Photos courtesy of Jerry Clark and Ed Palattella
When FBI special agent Jerry Clark first met Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong inside the belly of the beast at Muncy State Correctional Institution — a medium-to-maximum security prison that houses women in Pennsylvania — he got a weird vibe when she walked in. Clark had interviewed thousands of people over the course of two decades working for the bureau, including hundreds of criminals, but Marjorie was as unique as anybody he'd ever talked to. He remembers looking into her eyes and seeing nothing there — just a dead, blank stare. But the veteran law enforcement official knew she was intelligent, cunning, and very manipulative — the type of person who could get men to do things for her with an unrelenting persistence.
Serving seven to 20 years in state prison for killing her ex-boyfriend- James Roden, whose body she stored in a freezer, the convicted Marjorie — who died earlier this year at the Federal Medical Center-Carswell in Fort Worth, Texas — was a prime suspect in the infamous Pizza Bomber case that Clark was investigating. It was becoming clear to Clark that Marjorie was the mastermind behind the armed bank robbery in 2003. That saw Brian Wells rob a PNC Bank for $8,702 dressed as a pizza delivery man with a metal collar bomb around his neck. Shortly after, when he was apprehended by police, the collar bomb exploded, blowing a hole in Well's chest and killing him.
Indicted in 2007 and convicted in 2010, Marjorie was sentenced to life plus 30 years in federal prison. A new book, Mania and Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong: Inside the Mind of a Female Serial Killer, out September 16th and written by Clark and Erie Times-News reporter Ed Palattella (the two also wrote Pizza Bomber: The Untold Story of America's Most Shocking Bank Robbery together) explores Marjorie's life and how her lawyers tried to use mental illness as a defense for her actions, an issue American jurisprudence has grappled with since John Hinckley Jr. was acquitted in the Ronald Reagan shooting by pleading legal insanity.
With chapters like "Cycle of Death," "Freezer Queen," and "Psyche on Trial," Clark and Palattella weave a tale that not only looks at the various murders — both convicted and unconvicted — that Marjorie was involved in, but also how the courts struggle to deal with cases involving mental health issues in general. MERRY JANE talked to the authors about why they felt Marjorie's story needed its own book, why Marjorie was left free to kill again, and where she stands in serial killer history. Here's what they had to say.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity
Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong in 2014
MERRY JANE: After finishing the Pizza Bomber book, why did you decide to write another book that solely covered Marjorie's life and history?
Jerry Clark: The Pizza Bomber case was made so spectacular and unique by the characters, who got together to form this scheme and complete this diabolical plan. They were really what made this thing interesting. But Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong had such a unique history and so much death around her that we figured we needed to delve deeper into her character just to find out more about her and all the different nuances that she had psychologically and criminally that made her so fascinating.
Over the years, you guys have had a lot of contact with Marjorie, and Ed regularly talked to her by phone after she was imprisoned. What were those conversations like?
Ed Palattella: She never really revealed any details that would have proven her innocence. It was more about how she was framed and how she was manipulated by others. A lot it was centered on her case. We also talked quite a bit about her health and the different authors that she was reading. She was really into poetry and liked to read quite a bit. She came off really as quite intelligent and funny at times, but also very vulgar and could be very nasty.
As I often told Jerry, after I hung up the phone I had to remind myself that this was someone who was responsible for killing at least two men that we know of. My conversations with her really revealed how manipulative she was. She could just wear you down with questions. I can understand how the men involved with her would just turn their hands up in the end and say "OK, Marge, I'll do it," just to get her to stop nagging them and stop pounding them with the same questions.
When did Marjorie first kill and how did she get away with it?
Ed Palattella: She was prosecuted in 1984 for killing a man named Rob Thomas, but she was acquitted by self-defense. It was probably the biggest case in this part of Pennsylvania at the time. It was a woman killing a man, and her case became kind of the forerunner of the battered woman syndrome.
