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North Carolina state trooper gets in hat trouble

He lost his hat one blustery night and applied for a new one. But then it turned up -- and he was fired for lying.

November 22, 2009|Mcclatchy Newspapers

Raleigh, N.C. — If you're a state trooper, losing your hat can get you in trouble. Lying about how you lost your hat, however, can get you fired.

Thomas C. Wetherington, 22, says he was treated unfairly when the North Carolina Highway Patrol dismissed him in August over a lost hat -- especially considering that other troopers have done worse things yet kept their jobs.

"Look, we've got guys having sex in patrol cars just about every day," said Wetherington, a trooper since 2007. "Why did I get dismissed when other guys get slaps on the wrist?"

Capt. Everett Clendenin, the patrol's spokesman, declined to comment on the case last week, citing pending legal action by the fired trooper. In general, he said, a trooper who loses a hat might face disciplinary action, but would not be fired for that alone.

According to Wetherington, it was a blustery, wet night in March when he pulled over a vehicle towing a large boat on U.S. 70. While seizing open containers of alcohol and two loaded pistols from the vehicle's occupants, the trooper said, he set his hat on top of his patrol car.

He said he heard it blow off during a strong gust, tumbling down the asphalt in the dark.

Wetherington and another trooper later returned and spent about two hours looking for his hat in the ditches along the highway. The only trace he found was the flattened cord with two golden "acorns" that had adorned the top of the hat's brim.

"I glue my tassels down," Wetherington said. "How they came off is beyond me, but they had been run over and crushed. So one could deduce from that your hat was run over."

When he told his supervisor about the lost hat, Wetherington was asked to file a written report so he could be issued a new one. Trooper hats -- known as "campaign covers" for the military term used for similar head wear worn by Marine drill instructors -- are state property.

"My campaign cover was caught in the wind and blew into the roadway," Wetherington wrote. "The campaign cover was struck and was blown or dragged to an unknown location."

About two weeks later, the same driver who Wetherington was ticketing when he lost his hat got stopped again by another state trooper. It turned out the driver had the hat, which he had retrieved from the dark road after Wetherington had left the scene to help another motorist. Although a card with Wetherington's name and phone number were in the hatband, the driver had not called to say he had it.

The hat was passed on to Wetherington's boss, according to a written report about the incident from the Highway Patrol.

The hat was observed to be in good condition and did not appear to have been run over as Wetherington had said, the report said.

After Wetherington was questioned further at that point, he admitted he had not been truthful in his initial recollection of the incident, the report said.

Wetherington said in an interview that his boss had intimidated him while questioning him about the matter, and that he was apparently mistaken about the fate of his hat.

"When I last recalled having my hat, it was on my head, but at some point I must have taken it off and set it on the car," he said. "It's sort of like when you lose your wallet and look all over for it, only to find it in your pocket. I never intentionally misled anyone."

On Aug. 4, Wetherington was charged with a violation of the patrol's code of conduct, which requires troopers to be truthful.

After Wetherington appealed his dismissal, the state Employment Security Commission determined that he did not engage in significant misconduct.

Citing a solid work record, a panel of the Department of Crime Control and Public Safety also reviewed the case and ruled that Wetherington should be reinstated.

So far the Highway Patrol has refused to give Wetherington his job back. He is now awaiting a hearing before a state administrative law judge with the authority to order his reinstatement.

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