RALEIGH (AP) — The man who served more than 50 years in prison for killing two North Carolina Highway Patrol troopers has died behind bars at the age of 90.
The News & Observer of Raleigh reported that Frank Wetzel died Saturday at Central Prison in Raleigh after living his last years with dementia.
Wetzel was convicted of the 1957 murders of Troopers W.L. Reece and James T. Brown. Reece was killed near Ellerbe in Richmond County, and Brown was shot near Sanford in Lee County.
Wetzel maintained his innocence, saying he was the victim of a law enforcement conspiracy. His supporters pointed to records that show Reece was fatally shot at 8 p.m. Between 15 and 20 minutes later, Brown was shot 47 miles away.
“I’ve offered anyone who can do that a million dollars,” said Richard Wetzel, the convict’s 57-year-old half-brother. “I don’t have a million dollars, but I’m not worried that anybody can do that, not anyone in NASCAR or speed racing.”
They also pointed to a former witness in his trial who signed an affidavit saying that police forced him to testify and that Wetzel wasn’t the killer.
Prosecutors also had evidence leading to his conviction. Before dying in surgery, Brown described the shooter’s black 1957 Oldsmobile, which eventually led police to Wetzel.
A car matching that description was discovered in Tennessee. Inside, the FBI found Wetzel’s fingerprints on a North Carolina license plate, a .44-caliber Magnum pistol, several .22-caliber guns and several boxes of ammunition. Wetzel was arrested two weeks later in California.
Wetzel admitted that, at the time of the 1957 crimes, he was driving south in a stolen car after escaping from a prison hospital in New York state.
Wetzel, who grew up in New York, got in trouble as a young boy, stealing from grocery stores and landing in reform school and eventually New York jails. Richard Wetzel was 6 years old when his father took him on a bus from Charlotte to Central Prison in Raleigh and Central Prison to meet Frank Wetzel.
“It was kind of scary going in there with all those doors,” Richard Wetzel said Sunday. “They brought him in through the glass, and it wasn’t long before I knew I was going to like him.”
He said he doesn’t intend to let Frank Wetzel’s appeal end with his death.
Frank Wetzel married in prison nearly 30 years ago. His wife, Bianca, who lives in Florida, advocated for his release for many years.