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1957 Murders Leave Lingering Mystery Despite a Conviction : Justice: Frank Wetzel is either a cold-blooded killer or a political prisoner. Or is he? There are at least three ways to look at this case.

February 05, 1995|CHRISTOPHER SULLIVAN | ASSOCIATED PRESS

HENDERSON, N.C. — The most notorious prisoner in North Carolina is silvery-haired, sparkly-eyed Frank Edward Wetzel, inmate No. 11021-OS, serving two consecutive life terms at the Vance Correctional Center outside this rural town.

The state said he's a calculating killer who gunned down two young highway patrolmen one "sad, bad night" back in 1957.

Supporters say he's become a "political prisoner," denied fair treatment and any hope of release by vote-counting officeholders.

The 73-year-old inmate, who comes up for parole consideration yet again Tuesday, goes further. After nearly four decades, he still claims he's innocent. Over and over, he demands, "Where's the evidence?"

Which is the true picture of Frank Wetzel?

Hundreds of pages of trial transcripts, a bitter biography, interviews with people who remember the crime so long ago, the tears of victims and of Wetzel's family--all these yield contradiction and confusion.

Here are three conflicting sketches, each drawn from a different angle of the prism through which this one inmate's life must be seen.

Sketch No. 1

What is Frank Wetzel doing in prison?

The tortuous saga of one of America's longest-serving inmates is a tale worthy of Kafka, if you look through the lens offered by his advocates.

The prosecution's only eyewitness wavered on the witness stand in both of Wetzel's trials and later recanted, saying he was threatened by police to testify. Apparent inconsistencies in evidence went unchallenged, they say.

Strangest of all, some jurors acknowledged having "reasonable doubt" but convicted him anyway.

This sketch comes with a frame: Wetzel, a thief and three-time loser in his native New York state, made the perfect patsy for investigators to hang their circumstantial evidence on, said Bianca Brown-Wetzel, who married him in 1982. She said she has spent $100,000 trying to free him.

"He should have taken his lumps, gone on the stand," she said, referring to the fact that he did not testify on the advice of his lawyers. "I'm mad at him. But enough is enough! He's in prison for crimes he didn't commit."

The crimes were brutal. At 8 p.m. on Nov. 5, 1957, an urgent call crackled over police radios in Richmond County, in southern North Carolina. Trooper W. L. Reece had been fatally shot. He was lying on U.S. 220 near the village of Ellerbe.

Robert Terry Jr., who said he was a hitchhiker in the assailant's car, told police the killer had drawn a large pistol from the glove compartment when the trooper pulled the car over for speeding. One shot boomed in the cool darkness.

Terry gave a description of the killer: a man of dark complexion, possibly Hispanic, Italian, American Indian or black, who spoke with a foreign-sounding accent.

The fair-skinned, blue-eyed Wetzel, a native of Fayette, N.Y., was heavier and older, too, than the person Terry first described.

An initial description of a two-toned car later was changed to a solid black one, court documents show.

As police scoured the roads crisscrossing the area, a second bulletin electrified the air: Another patrolman shot! Before dying in surgery, Trooper James Thomas Brown described the shooter's black 1957 Oldsmobile.

The second shooting scene was 47 miles to the north on a different highway, U.S. 1, near Sanford. According to some witnesses, Brown was shot around 8:15 p.m. Others testified it was 8:20.

Lawyers who prepared one of Wetzel's requests for reconsideration of his convictions called it "patently absurd" that anyone could have traveled the winding back roads in 15 or 20 minutes and carried out both shootings.

"He would have had to average a speed of between 140 and 190 m.p.h.," they wrote in a court document, which also describes an "almost universal mood of public and media hysteria" surrounding the case and notes that no ballistics evidence was presented in either of Wetzel's trials.

"We didn't present any defense," Wetzel himself said recently, taking a break from prison kitchen duties to discuss the case. He maintains he was nowhere near either scene, that he merely passed through northern North Carolina briefly en route to Mississippi.

He admits he stole a North Carolina license plate near the Virginia line. "That's the only thing that got me into this whole . . . thing, is I had that plate," he said, staring at the floor. "If I'd killed a police officer and I had the gun that killed him, I'd have got rid of" it and the plate.

His record in New York--three convictions for property crimes--and evidence that he had escaped from prison to break his brother out of Mississippi's Death Row would not have helped him if he'd testified. But regardless, he asks, "Where's the evidence that I did it? Where are those bullets?"

Twenty-seven hours after the killings, a black 1957 Oldsmobile was discovered in Chattanooga, Tenn. 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.

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