Psycho Killer: Portrait of A Madwoman

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Photo Credit: ABC



Can a breast cancer patient be a villain? Some would argue no, though that debate is not one people have every day. There is one woman who proves those who don’t believe a cancer patient can be evil as wrong.

As the face of the “Pizza Bomber” crime that captivated many people, Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong was painted as an evil genius. These articles and news reports barely scratched the surface of a complex woman. Or was that representation entirely accurate? There is an argument that can be made that Armstrong was mentally ill and not capable of knowing what she was doing or the effects of the crimes she was committing.

Early Life

Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong was born on February 26, 1949. Growing up, she was a bright student. Her grades were above average and she was greatly rewarded for excelling. Upon graduation, she was chosen as the valedictorian. She could be anything that she wanted to be.

After high school, Armstrong enrolled at Mercyhurst College. Her major was sociology and social work, two degrees that would help her later on in life. Just not for the reasons many people would have thought. By 1975, Armstrong was working on her Masters in education. She had wanted to inspire young people but something kept her from accomplishing that.

Mental Illness

The factor that stopped her from living out her dream of teaching youth was mental illness. Armstrong faced many of the illnesses and disorders that serial killers are posthumously diagnosed with.

Some of the diagnoses include; severe bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, mania, personality disorder, and narcissism. Armstrong was in therapy from a relatively young age to deal with these disorders. Some argue that she was able to use them to her advantage as she grew older.

Other factors include the death of her mother and loneliness stemming from being an only child. Of her mom, who died in 2000, Armstrong grieved. She said: “my mother was a very clean-living woman. I loved my mother. I have had differences with her, but she was all I had.”

The First Murder

No man that ever loved Armstrong is still alive today. They were either killed or died under circumstances that should have warranted an investigation. The first one to be murdered at the hands of Armstrong was Robert Thomas.

To call the relationship between Thomas and Armstrong tumultuous would be akin to say that McDonald’s has sold a few burgers. Both parties were mentally ill and using recreational drugs in order to dull the pain. And to have some fun.

The fun ended with violent fights. Armstrong had accused Thomas of being abusive and hitting her multiple times. Their apartment was a haven for the kinds of fights usually reserved for TV shows and movies. The relationship ended when she pumped six bullets into his chest. The police were called and evaluated the scene.

One of the first things they noticed was that Armstrong and Thomas had never cleaned the apartment. There were piles of rotting food throughout the place, along with piles of old newspapers and magazines. A hoarding problem that would follow Armstrong through the rest of her life had formed.

She was charged with murdering Thomas but was acquitted. Leonard Ambrose argues that a trial never should have happened. Instead, he says “she should have been institutionalized for the rest of her life, with maybe yearly reviews.”

The Husband Murder?

The same year of her acquittal, Armstrong would marry and bury her one and only husband, Richard Armstrong. There is no word on how or when they met. Even less is known about that relationship. What is known is that after her trial was over, her husband suffered a nasty fall.

After being rushed to the hospital, Richard was diagnosed with a severe head hemorrhage. He would die because of it. No autopsy was performed and foul play was never investigated. Though many people related to Richard have said they believe Armstrong killed their loved one.

Given her history, it would not be a surprise that she committed another murder so soon after being acquitted.

Pizza Bombing Murder(s)

The crime that Armstrong is most closely associated with is the Pizza Bombing Heist. It is by far the most complex and far-reaching criminal plan hatched. At least two men were killed because of this and a third man was allegedly in her sights as the plan came together.

In the summer of 2003, Armstrong and Kenneth Barnes hatched a plan to get more money. The pair were romantically linked and had been living off of money left to Armstrong by her mother. This angered her father, who threatened to cut her off from the trust fund until she got a job.

They hatched a plan to rob a bank. Well, not them exactly, Armstrong brought in another person to do the dirty work. Brian Wells, a pizza delivery man. She lured Wells in with a mix of flirtatiousness and a promise of a cut of the riches. Once he agreed to the plot, he was told why a bank needed to be robbed. Armstrong wanted to have her father killed, so she could have her full inheritance without hassle.

