An excerpt from “Mania and Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong: Inside the Mind of a Female Serial Killer,” which illustrates Diehl-Armstrong’s extreme hoarding.
A crowd surrounded Marjorie Diehl’s [who later married and was known as Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong] rented house in a solid middle-class Erie neighborhood on a tree-lined street called Sunset Boulevard.
Neighbors and onlookers were stunned at what Erie police and officials with the Erie County Health Department were pulling out of the 672-square-foot bungalow on Aug. 2, 1984.
Three days earlier, on July 30, 1984, police had found the dead body of Diehl’s boyfriend, Bob Thomas — her first known homicide victim — shot six times and sprawled on the couple’s living room couch. Investigators had returned Aug. 2, 1984, to the scene to secure evidence and to survey the inside of the house.
The task was close to insurmountable. Marjorie Diehl, 35 years old and on Social Security disability for mental illness, was not only a murder suspect.
She was also a hoarder.
Stuff filled her house from the basement to the attic. The four-room place was virtually uninhabitable. The authorities’ inventory of the belongings ran for pages. One back bedroom had no furniture; a huge pile occupied the room: clothing on top, as many as six hundred wire hangers in the middle, and books and magazines and papers and garbage at the bottom. Police described the periodicals as “war magazines,” with titles such as Soldier of Fortune, New Breed, Eagle and Warriors. Police found a book called “The Shooter’s Bible.”
Photocopies of scholarly articles on mental illness were scattered throughout the house as well, confirming the suspicions of psychiatrists and psychologists that Diehl had read up on her mental disorders and had a thorough understanding of them. The titles included “Psychoses in Adult Mental Defectives, Manic Depressive Psychosis,” “A Survey of the Patients in a Large Mental Hospital,” “Medical and Social Needs of Patients in Hospitals for the Mentally Subnormal,” “Mental Deficiency and Manic-Depressive Insanity,” “Schizophrenic and Paranoid Psychoses” and “Behavior Therapy Versus Psychoanalysis.” And among the newspaper clippings Diehl saved were those about the Saturday night special handgun and a man convicted of attempted murder more than a year earlier, in May 1983.
As voluminous as they were, the papers and documents made up the house’s secondary clutter. Most prominent — to the eyes and the nose — was the food, mainly government surplus food, stored in cupboards and closets and in the attic, where the temperature had reached as high as 95 degrees. Most of the food was rotting, and the stench was overwhelming.
Diehl had collected the food by visiting food pantries for the needy three to five times a week for the past four months, often with signed notes from her friends stating that she was authorized to pick up food for them. In one instance, she claimed she was the mother of three children, 10, 8, and 7 years old.
“It is very easy to double dip. It is a shame, but it happens,” the executive director of the Erie Community Food Bank, which supplied the food pantries, said as the police were clearing Diehl’s house.
And double dip Diehl did. The widespread availability of surplus government cheese started two and one-half years earlier, on Dec. 22, 1981, when President Ronald Reagan signed a farm bill that authorized states to distribute the food to the poor through nonprofit organizations. The cheese, to the embarrassment of the free-market-touting Reagan administration, had stockpiled because farmers could make more money by selling their cheese to the government at government-set support prices than they could by selling it in stores.
The nationwide cheese stockpile was still growing when Reagan signed the farm bill, but in December 1981 the surplus amounted to 560 million pounds of cheese — “more than two pounds of cheese for every person in the United States,” according to one report. Diehl over the years made sure she got her share.
In July 1984, Erie County valued her food hoard at $9,890 — the equivalent of $22,944 in 2016. A county official’s final inventory listed 389 pounds of USDA butter, which had been refrigerated, and 727 pounds of cheese, which had not. Opened pastries and pies were strewn throughout the kitchen along with moldy bread that had turned green and “was stacked up in the refrigerator and freezer,” an Erie police detective said.
“Rats were having a heyday” in the house, one city official reported.
Diehl also had inside the house, according to a partial list of the official inventory: 111 five-pound boxes of dried milk, 37 dozen eggs, 111 cans of tuna, 231 cans of vegetables, 61 cans of fruit, 55 packages of frozen meat and vegetables, 33 five-pound bags of flour, 36 five-pound bags of cornmeal, 180 boxes of macaroni and cheese, 44 boxes of spaghetti, 50 boxes of cornflakes, 44 boxes of pancake mix, 15 bags of matzo crackers, 93 jars of honey, 11 boxes of instant potatoes, 26 cans of beef stew, 58 bags of egg noodles, 9 pork chops, 29 boxes of Fruitful Bran, 6 boxes of Choco Crunch, 4 boxes of Cap’n Crunch, 5 pieces of spoiled sausage, a box of Team Flakes, a container of Tang, one bottle of A.1. Steak Sauce, and a bag of shrimp.
