RALEIGH — 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 N.C. Highway Patrol dismissed him in August over a lost hat, especially considering that other troopers have kept their jobs despite having sexual liaisons on duty.
"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 Wednesday, citing pending legal action from the fired trooper. In general, he said, a trooper who loses his hat might face disciplinary action, but would not be fired for that alone.
Wetherington, the former trooper, said that on a blustery, wet night in March he pulled over a vehicle towing a large boat on U.S. 70 in Craven County. 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 busy four-lane highway. The only trace he found was the flattened cord with two golden "acorns" that had adorned 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 applied to the similar headwear 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 Wetherington was ticketing when he lost his hat got stopped again by another trooper. 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.
"After receiving the hat, Sergeant Oglesby observed that it was in good condition and did not appear to have been run over as he had been told by Trooper Wetherington," the report said.
The report says after the sergeant questioned Wetherington, he admitted he had not been truthful in his initial report about the hat.
Wetherington said in an interview that the sergeant intimidated him during the interrogation, 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."
A climate of violations
On Aug. 4, Wetherington was charged with a violation of the patrol's code of conduct by Col. Randy Glover, who was then the head of the district that includes New Bern. The code, similar to that used by the military, requires troopers to be truthful.
The N.C. Highway Patrol has had discipline problems with many troopers in recent years. As Wetherington noted, several cases have involved sexual misconduct.
Since 1998, the Highway Patrol has dealt with at least 27 cases of sexual misconduct by troopers either on or off duty. In several cases, those involved were not fired, including a trooper who received a five-day suspension in 2002 after he was caught repeatedly having sex on duty in and on his parked patrol car. On one occasion, the trooper inadvertently left his handgun behind, where children later found it.
Those problems have also involved Glover, who was sworn in as the patrol's commander three days after he charged Wetherington with a violation of the patrol's code of conduct. Glover acknowledged last month that he was reassigned from a post in Harnett County in 1987 after his wife caught him having an affair with a sheriff's dispatcher.
Quest for reinstatement
After Wetherington appealed his dismissal, the N.C. Employment Security Commission determined that he engaged in no significant misconduct.
Citing a solid work record, the Employee Advisory Committee of the Department of Crime Control and Public Safety also reviewed the case and ruled Sept. 1 that Wetherington should be reinstated and that the conduct of a supervisor who pushed for the dismissal be reviewed.
So far the 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.
The ousted trooper said Thursday he still struggles to understand how he was booted over the fate of a $45 hat.
"I bleed black and silver," Wetherington said. "This was my life, and they took it away from me. All I want is to get it back."
michael.biesecker @newsobserver.com or 919-829-4698