To help provide a broad array of perspectives on the blog, we strive to post content frequently from guest bloggers, each of whom has an expertise in an area of the field. This week, we are fortunate to have Brian R. Sheridan, who is the chairman of the communication department at Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pennsylvania. He formerly worked as an award-winning anchor and reporter at WJET/WFXP-TV.
Today, Sheridan recalls a famous story he covered during his time as a broadcast journalist: The Pizza Bomber case. What began as a bank robbery turned into a bizarre tale that garnered international interest and led to a recent NetFlix series. Sheridan walks through what he experienced 15 years ago and some of the bigger things he learned during his coverage of this case. Interested in being our next guest blogger? Contact us here.
Fifteen years ago, I watched a bomb kill a man right in front of me. It wasn’t a war or terrorist attack but a bomb that had been strapped around the neck of pizza deliveryman Brian Wells in Erie, Pennsylvania. He had been stopped by police after he had robbed a bank. The story – the biggest of my career – became known the world over as “the Pizza Bomber case” and this year was serialized as the documentary “Evil Genius,” on Netflix. And I was the only journalist there to watch it happen live.
I had been working as anchor and reporter for Erie’s ABC/FOX affiliate, WJET-TV & WFXP-TV. My job was anchoring the 10 p.m. newscast. That day, I had just begun my shift at 3 p.m. when our assignment desk sent me down the street with a photog to cover a reported bank robbery. No big deal. They happen all of the time. You show up – shoot some video – grab a soundbite and return to the station. The FBI wouldn’t have much to say until hours after clearing the scene.
When we arrived, we could tell something was off. Peach Street, one of the city’s busiest, had been completely shut down to traffic. We snuck around the back and when I poked my head over a grassy ridge, I came in direct line of fire of two Pennsylvania State Troopers who held their weapons trained at a suspect seated on the pavement in front of his car. I knew this was no ordinary bank robbery.
The assignment desk rolled the live truck and we set up across the road as police attempted to move people away from the scene. We were told the man had a bomb strapped to him. Yet, the man later identified as Brian Wells, remained calm and politely chatted with troopers.
We readied the live shot but a technical problem with an audio cable kept us from going live. While my cameraman worked on replacing it, I looked at the man and thought about what I could tell the audience. Then, without warning, the bomb went off with a loud bang followed by tinkling sounds of wire shrapnel falling near us. Wells flopped onto his back. My first words to my photog were, “Did you get that?” meaning were we recording? Bomb or not – we had a job to do. He had been recording as well as feeding the live signal back to the TV station. Audio problem fixed. Time to go live.
As I waited for my intro from the anchor, thoughts of the 1995 federal building bombing in Oklahoma City passed through my mind. I remembered watching TV reporters making assumptions on-air about what had happened that turned out to be wrong.
What I thought I needed to do was do what journalists are supposed to do – be calm, rational, tell the people what you know and don’t speculate. I remember thinking that I shouldn’t make this more dramatic than it already was – a man was killed by a bomb because someone had placed it around his neck. I didn’t need to pump up the drama. The tech problem also was a godsend. Without a delay button back at the station, we would have broadcast a man’s murder live to our after-school audience.
What we didn’t know at the time was all of complex and crazy twists the “Pizza Bomber” story would take over the coming months and years. As I look back, it is fascinating to think how news dissemination has changed over the ensuing decade and a half. Social media wasn’t as ubiquitous in 2003. Subsequently, it took about three days for the rest of the world to hear the bizarre tale. Today, that story would have been immediately trending on social media. Cell phone video would have been everywhere. The whole world would have heard and seen the story in real time.
When media attention focused on the story, I became a guest via telephone on newscasts in the UK, Ireland and Australia. CNN and Fox News had me live from Erie. Film crews came from Europe and Asia to shoot documentaries. Japanese TV did a crazy reenactment for a news/game show hybrid. National news outlets sent news crews to Erie. The story became a worldwide phenomenon despite a lack of arrests or a conclusion. The television drama, CSI, even did a “collar bomber”-based episode. A movie called “30 Minutes or Less” tried unsuccessfully – and in many people’s opinion’s tastelessly – to spoof the story.
Federal charges would come in 2007, after I left the news business for a career higher education. When law enforcement released the whole story, I always felt that despite the interesting characters involved, and the complexity and ridiculousness of the plot, the end seemed unsatisfying. With such a dramatic start to the story, there wasn’t any death-bed confessions. No one arrested and convicted ever admitted to their role in the crime, despite the amount of evidence the government presented against them. Wells’ family vehemently argued that he had been an innocent dupe, despite what law enforcement said. Those suspected or charged with the crime didn’t even turn on each other even when faced with their own deaths from natural causes.
Is that really any way to write a crime story as big as “The Pizza Bomber?” If you were a novelist, you’d say, “Of course not!” I tell my students that as a real-life journalist doesn’t deliver big stories like this one, neatly bundled with a drawing room denouement, like an Agatha Christie mystery (with no offense to Dame Christie). Sometimes the stories or the crimes barely make sense, but it is our job to report all of it, using our best skills as an interviewer, researcher and writer.
Real-life also doesn’t operate on a time-table that’s convenient. When I left my news job, the “Pizza Bomber” became someone else’s story. Fifteen years later, I’m just proud to have been a part of it.