By Anne Blythe and J.N. Miller, McClatchy Newspapers –
RALEIGH, N.C. — Frank Wetzel, considered one of North Carolina’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, 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. on 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, a Richmond County town.
Twenty 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 that the killer had drawn a large pistol from his 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.
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.
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 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 crime scene in 20 minutes.
“I’ve offered anyone who can do that a million dollars,” said Richard Wetzel, the convict’s 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. “He learned bad tricks from there and started stealing cars,” Richard Wetzel said.
Though Richard Wetzel described the story of his family as “kind of like a Walton-story gone bad,” he said his half-brother taught him a lot through the years.
Richard Wetzel was only 6 when his father took him on a Greyhound bus from their home in Charlotte to Raleigh and Central Prison to meet Frank Wetzel for the first time.
“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.”
Over the years, the Wetzel men have stayed in touch, though prison glass walls often put up a barrier to their reunions.
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.