Family Of Elderly Convicted Killer Wants Him Released

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None - The brother of North Carolina's oldest prison inmate said he should be released after more than a half-century behind bars.

Frank Wetzel is serving a life sentence for the murders of two state troopers in 1958. He's now 89 and, according to his family, has Alzheimer's disease.

Richard Wetzel said he's spent much of his life digging for answers to questions about his brother.

"It's been an obsession of mine for a great number of years," Richard Wetzel said.

It's been 53 years since Frank Wetzel was convicted of killing the troopers. J.L. Reece was shot dead just outside Rockingham, and James Brown was killed 45 miles away, near Sanford.

A jury sentenced Frank Wetzel to two life terms.

After decades in maximum security, he's now housed at the state's medium-security prison in Salisbury.

But Richard Wetzel said recent visits have shown his 89-year-old brother has little memory left.

"He asked me where he was at. I told him he's in jail (and he said,) ‘Really? What am I in here for? Stealing a car or something like that? What did I do?'" Richard Wetzel said.

Because of that, Richard Wetzel thinks the state should let his brother go.

"I don't see the point in keeping an elderly man that's eat(en) up with Alzheimer's locked up somewhere where he doesn't even know what he's in there for," Richard Wetzel said.

The Department of Corrections won't say whether Frank Wetzel has Alzheimer's. But when Channel 9 asked to talk with Wetzel at Piedmont Correctional in Salisbury, a prison system spokesman denied the request, saying Wetzel wasn't capable of holding a consistently coherent conversation.

The Department of Corrections has medical parole, which is offered to some terminally ill or aging inmates, but convicted killers aren't eligible.

Jim Cooney, one of the state's top death penalty defense lawyers, said getting any governor to commute the sentence of someone who killed a trooper is almost impossible.

"We get into the politics of it. If the governor, even out of compassion and mercy, did something like this, her opponents would use that against her," Cooney said.

Channel 9 asked the governor's office if there's any possibility of commuting Frank Wetzel's sentence. A spokesperson for Beverly Perdue said "she won't consider it."

That's fine with the North Carolina Highway Patrol. The names and pictures of slain troopers still line its hallways. Capt. Dave Allen said troopers will continue to oppose any release.

"We believe he should stay in prison through his complete sentence," Allen said.

North Carolina's parole board has turned down Frank Wetzel's release 37 times. He will be eligible again next year.

Richard Wetzel said he'll keep fighting for his big brother, arguing age, health and even the cost of housing him. But he's realistic about his chances.

"What do you think it's going to take to get your brother out of prison?" Eyewitness News reporter Jim Bradley asked.

"Probably a death certificate," Richard Wetzel replied.

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More InformationInformation on Alzheimer's DiseaseMan's Name Is Frank Wetzel: Search For Him Is Intensified Over Nation (Rockingham Post Dispatch, November 14, 1957) • Patrolman's killer named by FBI: man escaped from mental hospital (Richmond County Journal, November 15, 1957) • Jury would have convicted Wetzel had the evidence been conclusive (Rockingham Post-Dispatch, January 16, 1958) • 1957 Murders Leave Lingering Mystery Despite a Conviction (Los Angeles Times, February 05, 1995) • North Carolina officials travelled to California to bring Wetzel back(Richmond County Journal, November 22, 1957) • On January 16, The Rockingham Post-Dispatch called Wetzel a "bad egg" while reporting on the hunt for a bullet in the second shooting -- a bullet which was never found(Rockingham Post-Dispatch, January 16, 1958)