In 1958, Frank Wetzel was convicted of murdering two North Carolina Highway Patrolmen — Trooper Wister Reese and Trooper James Thomas Brown — in two separate incidents, in two different counties, on the same night. It was Tuesday, November 5, 1957 when Trooper Reece reportedly stopped Wetzel for a speeding violation on U.S. 220 near the village of Ellerbe in Richmond County. Reece was shot to death, apparently before he could even draw his sidearm. Not long later, Trooper Brown stopped Wetzel nearly 50 miles away, in Lee County, and was similarly slain.
According to a May 2011 report by Charlotte (N.C.) TV Station WSOC, Wetzel is now nearly 90 years old and has Alzheimer’s disease. “The Department of Corrections has medical parole, which is offered to some terminally ill or aging inmates,” said that report. “But convicted killers aren’t eligible.”
Alzheimer’s disease or not, Wetzel — quite probably the longest-serving inmate in the North Carolina prison system — is now seeking parole. Despite having been sentenced to two consecutive life terms for two counts of first-degree murder, Wetzel has maintained his innocence from the get-go in his criminal proceeding, claiming he was nowhere near either scene.
A History of Violence
According to a variety of sources, Wetzel had escaped from a mental institution in New York State (he had been held there for observation pending trial in an entirely different matter), and made his way to North Carolina. There is widespread speculation that he was en route to Mississippi to attempt to break his brother out of death row.
The late FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover once called Wetzel’s crimes “savage acts” and the North Carolina Highway Patrol has vehemently opposed every one of Wetzel’s parole requests. According to one of my sources in matters related to parole for convicted cop killers, Wetzel had been involved in “numerous burglaries in Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and North Carolina.”
Following the murders of Troopers Reese and Brown, a massive manhunt for Wetzel ensued — with officials closing the borders of the Tar Heel State so that more than 500 officers could search for the killer. The FBI was quickly also called in on the effort, and a states-wide bulletin was issued about Wetzel.
“Twenty-seven hours after the killings, a black 1957 Oldsmobile was discovered in Chattanooga,” said a 1995 Associated Press report about Wetzel’s continued claim of innocence in the killings. “Inside, the FBI found Wetzel’s fingerprint on a North Carolina license plate. A .44-caliber Magnum pistol, a number of .22-caliber guns, and several boxes of ammunition — all stolen — also were in the car.”
Wetzel was eventually apprehended in Bakersfield, California several weeks later, and returned via train to North Carolina to stand trial. While he has maintained for more than six decades of incarceration that he is innocent of the killings of Troopers Reece and Brown, it bears mentioning in this space that two different juries found Wetzel guilty of first-degree murder.
According to a September 2011 report by the Raleigh News Observer in a blog series called “Past Times” — which looks back at items of historical interest from the newspaper, and in this case is quoting the from the News & Observer’s 1957 coverage of Wetzel’s trial — prison officials in North Carolina had called him “the most potentially dangerous convict in the entire State prison system.”
That comment was made way back in 1957. Wetzel is 90 now and apparently is barely aware of the fact that he is even in prison due to his Alzheimer’s disease. lt’s pretty safe to say that nowadays, there are more dangerous criminals in North Carolina’s prisons. You make the call.
Make Your Opinion Known
We’ve been doing this stuff for a while. A few years back, we supported the effort to prevent the parole of Anthony Wayne McIntosh, who had been convicted of murdering a 22-year-old police officer Jeffrey Phegley in 1987. As recently as just last month we helped to prevent the parole of would-be cop-killer Ollie Tate. Now 79-years-old, Tate had been up for parole despite his attempted murder of Tony Luketic, an Ohio police officer — as well as Luketic’s mom — back in 1995.
During the many months in between, we’ve partnered in a half dozen similarly successful efforts — maybe more, I really have not been counting.
Longtime readers of this space are already familiar with the basic options I have provided in years past for voicing your opinion to one parole board or another. I’ve counseled that you can post a petition at roll call and send it to the parole board in question — this is generally the most successful tactic because you can write just one letter and collect dozens, if not even hundreds, of signatures from your PD. Similarly, you can send a personal letter to that same address — these work really well too, and give you the freedom to say exactly what you want in the language of your choosing.
Another option is now available to you.
My friends over at ODMP have begun an outstanding program through which you can track — and respond to — issues related to proposed parole for cop killers. You can now simply click here for an online petition form ODMP has posted in the name of Patrolman Wister Lee Reese, and here for the online petition form ODMP has posted in the name of Patrolman J. T. Brown.
While you’re there, perhaps you’ll also want to send a note to prevent the parole of Robert Hayes, who was convicted of killing New York City Transit Officer Sidney Thompson in 1973. Why not also support the effort to prevent the parole of Donald Webb, who was convicted of killing Akron (Ohio) Police Officer Gary Yost in 1975.
There are others. Many too many others. I’ll write on this topic again sometime down the line I’m certain, but in the meantime I would like to commend the folks at ODMP for organizing such a robust database of these killers, and creating such a simple mechanism to send your letters of support for the friends, family, and fellow officers of these fallen heroes. Nice job guys.