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.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

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.

No prints of Terry’s were found. And though 120 items of stolen merchandise were recovered--"that car was loaded,” a law officer recalled--Terry expressed surprise when the loot was presented at trial, indicating he had not seen it before.

A nationwide FBI alert went out for Wetzel, and two weeks after the killings he was arrested as a vagrant in Bakersfield, Calif. Less than two months later, he went on trial in Rockingham, N.C., for Reece’s murder.

On the stand, Terry, who described himself as an itinerant preacher, pointed to Wetzel as the man he rode with, the killer. “The state is building much of its case on Terry’s identification,” the Charlotte News reported.

But questioned by Wetzel’s court-appointed lawyer, the eyewitness became less sure. He acknowledged his first description was of a man with darker skin than Wetzel’s. Finally, he admitted, “I never looked him direct in the face.”

In 1986, pursued by Brown-Wetzel, Terry signed a notarized statement, used in a clemency appeal to the governor. He said a law officer “pulled a blackjack on me and tried to make me accept the police’s version of the story. It was pure torment for me to live at that time.”

As for the driver that night, his sworn statement concluded, “The man was not Frank Wetzel.”

Brown-Wetzel contends the two killings were tragic coincidences, neither involving her husband. She offers elaborate theories she said could explain motives and cover-ups. No one, she said, will listen.

To those who revile him, Frank Wetzel is no longer a man but a symbol, she said, adding, “They want to bury his name.”

Bill Currie, who covered the killings and trial as a young radio reporter and later befriended Wetzel and wrote a still-unpublished biography of him, expressed bitterness about the inmate’s powerlessness.

“Like a fable passed from generation to generation,” he wrote, “the fact of his guilt has been handed down and believed.”

Sketch No. 2

What is Frank Wetzel doing in prison?

He’s lucky he wasn’t executed, say North Carolinians angry at the suggestion that he could ever be released.

The man who murdered the two troopers was an armed escapee from a New York prison, law enforcement officials say. If that wasn’t bad enough, he was admittedly en route to break his brother out of Death Row. The late FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover called Wetzel’s crimes “savage acts.”

Yes, Frank Wetzel was just what the papers described him as: a “gangster.”

More important, two juries found Wetzel guilty of first-degree murder.

“If there’d been any doubt in my mind, today I’d still be sitting right there,” juror Calvin Dawkins said in a recent interview.

Although Terry’s testimony was shaky and there was no “punchclock” to show precisely when the second fatal shot was fired, those were only two pieces of the case, state police Col. Robert A. Barefoot said. “The evidence is so compelling,” he said.

“We feel like a life sentence means just that,” said Barefoot, noting that the state police will always oppose Wetzel’s release because of the heinousness of the murders, one after the other.

“One time, you can say, ‘Hey, a fit of anger.’ But the second one--that’s cold and calculating.”

Families of the dead troopers have lived “a tearful agony . . . . Never got to know any of his grandchildren, either one of those men.”

From the beginning, “there was right much emotion” surrounding the killings, said retired Richmond County Sheriff R. W. Goodman. “It was a sad, bad night.”

Newspapers detailed reward funds set up by fellow officers, and printed family profiles with such headlines as “Killer Orphans 7 Children.”

As many as 20 uniformed troopers were among the 800-plus daily spectators who attended Wetzel’s first trial, newspapers reported. “There were so many people in the courtroom you couldn’t even walk,” Goodman recalls.

“It would be a tragedy if he was innocent,” he said, quickly adding that a statement Wetzel made after the trial eased his mind. “He told me he was satisfied with the sentence he got,” the former sheriff said.

“Until that point,” he said, “I was concerned.”

Today, Goodman said he believes Wetzel got a fair trial.

“No, based on what he said to me, I don’t have any doubts about this case,” he said.

The Associated Press reported that during three hours of deliberations in the first trial, jurors at one point discussed a possible manslaughter verdict, carrying a penalty of 20 years. One juror held out briefly for the death penalty.

Explaining the jury’s ultimate decision, foreman J. R. Morse told the Charlotte Observer that discrepancies in Terry’s testimony and the fact that he had not seen the shot--having jumped from the car--created doubt.

The paper published this exchange between its reporter and Morse:

“Question: Did you say that if the state had proved that Wetzel was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of first-degree murder he would have been sentenced to the gas chamber?

“Answer: That’s correct, sir.”

Asked recently to explain why the jury recommended a life term, not execution, juror Dawkins said it was not because of opposition to the death penalty; people who felt that way were eliminated during jury selection. Why then?

“They had mercy,” Dawkins said of his fellow jurors. “And he didn’t.”

He added: “Have you ever had a man’s life in your hands? It’s not a pleasant thing to have to cope with. I felt pressure--but not from thinking he was not guilty.”

Sketch No. 3

What is Frank Wetzel doing in prison?

He’s hoping he won’t die there.

“We can say it’s cruel and unusual to tell a man every year that he’s eligible for parole and then every year turn him down,” said Cynthia Canfield. But the young Texas lawyer who has taken on Wetzel’s case for no fee thinks a constitutional argument would be a waste of breath.

Nor will she argue fairness when she goes before the state Parole Commission--even though most convicts are released long before 37 years. Nationwide, murderers serve less than nine years on average, federal figures show; 140 murderers were paroled in North Carolina last year.

And she won’t contend he should never have been convicted, though from her review of transcripts “it sounds as if he didn’t have the most fair trial.”

Instead, she will argue the public’s self-interest: It just makes sense to parole an aging inmate, especially one described even by corrections officials as a model prisoner, rather than free younger and statistically more dangerous ones.

“North Carolina had to send prisoners to Rhode Island, it was so crowded,” Canfield said, noting that the state’s half-billion dollars in prison spending in the last eight years has not created enough space. “They know they have to release people.”

Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor who directs the Project for Older Prisoners, said parolees over 55 have recidivism rates below 12%, compared with 70% to 90% for younger parolees.

Wetzel has been eligible for parole since 1978. Technically, he has received consideration every year.

“The criteria for him are the same as for anybody else,” said Parole Commission chairwoman Juanita Baker, denying a corrections official’s statement that Wetzel is “a special case” who can never be released.

It’s in that sense that he’s a political prisoner, said the Rev. Jim Lewis, an Episcopal priest and inmate advocate.

“It’s straight, simple, plain, flat-out politics,” he said. “No governor wants to touch this. If Frank Wetzel gets out on their watch--oh, my. The politics here, like much of the country, are ‘lock ‘em up and throw away the key.’ ”

Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. said in a letter to parole commissioners: “Parole of this inmate would not only be unjust but an affront to all law enforcement officers.”

Yes, ex-commission chairman Lou Colombo acknowledged, “there’s pressure brought to bear” regarding Wetzel. “Your politicians, I’m sure, have reasons, either for vote-getting reasons or others. . . . You can’t forget the heinousness of the crimes.” Regardless, the governor-appointed commissioners are independent, he asserted.

Colombo has read and re-read Wetzel’s biography and said, “It raised question marks in my mind as to whether there were problems with procedures when Frank Wetzel was convicted.” But the commission “can’t go behind what happened in the courtroom,” he said.

Will North Carolina’s most notorious convict die behind bars?

Probably, said Turley, the law professor. Besides a national trend of “increasingly political and less analytical” decision-making by parole boards, Wetzel faces another obstacle, he said:

“The worst thing that an individual can bring to prison is notoriety.”