Jerry Clark: She shot him six times and there's some discussion of how and where he was at the time. But she was able to show that she had a history of abuse from him and was able to get acquitted. If you were from this area or region, that was a major, major decision of acquittal that nobody could really believe. Since then, she's had this association with men and death around her that continued all the way until she was convicted on the Pizza Bombers charges.
How many men do you think she's killed in her lifetime?
Jerry Clark: If you go through her history, there were six men that died around her, three of which we know she was charged with, including the one she was acquitted for in 1984. In 1985, there was a guy that she knew, a landlord who committed suicide. Again, very unique circumstances and she was never charged. Then in 1992, her husband Richard Armstrong was rushed to the hospital. He was bleeding from his ear and died two days later. She said he fell and hit a coffee table, but the rumor was she may have done something to him that resulted in his death. She was never charged in that.
In 2003, we know she killed James Roden with a shotgun, two shots to the back. He died, she put him in the freezer, and was going to cut him up. And around the same time, even though she didn't pull the trigger, she conspired to kill the Pizza Bomber, Brian Wells. A second pizza delivery driver, who worked with Wells, died three days later of an overdose that we think was a hotshot that was given to him so he couldn't be a witness.
How do you think mental illness affected her? Was she destined to become a killer? Or could she have received help at some point to change the course of her life?
Ed Palattella: As far as Jerry and I can determine, she developed mental illness at probably 12 or 13-years-old. She was anorexic and clearly something was not right with her. We've always wondered if receiving adequate mental health treatment at that time could have resulted in things turning out differently. This was in the early '60s and a lot of this stuff wasn't as fully understood as it is now. Certainly if she'd been convicted in the Rob Thomas case and incarcerated, she might've gotten mental health treatment in prison. That might have helped her. We just wondered how many different avenues she could've gone down and not turned out this way.
How did Marjorie's lawyer try to utilize mental illness as a defense to criminal culpability in her case?
Jerry Clark: They tried to show that she was incompetent to stand trial. Incompetence is really not a defense, but more of a pretrial issue. In order to be declared incompetent to stand trial, you have to be unable to assist in your defense and not be able to understand the proceedings against you. Those were the two claims that they were trying to make, but it was really hard because she was extremely bright. She certainly understood the proceedings against her. She knew who the judge was. She knew what the jury does. She knew what the defense attorney does. She knew that better than maybe any first year law student. The issue was whether or not she could assist in her own defense. That was sort of the prong that they were trying to establish.
A lot of times, the judge will air on the side of caution, which both judges did in this case, both in the state court case against Roden, where they declared her incompetent to stand trial. She was sent away for restoration, came back after two years, and was then able to plead guilty to killing Roden and was indicted in the Pizza Bomber case. She was sent away again for restoration to convince the judge in the federal court system. You never want to prosecute an incompetent person. She was restored rather quickly on the federal side and then was convicted in a three-week trial for her involvement in the [Pizza Bomber] case.
What takeaways do you want readers to come away with after finishing the book?
Ed Palattella: There's no doubt she was mentally ill and suffered from severe bipolar disorder, but there's also no doubt that she was a danger to society. I think any observer would think she got her day in court and she certainly got enough mental health evaluation — not only to determine whether she was competent, but also to try to help her mentally, to settle her down and straighten her out as much as any medication could. We've been grappling with these issues in the justice system since Roman times. In the context of being a serial killer, she was a three-dimensional person. She had so many different elements to her personality. She was a really unique person in that regard. Unfortunately, she ended up the way she did.
Jerry Clark: We want to provide an understanding of not only her, but others like her, and how mental illness intersects with the legal system. If you don't receive treatment, you could move on and go under the radar like she did and become one of the most infamous [killers] of the female gender. I think the takeaway for me is just how she developed and how things could have been different maybe, but also on how criminal justice and mental illness intersect.
"Mania and Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong: Inside the Mind of a Female Serial Killer" is available to pre-order now
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