Local News

Convicted Killer, 82, Seeks Freedom After Nearly 50 Years

Posted January 22, 2004 8:55 a.m. EST

— He is 82 years old and prison has been his home for decades.


Frank Wetzel

wants to live out his final years as a free man.

A parole hearing was held Wednesday for the man described as the most notorious killer in North Carolina history. Wetzel is also the third longest-serving inmate in North Carolina prisons.

A decision could come in the next few days.

"I just do my work and get the weekend off and back to work on Monday," Wetzel told WRAL's Paul LaGrone in an exclusive interview from the Harnett Correctional Institute.

Jailed since 1958, Wetzel was convicted of killing two North Carolina Highway Patrol troopers.

He maintains his innocence.

"No, I didn't shoot them, no," Wetzel said.

Trooper Wister Reece stopped Wetzel in Richmond County for driving a stolen car and was shot before he drew his gun. The second victim, James Brown, stopped Wetzel in Lee County a short time later.

"Frank Wetzel committed some very heinous crimes," said Sgt. Everett Clendenin, of the North Carolina Highway Patrol.

A manhunt that could be the largest in North Carolina history -- including the hunt for onetime fugitive Eric Rudolph --- involved 500 officers. The state's borders were sealed, but still Wetzel made it to California before being arrested by the FBI.

Wetzel was sentenced to two life terms, but not everyone believes justice was served.

"Frank Wetzel is not a violent man," said former North Carolina State University professor Tom Regan.

Regan has followed the case closely. He said Wetzel is innocent for two reasons.

First, there is the timing of the murders.

"It's over 47 miles between the two murders in 15 minutes," Regan said. "You'd have to drive over 189 miles an hour to have been at both places at those times."

Regan also questions the testimony that helped put Wetzel behind bars.

The state's star witness in the trials was a hitchhiker named Robert Terry. Regan said Terry's testimony did not make sense.

Regan said Terry described a different man and a different car -- and later recanted.

"At this time, I cannot describe the man with whom I rode from Asheboro," Regan read from a letter by Terry. "The man was not Frank Wetzel."

Even that has not helped Wetzel win parole year after year. The Highway Patrol hopes it never will.

"He sentenced those two troopers on the side of that highway," Clendenin said. "He should serve out his sentence as well."


Paul LaGrone