Family, investigator question 'pizza bomber' movie

When the comedy "30 Minutes or Less" opens in theaters Friday, one small group of people will be sure to avoid it.

That would be the surviving family members of Brian Wells, the 46-year-old pizza delivery driver who was killed when a metal bomb collar he was forced to wear while robbing a bank exploded in Pennsylvania eight years ago.

The movie's handlers acknowledge the screenwriters were "vaguely" aware of Wells, but say the movie — in which two ne'er-do-wells force a pizza driver to rob a bank while wearing a time bomb vest — isn't based on the infamous Pennsylvania collar-bomb case, and especially Wells' grisly, tragic death.

Still, Wells' sister, Jean Heid of Erie, said the movie isn't funny — whether or not it was inspired by her brother's sad fate.

"It's hard for me to grasp how other human beings can take delight and pride in making such a movie and consider it a comedy," Heid said in an e-mailed response to The Associated Press. Heid asked to respond by e-mail because she wanted to choose her words carefully. "I don't think it's funny to laugh at the innocent who are victimized by criminals, who care nothing for human life."

"Neither the filmmakers nor the stars of '30 Minutes or Less' were aware of this crime prior to their involvement in the film," Steve Elzer, the senior vice president who handles media relations for Sony Pictures' Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Group, said in a statement. "The writers were vaguely familiar with what had occurred and wrote an original screenplay that does not mirror the real-life tragedy."

Screenwriters Michael Diliberti and Matt Sullivan didn't respond to requests for comment through their agent. But, based on its madcap theatrical trailer, it appears the film doesn't mirror the Wells case beyond the pizza-bomber plot device or go anywhere near paralleling Wells' death.

It's still too close for comfort for some people, however.

Jerry Clark, 50, the since-retired FBI agent who led the investigation after watching the bomb kill Wells from 30 feet away, said he watched the trailer for "30 Minutes or Less" because "I was so curious myself."

"Having been on the scene the day that it happened and watching the device detonate, linking that with a comedy, that's sort of difficult for me to comprehend," said Clark, who is co-writing a book on the case with Erie Times-News reporter Ed Palattella.

The movie is unlikely to offend anyone unless they're intimately familiar with Wells or the criminal case — like Heid or Clark, said Paul Dergarabedian, president of the Box Office Division of and a movie business analyst for the AP.

"It's not that there's so much a desensitizing" of the culture, Dergarabedian said. "I think many people may just not be aware of the case."

In February, Heid repeated some of her brother's last words when she addressed a federal judge in Erie at the sentencing of Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, 62, the mentally ill woman considered by prosecutors to be the key player in the plot.

In the moments before the bomb detonated on Aug. 28, 2003, Wells sat handcuffed in a parking lot near the bank, waiting for a bomb squad to arrive as he pleaded with police.

"'I don't have a lot of time. It's gonna go off. I'm not lying. When is someone gonna come and get this thing off of me?'" Heid said, quoting her brother's words, his plea captured on television news video.

Wells was wearing an oversized T-shirt that largely obscured the blue metal collar before it exploded, blowing a softball-sized hole in his chest, killing him instantly. The grotesque, unedited news footage can still be found online.

Barely two months after Wells was killed, his family had to deal with the image when numerous Erie children were seen trick-or-treating in homemade "pizza bomber" costumes complete with oversized shirts and fake bomb collars.

In the following years, TV crime dramas featured neck-bomb episodes or thinly veiled allusions to the case, including CBS' "Criminal Minds," NBC's "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" and the pilot for another short-lived NBC series, "Heist" in 2006.

The case also prompted more serious treatment by CNN, ABC and "America's Most Wanted." The family welcomed some coverage that questioned the government's view that Wells was a conspirator but duped into thinking the collar bomb would be a decoy and forced to wear a real one at gunpoint.

The family's insistence that Wells was an innocent "bomb hostage" is mirrored in the comedy.

Still, Heid said, "I have no interest in seeing this movie. How would you feel if it were your family member being made fun of?"