Sheehan

Old killer is addled for life

Staff WriterApril 22, 2009 

Back in the 1950s, Frank Wetzel became one of North Carolina's most notorious criminals.

But what to do with him now that he's old and gray?

In 1958, Wetzel was convicted of gunning down not one but two state troopers and prompting the state's largest manhunt.

His outlaw reputation followed him behind bars.

For decades, he was considered one of the baddest mothers in the state prison system. My former colleague, Dennis Rogers, liked to quote former Central Prison Warden Sam Garrison as saying, "During the daytime, I run this prison. At night, Frank Wetzel runs it."

Yep, Wetzel was quite the tough guy.

But guess what?

Frank Wetzel's not so tough anymore.

At 87, after a half-century in prison, Wetzel's losing his mind to Alzheimer's disease.

His much-younger brother Richard, who lives in South Carolina, said Frank doesn't really know he's in prison anymore.

"Most of the time, he doesn't know what's going on," said Richard Wetzel. "He keeps asking me to remind him where I live."

According to prison sources, Frank Wetzel also has cancer.

But when Wetzel's case came up for review before the state parole commission last month, he was denied release -- just as he has been every time since he first became eligible 30 years ago.

Since 1978, Wetzel, now the Department of Correction's longest-serving prisoner, has petitioned for release every five years or so. Every time, he claims he is innocent, the victim of a law-enforcement conspiracy. He points to 25 years without an infraction. And every time, the Highway Patrol argues that Wetzel needs to be kept locked up.

"The patrol hopes that Frank Wetzel will spend the rest of his life behind bars," said Lt. Everett Clendenin, a patrol spokesman.

"You might ask, 'Well, he's 87, he's not all that healthy, what's the threat?' " Clendenin conceded. But that misses the point, in the patrol's view.

"Any murder is tragic," Clendenin said. "But it's especially important to show that if you kill a law enforcement officer, you spend the rest of your life in jail. We believe he should serve the sentence handed down to him by a jury of his peers."

But here's the problem: How do you justify baby-sitting a man with Alzheimer's when the state is considering closing seven of its prisons?

At some point, if we have to choose between maintaining a cell for Wetzel or for a 20-something gangbanger who kills for fun and status, it seems like an easy choice.

Clendenin's right that we put people in jail not just to punish them but to send a message.But I dare say it's a meaningless distinction to insist on prison for life. Prison until your brain is so addled by Alzheimer's that you don't know where you are sends the message just as well.

What to do with Wetzel when we start closing prisons?

When we consolidate inmates, who's going to bunk with the 87-year-old tough guy whose crimes are twice as old as the guys who share his cell?

ruth.sheehan@newsobserver.comor 919-829-4828

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