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Two Troopers Murdered, 1957

Wetzel, shortly after his 1957 arrest.On November 5, 1957, North Carolina State Trooper Wister Lee Reece was shot and killed near Ellerbe and, less than an hour later, Trooper James Thomas Brown was murdered near Sanford. The crimes would grip the nation.

Reece’s murder came after a traffic stop. Witnesses described the car that was stopped as a black Oldsmobile with Pennsylvania license plates. During the next few weeks a nationwide manhunt—the largest ever in North Carolina’s history—ensued.  An Oldsmobile was found abandoned in Chattanooga and fingerprints recovered.

About 10 days after the shooting, the FBI homed in on New Yorker Frank Wetzel as a person of interest and several days later found him jailed in California. His fingerprints matched those inside the Oldsmobile, though a witness who said he was a hitchhiker in the assailant’s car at the time of Reece’s shooting gave a description of the gunman that didn’t match Wetzel.

Wetzel, who had escaped from a New York mental institution, had been on his way to break his brother out of prison in Mississippi, where the younger man was on death row.

Wetzel was convicted of both murders in 1958 at separate trials, and he remained in prison until his death in 2012 at the age of 90. He maintained his innocence until his death, pointing to that fact that Brown was shot nearly 50 miles away from Reece and the murders were committed roughly 20 minutes apart.

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