Barnes and Armstrong played on Wells’ well-known love of scavenger hunts in a separate plot. They devised a plan to strap a bomb to him, so they could collect the money he stole from a bank and kill him without arousing suspicion. After robbing the bank and getting $8,702, only a fraction of the $250,000 they had wanted, the cops were called. The bomb strapped around Wells went off, killing him.

The Accomplice Murder

Before he died, Wells told police three black men had strapped the bomb to him. This is believed to be a story concocted by Armstrong to give an alibi to her and Barnes. However, she did not anticipate her ex-fiance going to the police and telling them about the dead body in his freezer.

William Rothstein went to the police after the pizza bombing and told them he had the dead body of James Roden, Armstrong’s ex, in his freezer. Rothstein claimed that Armstrong called him after she killed Roden and asked for help hiding the body.

Why would he agree to hide the dead body? It is believed that Rothstein and Roden were conspirators in the pizza bombing plan. Rothstein claimed that his romantic rival had gotten cold feet and threatened to go to the cops. Armstrong was so scary, that Rothstein himself went to the police because he feared her.

The Trial

Nearly six years after the pizza bombing, Armstrong was set to stand trial. After appearing before the Judge on March 11, 2009, she was found to be incompetent to stand trial. Her attorney had successfully used her mental illness to prove that she was not aware of the difference between right and wrong. At least temporarily.

On September 9 of the same year, the Judge declared he believed that Armstrong could stand trial. Eventually, she would stand trial, and take the stand in her own defense. An argument for a change of venue was dismissed by the judge, and a guilty verdict was returned.

Barnes had turned on his former lover and told authorities that she was the mastermind behind which led to her facing more charges than he did. However, it was not just his word that clinched it, he offered evidence for the police. This proved to be her undoing.

Correspondence With A Killer

While serving time in prison, Armstrong corresponded with two people; Kathryn Whiteley and Trey Borzillieri. The two people walked away from their relationship with her with much different impressions of the prisoner.

Whiteley went into the relationship with no knowledge of the pizza bombing or any of the other crimes committed by Armstrong. As a renowned criminologist, Whiteley liked to communicate with female criminals and learn what made them take the actions they took. After communicating with Armstrong for a while, Whiteley believed that there was more to the motivation of the crimes than what the world thinks. In part of an essay she wrote, Whiteley explains:

“When I first began researching women who violently offend more than 13 years ago, my intent was to pursue offending and motive—a common focus of criminological research. But when an Australian inmate picked up on my preoccupation with what she did and why she did it, she challenged me to look at her whole life, and not just the single, terrible act she had committed. ‘I am more than a crime,’ she said. The same can be said of Marjorie.”

 

Essentially Whiteley believes that Armstrong committed the crimes because of her mental illness and perhaps because of the abusive relationship with Thomas. Whiteley wishes she had gone to meet Armstrong when she had the chance but was unable to do so.

The Other Side

On the other hand, Borzillieri says that his time writing letters back and forth with Armstrong led him to believe she didn’t know what the truth was. He produced the Netflix docuseries, Evil Genius, and wanted a first-hand account of what happened. He said in an interview:

“Obviously, she was a sociopath. Which made her a great liar,” he said. “That along with her mental issues. Like paranoia, mania, personality disorder. She was a tough woman who was constantly manipulating everyone in her path to get her own way. Because she was a narcissist, it was easy to get her to talk. But difficult to correct her. When she had any opposition, even a difference in opinion, she would approach it with reptilian indifference.”

It must have been because of his correspondence with Armstrong that he titled the docuseries Evil Genius. His opinion of her is lower than that of almost anyone else.

The Killer Killed

While serving her life sentence, Armstrong was diagnosed with breast cancer. It would ultimately kill her on April 4, 2017. She was 68 years old at the time of her death.

The debate continues to rage about how bad she really was. Despite the evidence that she committed heinous crimes, especially against men, there are those who believe she wasn’t as bad as the media makes her out to be.

Was Armstrong pure evil or a victim of society’s demonization of mental illness?