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frer ?e has been in prison nearly 24 years,
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some still cannot forget Fran': Wetze
By JOHN DRESCHER
Second of two parts:
On the night of Nov. 5, 1957, High
way Patrolman W.L Reece switched
duty time with another trooper so he
could be at his Rockingham home for
dinner to celebrate his oldest daughter's
birthday. After dinner he returned to his
job. Two hours later he lay dead on a
highway, an innocent victim of an es
caped prisoner's bullet
Two months later, amid swooning
bobbysoxers and a vengeful crowd in
Rockingham, the handsome and suave
Frank Edward Wetzel, a 36-ycar-old es
capee from a mental hospital in New
York, was convicted of killing Patrol
man Wister Lee Reece and was sen
tenced to life in prison. Later he was
convicted in the murder of the other pa
trolman, J.T. Brown, and was given
another life term. Immediately he was
sent to maximum-security Central Pri
son in Raleigh. .
For more than 20 years while con-
sidered the most dangerous prisoner in
North Carolina he has sought various
transfers to lower-security prisons that
would end in his parole. Each time an
outcry against his transfer arose from
prison officials and the public Nearly
24 years after tho murders, Frank Wet-,
zel is a legend a legend that especial
ly to some, continues to live.
Susan Reece turned 13 the day her
father was killed. "The rest of the night
my sisters, ages five and 10, and I hud
dled, frightened in our parents' bed wait
ing for the killer to come and kill us
too' she recalled 23 years after the
fact Now she is Mrs. Susan Ciles,
mother of three, secretary at the First
Methodist Church in Roanoke Rapids
and possessor of a nightmare that won't
leave. ' . - '
"After ail these years, it seems like
something I read in a book," she said in
a telephone interview from her office.
"It still doesn't seem like it could have
happened to me."
For years, in fact until Tuesday, she
had never talked to the media about
the incident He mother's lawyers had
recommended that they not speak
about the subject There was another
"If s something I haven't talked
about because it hurts," said Mrs. Ciles,
now 36. "People were in shock that any
one would kill Dill Reece. He was a
good, kind man."
A recent rash of newspaper stories
appearing about Wetzel's alleged in
volvement in an escape from Caledonia
Prison prompted her to write a letter to
a local paper. "According to reports . '. .
and officials inside Centra! Prison, he
does not regret his crimes cf murder
only that he committed them in 1957, a
time when "ccp killing" was considered
a heinous crime," she wrote.
She said in the interview Tuesday
that Wetzel apparently was net sorry he
committed the murders. "He's never
been in touch with my family," she
said. She is not against parole and she .
believes in rehabilitation she even did
volunteer work in a nearby prison but .
she feels, based on discussions' with pri-
son officials, that Wetzel has riot been
rehabilitated. ' . ' ' ; '
"It scares me to pieces to open the
paper in the morning to see this man,"
she said. "I try to be fair and say he
deserves rights but ifs very hurtful.
"I feel like the man deprived me of a
father and my children of a
' After his conviction, Wetzel was sent
to Central Prison, where he became the
most guarded man in the stats. Because
son officials found a pistol, loaded and
ready for use, smuggled into Central for
Wetzel and four to seven other of the
most dangerous convicts in Central to
use to overpower guards and escape.
The sister of Thomas Callahan, a
close prison friend of Wetzel's, was
convicted of smuggling in the gun and
bullets. Prison officials to this day do
not know how 'it was accomplished.
Wetzel was never charged but for years
that plot remained the rationale for
refusal to transfer him to a medium
custody field unit There, officials said, '
he could earn minimum-custody status
and be transferred to a unit where es
cape is easy.
: For months after the incident, Wetzel
was shuttled back and forth between an
isolated cell at Central and the state's
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of his cunning intelligence Wetzel has
an IQ over 130 'and leadersh:p abili
ties, prison officials were especially
wary of Wetzel. They called him
"potentially the most dangerous con
vict" in the state prison system, which
boused 11.000 prisoners.
" In this case you've got a man who is
highly inte!!:gent but he maneuvers his
intelligence in a criminal manner," said
Warden K.B. Oai'ey in 1C53. Cut for
more than two years, Wetzel eppeared
to be a model prisoner, with only minor
infractions. Then, on Oct 9, 1SG0, pri-
"Little Alcatraz," Ivy Bluff Prison in
"We didn't want him to get set" said
Prison Director Ceorge Randall in 13.
On June 23, 1961, Wetzel made his last
trip from Ivy Bluff to Central and re
mained in a single cell in a cell block
that houses the most dangerous and
After the smuggled gun incident Wet
zel again became what was often called
"the modd prisoner." He participated
in prison chaper service each Sunday,
was associate director of the prison
Jaycees and a member of Alcoholics
Anonymous. He passed a high school
equivalency test and several college
courses and compiled a $2,000 savings .
account from his tiny prison earnings.
"At one time I was mentally not of
the right mind as to society and law."
he said in a 1974 interview. "But I've
completely changed in my thinking. I
am striving to show that now."
Prison Chaplain J. P. Moorman in
1974 called Wetzel's chang3 "spec
tacular." "They say he's the most
dangerous man in North Carolina, but
. it's hard to say that if you know Frank.
Frank has made innumerable contribu
. tions to the betterment of the prison
community. The only way he can prove
himself is in prison, in the surroundings
"Ism sure all Frank wants to do is get
out of prison, get married, settle down
and make a contribution to society."
In February 1C31, Wetzel, 53, won a
four-year legal battle to be transferred
from Central to the Caledonia unit Al
though he had received medium-seci-rity
status through good conduct six
years before, the transfer was held up
. because he was regarded as a high risk
by prison officials. He had been the on
ly medium-security prisoner at Central.
Then, in June, another bizarre chap
ter in the Wetzel chapter was authored.
On June 2, a Caledonia prison guard
said he overheard Wetzel plotting to
escape from the prison with fellow in
mate Ceorge Harp. Wetzel was stripped
of his medium-security status, shipped
back to Central and put in solitary con
finement. Wetzel, since returned to Caledonia,
has appealed the ruling by the prison
authority. The guard who overheard
Wetzel was. in a tower about 50 feet
away and 15-feet 'in the air. An aero
space engineer at N.C. State has said "it
would be highly unlikely" that an out
door conversation from that distance
would be intelligible.
It also would seem unlikely that Wet
zel, prison-wise after 23 years, would
discuss an escape plan in front of a
highly visible guard. Wetzel's appeal is
currently being reviewed,
Wetzel feels he was set up md that
prison officials, and the public, refuse
to forget crimes he committed nearly a
quarter of a century ago. Undoubtedly,
his legend remains alive in the hearts
and minds of many North Carolinians.
For some it is a legend that won't go
"I don't see how you can forget
about his past and the life he's lived,"
Mrs. Ciles said. "It still hurts very much
when I see an officer has been killed
, and what his family has been through.
"If you knew what these people had
been through, you wouldn't forget"
, John Qrcschcr, a senor journalism and
khtory fwjot from Rah;t;h, is associate
editor for The l&t Heel. ,
'tlhyrsUay. 1-11:3, 11 311 f? Jar I fret 11