Frank Wetzel, dubbed one of the state’s most notorious criminals after being convicted of killing two state highway patrolmen, fought for more than half a century for his release from prison.
On Saturday, his struggle ended.
Wetzel, 90, died in Central Prison as the state’s oldest prisoner and one of the longest-serving.
Wetzel, a silvery-haired, blue-eyed inmate who lived out his last years in a cloud of dementia, maintained through the years that he was the victim in his case, not a cold-blooded cop-killer, but the target of a law enforcement conspiracy.
His case, with its sensational manhunt and trial, offers a trip back in time and across the country of a half century ago when cars had tail fins, Luther Hodges was governor of North Carolina, and Dwight D. Eisenhower was president.
At 8 p.m. Nov. 5, 1957, police radios in Richmond County crackled with urgent news: Trooper W. L. Reece had been fatally shot and was lying on U.S. 220 near Ellerbe.
About 20 minutes later, radios delivered another punch: Another law enforcement officer, James T. Brown, had been shot on U.S. 1 near Sanford.
A man who claimed to be a hitchhiker in the assailant’s car told police the killer had drawn a large pistol from the glove compartment when the trooper in Richmond County pulled the car over for speeding.
The hitchhiker described the assailant as a dark-complexioned man who spoke with a foreign-sounding accent.
A sensational trial
Wetzel, fair-skinned with distinctive blue eyes, became a suspect after a black 1957 Oldsmobile was discovered in Chattanooga, Tenn. Inside, the FBI found Wetzel’s fingerprint on a North Carolina license plate.
A nationwide manhunt ensued, and two weeks after the killings Wetzel was arrested as a vagrant in Bakersfield, Calif.
Less than two months later, he went on trial for the first killing.
The Raleigh Times reported this on Dec. 9, 1957:
“About 100 newsmen, photographers, police officials and curious gathered at the Seaboard train station here (in Hamlet) to meet him.
“Wetzel climbed from the Pullman car submissively as the crowd shoved up tight around him, photographers popping flashbulbs.
“He stood between Richmond County Sheriff Raymond Goodman and Patrol Captain A. W. Welch, his hands cuffed before him and a pistol held by Prisons Fugitive Officer Dexter Stell pressed into his back under a gray corduroy car coat.
“His black hair neatly combed, the clean-featured man quietly answered, ‘I knew they would bring me back anyway,’ when asked why he did not fight extradition from California.”
His preliminary hearing, in which Wetzel cross-examined an eyewitness himself, was a media event.
The Raleigh Times account continued: “The courtroom was packed to overflowing and curious people jammed into the hallway outside the courtroom which has 575 seating capacity. Local observers said it was the largest turnout at the courthouse since the sensational murder trial of W. B. Cole a local mill owner in 1925.
“A battery of some 25 to 30 still, newspaper and television photographers banged and ground away at the obviously self-conscious Wetzel, for some 15 minutes before the hearing was opened.”
Supporters doubted guilt
Wetzel received two life sentences in 1958 after he was found guilty of killing the two troopers. Wetzel claimed he was on his way south to try to break his brother out of a Mississippi prison.
Over the years, Wetzel has collected a group of followers, family, lawyers and others who insist that he could not have committed two killings on the winding North Carolina roads – that no one, not even the fastest NASCAR driver, could get from Ellerbe to the Sanford killing site in 20 minutes.
“I’ve offered anyone who can do that a million dollars,” said Richard Wetzel, the convict’s 57-year-old half-brother. “I don’t have a million dollars, but I’m not worried that anybody can do that, not anyone in NASCAR or speed racing.”
Wetzel grew up in New York after his father, a farmer forced out of North Dakota by the Dust Bowl, struggled as an on and off foundry worker to put food on the table for seven children. Wetzel got into trouble as a young boy, stealing from grocery stores and landing in reform school and eventually New York jails. Richard Wetzel was only six when his father took him on a Greyhound bus from Charlotte to Raleigh and Central Prison to meet Frank Wetzel.
“It was kind of scary going in there with all those doors,” Richard Wetzel said Sunday. “They brought him in through the glass, and it wasn’t long before I knew I was going to like him.”
Frank Wetzel married in prison nearly 30 years ago, and his wife, Bianca, a former North Carolinian who now lives in Florida, advocated for his release for many years.
Richard Wetzel, who said he doesn’t plan to let his half-brother’s appeal die with him, said Sunday that funeral arrangements for Frank Wetzel were incomplete.
— News researcher Teresa Leonard contributed to this report.