The police and health authorities dumped four tons of food into a garbage truck, which disposed of it. (No reports mentioned Diehl having pets in the house.) Erie’s director of police operations, Arthur Berardi, asked the county Health Department to inventory the food, and he ordered the truck to haul it away because it posed a health hazard. The packed house was so odd that Berardi left his office at City Hall to visit the scene.
“There was so darn much stuff,” Berardi said. “They were stacked in the attic and on the ledges.”
Said a police officer at the scene: “It was unreal, like a supermarket. There’s butter in the refrigerator, cheese and hundreds of other items all over the place.”
No one in Erie had ever seen anything like Marjorie Diehl’s residence on Sunset Boulevard, but it would not be the only house that she would ruin by packing it with stuff and food in her criminal career. Even worse would be another house in Erie, where she would shoot her boyfriend, Jim Roden, in the back in mid-August 2003, about the same time she was helping to plan the pizza bomber plot. Much of what filled that house would be trash that Diehl-Armstrong was known to have picked up from the street on garbage night.
Her former fiancé, Bill Rothstein, would tell the police that Diehl-Armstrong said she was compensating for her parents scrimping on toys for her when she was a child. With few playthings as a girl, she now “picks up all this crap and stuff,” Rothstein said, including, once, a dollhouse that was missing a side.
Diehl-Armstrong later in life saw herself as a collector and as something of a connoisseur of fine items. She said she never owned junk; she owned only quality things. When questioned about her belongings at the pizza bomber trial, in October 2010, Diehl-Armstrong looked at photographs of the interior of one of her many houses where she had stayed throughout her life — but not the Sunset Boulevard residence — and testified about what she had stored there.
Her spirits lifted as she described all the stuff in a manner that reflected her pathological grandiosity: “I had a lot of furs that were gifted to me, minks of all colors: white, yellow, every color. And then I had a black seal skin and all kind of rabbit coats. I had lots of diamonds and a lot of precious jewels.”
“Were they cheap or expensive?” her lawyer said.
“They were all real and they were all expensive,” Diehl-Armstrong said.
“Were they the worst or the best?”
“They were the best.”
Her lawyer showed her another photograph. He asked her to describe the coats pictured in it.
“I had some other coats that were like Persian lamb,” Diehl-Armstrong testified. “And I had leather coats and suede coats, blue suede; burgundy leather with lamb’s wool around the wrist and stuff. Dress coats and stuff.”
“Were they the best or the worst?” her lawyer said.
“They were top-of-the-line items,” Diehl-Armstrong said. “I had good stuff.”
“Cheap or expensive?”
“So you were a woman of means?” Diehl-Armstrong’s lawyer said.
“Definitely,” Diehl-Armstrong said. “But I was not a money-hungry type person that was a status seeker. I just happened to acquire a lot of valuable items. Although I have quite a Bohemian streak in me … I don’t define myself that way.
“In other words, I’m not into conspicuous consumption; but it just so happened, I was gifted with a lot of things that were very valuable. I was also gifted with some antiques by a boyfriend that gave me all his mother’s crystal and her fine china cabinet that was handed down for years. I just acquired a lot of stuff.”
The closest Diehl-Armstrong came to adopting the label of “hoarder” was when she referred to herself as “like a pack rat” in 1988, when she was on trial for the death of Bob Thomas. She estimated police took 157,000 items from the house, including her college psychology textbooks and the articles on mental illness she said she had read for class.
“I saved everything,” Diehl testified. “You know what the condition of my house was like. I saved everything. When I say everything, I saved all my school books. I saved all of my tests. I saved all of that stuff. I was like a pack rat, if you want to know the truth.”
She acknowledged that the condition of her house on Sunset Boulevard was a sign of her and Thomas’s mental instability. “There’s emotional and logical things that you do for gut-reaction reasons and things you do for intellectual reasons and these are two separate issues,” Diehl testified. “My emotions were messed up. You could tell that from the house, the cheese line. We were messed up and were on the wrong track. … To me, it was indications that we were sick.”
Hoarding perhaps gave Diehl-Armstrong a sense of control — she was in charge of collecting all the items, keeping them, and imbuing them with whatever significance she believed they deserved. A desire for control and security are reasons for hoarding. Another reason is desire for perfectionism, a quest well known to Diehl-Armstrong, who said she felt a constant need to please her mother.
Hoarders are often highly intelligent people, like Diehl-Armstrong, and so are those who suffer, as Diehl-Armstrong did, from anorexia [as a girl], another disorder linked to an unhealthy need to be perfect and a desire for control. Diehl, concerned about her weight, surrounded herself with food so plentiful and perishable that she could never have eaten it all.
In seeking perfection, and burdened with mental illness, she became a mess, a paragon of imperfection to the extreme. She became a woman who, in the words of a federal prosecutor, was characterized by evil and consumed by greed; a woman who, in the words of a federal magistrate judge, was a serial killer. Not only did Diehl-Armstrong hoard food. She also hoarded money. And she hoarded men. Her obsessions, like her mental illness, ultimately fully took hold.