The shooting death of state Trooper W. L. Reese in November 1957 startled Richmond County’s close-knit community.
“There were not many highway patrolmen, so they were all well known,” said local historian Neal Cadieu. “They lived in the community and had their families here. When word got out that Reese was killed, there was tremendous shock. When the news spread, it was followed very closely.”
Frank Wetzel shot Trooper Reese on Highway 220, then fled on a chase that would lead law enforcement officers across the country.
Police searched for Wetzel, an escapee from New York, for hours in the dark all over Richmond County. They were not aware that in the meantime, Wetzel had made it to Sanford in Lee County, where he fatally shot Officer James T. Brown.
Wetzel made it to Bakersfield, Calif., before being caught. Law enforcement brought him back to Hamlet by train where according to Cadieu he was greeted by a chaotic scene.
“It was an exciting time. There was a large crowd of spectators in Hamlet at the depot,” said Cadieu. “The sheriff at the time was R. W. Goodman. He let our reporter Charles Sauls onto the train to interview Wetzel. Charles asked him, ‘Did you shoot Trooper Reese?’ and Frank said, ‘No.’”
Cadieu recalled Wetzel receiving a lot of attention for his good looks. “He had a good appearance,” he said.
Wetzel had dark hair that he combed back, and he wore a suit to court. His facial expressions were sharp and alert. Clean-cut, he wore an air of sophistication. His eyes were blue.
Cadieu said the trial was “big news in the state” and some classes were let out early so youths could attend the trial. He recalled teenage girls swooning over Wetzel, and calling out to him.
“No one was surprised when Wetzel was found guilty,” said Cadieu.
Wetzel’s attorney at the murder trial, John Thomas Page, still lives in Rockingham. Contacted by phone Tuesday, Page said he did not wish to comment at this time about his former client.
Decades after his conviction for the murders, while Wetzel was incarcerated, a reporter from the Daily Journal named Jeff Holland met a lady named Bianca who came into the Daily Journal to pick up newspapers. She told Holland she had placed a display ad to collect information about Wetzel that could help him be freed. She called herself Wetzel’s daughter, but as time went by Holland learned that she was involved with Wetzel and later married him despite him being sentenced to life behind bars.
“She was the strongest advocate for his innocence,” said Holland.
Things got more strange and interesting for Holland upon meeting Bianca’s stepdaughter who “began parading around as his daughter.” Holland said he began to wonder if Wetzel could be innocent, and wanted to learn more.
“Through Bianca, I interviewed Frank who was in the North Hampton County prison,” said Holland.
Holland took up an invitation to stay the night at Bianca’s house, in order to visit Wetzel in the morning.
“That night she and this young lady let me interview them. The next morning I saw Frank for probably half an hour or an hour. What I thought was intriguing was, when I pulled copies from the 1957 pictures, I looked at a man who had dark, slicked-back hair, who I thought was fairly tall. But he was shorter than me and I’m about five foot eight inches. He was 70 then, with solid white hair and soft spoken,” recalled Holland. “He answered my questions. He told me what he thought were details that would prove him innocent. He was gentle — I thought he would be hard. I didn’t leave feeling he was innocent.”
Holland tracked down Trooper Reese’s widow, Dylis Hale, who said she was at the trial. Hale told Holland Wetzel had winked at her from across the courtroom.
“This man just ate up the attention during the week-long trial,” said Hale to Holland. “He didn’t seem the least bit concerned about being on trial.”
Holland wrote a four-part series about Wetzel’s wife Bianca and her step-daughter, their attempt to publish a manuscript meant to help free Wetzel, and her attempt to have him released on account of him having cancer.
“I think she was fabricating that (the cancer). He was a cause for her to fight for. She was a very strange bird,” said Holland. “Bianca and the girl were very angry with me. The book never came out, that I knew of. It was a fascinating story to work on. In my mind, I heard he escaped from prison (in New York), and was on his way to break his brother out of prison; this man was to spend his life in prison. I tend to believe he did it.”
— Staff Writer Dawn M. Kurry can be reached at 910-997-3111, ext. 15, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.