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How Wired’s “Collar Bomb Heist” Story Came Together

Every now and then, I come across a feature article that’s so enthralling, it demands my attention and won’t surrender it until I finish reading. Rich Schapiro’s “The Incredible True Story of the Collar Bomb Heist” for Wired magazine’s January 2011 issue is one of those pieces. It’s written with such energy and momentum, and leads to such a devastating conclusion, that I daresay it is one of the best reading experiences I’ve had all year. The article begins as follows:

At 2:28 pm on August 28, 2003, a middle-aged pizza deliveryman named Brian Wells walked into a PNC Bank in Erie, Pennsylvania. He had a short cane in his right hand and a strange bulge under the collar of his T-shirt. Wells, 46 and balding, passed the teller a note. “Gather employees with access codes to vault and work fast to fill bag with $250,000,” it said. “You have only 15 minutes.” Then he lifted his shirt to reveal a heavy, boxlike device dangling from his neck. According to the note, it was a bomb. The teller, who told Wells there was no way to get into the vault at that time, filled a bag with cash—$8,702—and handed it over. Wells walked out, sucking on a Dum Dum lollipop he grabbed from the counter, hopped into his car, and drove off. He didn’t get far. Some 15 minutes later, state troopers spotted Wells standing outside his Geo Metro in a nearby parking lot, surrounded him, and tossed him to the pavement, cuffing his hands behind his back. Wells told the troopers that while out on a delivery he had been accosted by a group of black men who chained the bomb around his neck at gunpoint and forced him to rob the bank. “It’s gonna go off!” he told them in desperation. “I’m not lying.”

When a piece begins like that and doesn’t let up for 5,000+ words, you know you’re in for a literary treat. The piece is now online in its entirety, and I’d strongly suggest you go read it immediately. I’ll wait.

I had the chance to chat with Schapiro about how he put together the piece. Schapiro spent hundreds of hours poring over public records, case files, and court documents. He interviewed over 70 individuals, which included, according to Schapiro, “friends of the people who were charged, people who were charged themselves [that] I developed relationships with, people who worked on the case — the local people in Erie, the county coroner, people in the county courthouse…” It’s a staggering work of journalism that spans years and I’m impressed at how tightly the final piece reads given how much work Schapiro put into it. 

When I asked him what the hardest part of writing the feature was, Schapiro explained:

The story has so many turns. It really is, I think, a case of truth-stranger-than-fiction. You couldn’t make this stuff up, what actually happens between these characters. The sequencing — telling the story, trying to figure out the order, ordering the story in such a way that it makes sense and will allow readers to follow along…it’s very easy to get lost in the bizarre events that happened after Brian Wells passed away, and actually, what led to that as well. So, telling the story in an organized, meaningful way that is still gripping and still accessible for readers was one of the greater challenges. Fortunately, and I can’t say this enough, the editors I was working with at Wired were fantastic and, no doubt, improved the story.  

Indeed, with so many characters and with such a complex timeline, the challenge of pulling together an enthralling, coherent narrative must have been considerable, but I think the feature pulls this off expertly.

I told Rich how cinematic I thought the piece was, and how it bears certain similarities to the Saw series of movies. But Rich brought up another parallel, saying, “What I kept thinking about when I was writing was its similarities to another film: The Usual Suspects.” It’s an apt comparison that gives you a sense of how twisted and surprising the final story becomes. In the end, “The Collar Bomb” heist piece is the perfect marriage of solid investigative journalism and skillful, stylish writing. And if you haven’t read it yet, go check it out now!

Here’s the audio of my entire interview with Schapiro: