Every few years the name Frank Wetzel comes up as one of North Carolina's longest-serving prison inmates. He is serving two life terms for the 1957 killing of two highway patrolmen. The image is of Wetzel as an old man. There are few who remember the sensational manhunt and trial those many years ago.
Wetzel was tracked to Bakersfield California, where he was identified by fingerprints, and brought back to North Carolina by train.
About 100 newsmen, photographers, police officials and curious gathered at the Seaboard train station here [Rockingham] to meet him.
Wetzel climbed from the pullman car submissively as the crowd shoved up tight around him photographers popping flashbulbs.
He stood between Richmond County Sheriff Raymond
Goodwin Goodman and Patrol Captain A. W. Welch, his hands cuffed before him and a pistol held by Prisons Fugitive Officer Dexter Stell pressed into his back under a gray corduroy car coat.
His black hair neatly combed, the clean featured man quietly answered, "I knew they would bring me back anyway," when asked why he did not fight extradition from California.
His preliminary hearing, in which Wetzel cross-examined an eye witness himself, was a media event.
The courtroom was packed to overflowing and curious people jammed into the hallway outside the courtroom which has 575 seating capacity. Local observers said it was the largest turnout at the courthouse since the sensational murder trial of W. B. Cole a local mill owner in 1925.
A battery of some 25 to 30 still, newspaper and television photographers banged and ground away at the obviously self-conscious Wetzel, for some 15 minutes before the hearing was opened.
Judge McKeithan, who noted that Superior Court judges had adopted a policy of no pictures in the courtroom, agreed to let photographers take pictures of the defendant before he actually opened the proceedings. --The Raleigh Times 12/9/1957
Wetzel's reputation followed him as we began to serve his prison terms.
North Carolina prison officials consider him a keg of dynamite with the fuse on slow burn.
They watch his every visible move as though the keg might explode any minute. Their only question is when?
The call him the most potentially dangerous convict in the entire State prison system, which houses more than 11,000 prisoners, who have committed every crime in the book.
Prison records describe him as "a cunning, patient, instigator of criminal activity and heroic leader of other inmates and extremely dangerous."
His name is Frank Edward Wetzel, most notorious criminal to enter a Tar Heel Prison in many years. He is serving two life sentences for the ... murders of two Sate highway patrolmen.
At his two trials, he evoked squeals of admiration from teenage girls because of his good looks.
In many ways, Wetzel is a model prisoner. He recently pleaded with prison officials to allow him to help in teaching illiterate prisoners to read and write.
Prison officials are searching from some job at which Wetzel's talents could be put to productive use, but a job in which there would be no more danger of an escape plot being carried out.
They always fear that Wetzel's expressed desire to aid the prison system masks some hope for greater freedom behind bars that could aid any effort to get a gun, a knife or a hacksaw blade.
"He's a real problem," says Prison Director George Randall. "You've got a man serving two life sentences who is highly intelligent, capable and an extremely efficient worker, and yet when he was working he engaged in a plot to escape.
For many years, Wetzel was shuttled between his cell in Raleigh's Central Prison and Caswell County's Ivy Bluff Prison, which was know as "Little Alcatraz." In Raleigh, he was isolated from the other prisoners, eating and exercising alone.
... according to his own letters to prison officials, "every day on Death Row I pass at least 10 hours writing, drawing, doing problems, working crossword puzzles and studying an encyclopedia, psychology book, dictionary or reading anything I can get my hands on."
A 1960 "escape plot" had led to Wetzel's move to high-security status.
Wetzel had written even earlier asking that he be put to work at some job behind bars. His conduct and his high I.Q. (133 -- a rarity in prison) caused officials to assign him to work in a license plate shop and put him in living quarters with the rest of the prison population. He did his work well, but it masked his escape preparations.
The sister of fellow inmate Thomas Callahan was convicted of smuggling in a pistol and bullets.
Scuttlebutt seeping out from behind the walls has it that the weapon was in the prison, at Wetzel's disposal, for more than three weeks.
Most men might have made their break as soon as they got the gun. But Wetzel, with a life behind bars ahead of him, doesn't operate that way. He's a planner, looking for the most advantageous moment.
According to the rumors, the escape plotters, who numbered five to eight other inmates besides Wetzel and Callahan, hoped to get their hands on a wad of cash when they broke out. Then -- Mexico or some other Latin American country.-- The News & Observer 9/8/1963