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Officials say chaos delayed call to bomb squad after robbery

Monday, September 08, 2003

By The Associated Press

ERIE -- A chaotic scene following a bank robbery by a man with a bomb clamped to his neck contributed to the delay in calling the bomb squad, officials said yesterday.

Brian Wells, 46, died on Aug. 29 when a bomb locked around his neck detonated 40 minutes after the incident was first reported and 14 minutes after the bomb squad was called.

The FBI continued its investigation into who attached the bomb to Wells, a pizza deliveryman who showed up at a bank with a long note demanding money soon after reportedly answering a delivery call.

Wells was heard pleading with police to remove the bomb just before he died as state troopers shielded themselves behind squad cars. He told police he was forced to rob the bank.

The first call to emergency dispatchers was recorded at 2:38 p.m. when a witness said Wells had left the bank with "a bomb or something wrapped around his neck."

Forty minutes later, the explosive detonated as Wells sat on the pavement with his hands cuffed behind his back and with the Erie bomb squad more than a mile away, weaving through traffic.

Pennsylvania State Police made the first request for the city bomb squad around 3:04 p.m., according to state police Cpl. Mark Zaleski. The bomb squad arrived on scene at 3:21 p.m., about three minutes after the explosion.

When state police arrived, they ordered Wells from his car, which was near the bank, and cuffed his hands behind him.

Even as troopers discovered that Wells had some sort of device hanging from his neck, a crowd had begun to gather nearby.

"This is probably the most congested area in Erie with a lot of shoppers around," Zaleski said. "There is a gas station within maybe 50 feet and troopers are trying to make sure this guy, who just robbed a bank, doesn't do anything to detonate this explosive. At the same time, they're trying to clear the area of people who are showing up. There's really nothing in the textbook about this."

Troopers took several minutes to get a safe distance from Wells and create a perimeter keeping others away, he said.

"Their first priority was public safety," he said.

The Erie bomb squad has four members. Sgt. Tom Stankiewicz, the commander, is the only full-time member, though all members are Erie police. The squad is responsible for calls across 14 counties in northwest Pennsylvania, said A. Joseph Weindorf, Erie's director of public safety.

"They were there as soon as they got the call," Weindorf said. "You have to understand, this is a very congested area and they made it there in about 14 minutes. It was a good response."

Federal officials investigating the blast agreed that the bomb squad and state police did everything possible given the situation they faced.

"That was by the book," said Pat Berarducci, senior special agent and spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives. "It was very professionally done."

Yesterday, the bomb squad received a call at 11:22 a.m. for a suspicious package outside another bank in downtown Erie. They arrived by noon and used what is called a disrupter, a small explosive device, to destroy the package.

Early reports indicate the box contained Christmas ornaments.

The FBI scheduled a 3 p.m. news conference in Erie today to give an update of the investigation.

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