewitness reports, the collar looked like an orthopedic collar, with small lights and a strong odor of glue.
It was placed on her neck by a group of assailants who broke into her house. They demanded about $7,500 in exchange for her life.
A feuding neighbor was arrested in the case.
Earlier this summer, Venezuelan and Colombian police defused a similar device that had been placed around the neck of a Venezuelan rancher in an apparent extortion attempt.
But those examples are at odds with the thinking of typical American bank robbers, Akers said.
"They're not going to strap bombs on themselves," he said. "I mean if I'm going do it, I'm going to figure out another way to go about it."
The Wells case remains a mystery, but Akers suspects it goes far beyond just a bank heist.
"There's something else going on there besides the intent to rob the bank," he said.