Jenkins: Frank Wetzel's final chapter

jjenkins@newsobserver.comJuly 26, 2012 

  • Jim Jenkins

    Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins is a Raleigh native, a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (history and English), and a veteran of four decades in the newspaper business, the last two and a half of them at The News & Observer.

    He has previously worked as an editor at The Fayetteville Observer and as a columnist at the Greensboro News & Record.

    He can be reached at jjenkins@newsobserver.com. or 829-4513.

Finally, it’s over. The chilling, horrible, tragic story of Frank Wetzel has come to an end after over half a century of gaining the public’s interest at least periodically. Now it will fade from memory forever.

In North Carolina, Wetzel’s murder of two Highway Patrol members on the same night in 1957 may not have been the crime of the century, but it had all the elements of a thriller. The story itself ended not in a blaze of gunfire but quietly, with the death of an old man in Central Prison who passed on at 90 after a period of dementia.

His history of being a flamboyant defendant, a powerful prison leader and later a silver-haired celebrity who married in prison and allowed his advocates to argue for his innocence had long since faded.

I heard about Frank Wetzel all my life. His story had it all: the crime was horrid, two Patrol members gunned down separately within a relatively short time. The defendant/murderer was glamorous in his evil way, dark-haired and blue-eyed. The story was told by various newspapers in sometimes sensational terms (not the style in the mainstream today), with lines about young women swooning at the sight of him. When he was transported somewhere, people gathered because they wanted to see him.

And then there were the questions raised by some who became his supporters: the shootings, in Richmond County and then in Sanford, were too far apart for the same person to have committed both within a short time frame, they said.

They also believe Wetzel was railroaded by a system eager to punish someone for the murder of law officers. A witness’ description of the killer differed dramatically from Frank Wetzel’s physical appearance.

The person who told me the story first was a pretty credible source. My father was an anti-death penalty liberal all his life who thought “rehabilitation” was a cruel joke played on prisoners who deserved more of a chance than they got. But on the subject of Frank Wetzel, he was a hard-liner ... he was sure of his guilt.

For all of my adult life, and after he was out of the newspaper business and I was in it, we would periodically discuss what he said was one of the more interesting stories in his career in journalism. For he had covered the Wetzel trial. He told about the hitchhiker who had said he rode with the killer. Reported on the enamored young women. All of it.

Later, top officials of the state prison system who were friends of his told him about Wetzel’s involvement in cold and calculating plans to engineer a prison break. Prison leaders worried about what he might be planning with other inmates.

Wetzel spent the rest of his long life in prison for the crimes, and not surprisingly, the chief opponent of his bids for parole was the N.C. Highway Patrol. Civilians share the sentiment of law enforcement that someone who kills an officer of the law shouldn’t see freedom again. (He did not get the death penalty, news reports implied through the years, because jurors disagreed on some points, including the hitchhiker’s version of events.)

The case of Frank Wetzel does raise, I suppose, some points of debate: Should someone serve long after he is not a danger to himself or anyone else? If an inmate is involved in planning a prison break in which guards might have been killed should he forfeit any chance of release, ever?

The issues will outlive Frank Wetzel, but not for long. He’s gone, and his last chapter has been written. Those who were long his advocates aren’t going to change their minds. And those who believed him to be a killer will forever stand by his guilt. My father never wavered from that view, punctuating his recollection of the trial with a point hard to refute: “I looked the man in the eye.”

In the last few days, while discussing Wetzel’s death, something else came to mind. We have in the last couple of years had a number of stories on unfortunate behavior by some members of the Highway Patrol. Again, this is a small fraction.

But the Wetzel story reminds us: Being a member of the Highway Patrol is a very dangerous job that requires a measure of courage, each and every day, that most of us can’t imagine.

When a trooper pulls someone over, whether in the rural countryside or on a busy urban highway, that trooper may be making a routine stop with a harmless motorist. Or that driver may be planning a deadly encounter.

Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at jjenkins@newsobserver.com

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service