Remembering Trooper ‘Lew’ Wetsel, Virginia State Police

In one of his last days in the VSP before retiring, Lew Wetsel worked the June 1968 Warrenton Firemen’s Parade and Carnival. He was later honored at a retirement party at Airlie. Photo by Robert McClanahan.

A 32 Year Career with the Virginia State Police, nearly all in Fauquier County.

Over the years, the citizens of Fauquier County have enjoyed a special relationship with the men and women of the Virginia State Police (VSP) who serve here. While their original mission was enforcing the laws pertaining to Virginia’s highways and motor vehicles, the role of the VSP has grown to include special investigations (including arson and aircraft accidents), assisting town and county law enforcement agencies when called upon, and other duties.

Personnel of our Division II, Area 12 have also saved lives in the line of duty – as well as off-duty – as we are reminded at the Valor Awards Ceremony held each year by the Chamber of Commerce.

Troopers assigned to our communities come from near and far, and in line with the professional development goals of the VSP, most serve here until earning promotions and moving on to their next assignment.

Others have opted to stay longer, notably the legendary Trooper Lawrence E. “Lew” Wetsel, who spent nearly all of his 32-year career with the VSP in Fauquier County, where he raised his family and was a highly-visible member of the community. His career reflects the early history of the VSP.

Beginnings of the VSP

In 1937, Lew Wetsel stood in front of his Ford Virginia State Police sedan. He was dressed in the VSP uniform of breeches and boots worn by troopers until 1938. Family photo.

By the end of World War I, there were 75,000 motor vehicles on the road in Virginia, and the General Assembly passed the Automobile Acts of 1919, governing the registration and operation of vehicles on the 306 miles of paved roads in the state.

The Commissioner of Motor Vehicles and his assistants were granted limited powers to enforce the provisions of the laws. Acknowledging the need for paid professional personnel to enforce the Automobile Acts, in 1922 the General Assembly established eight inspector positions, creating the Commonwealth Enforcement Division, forerunner of the Virginia State Police. Six more inspectors were added in 1923.

Also that year, the Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) was created, and the inspectors continued their enforcement duties under the DMV. However, with the growing number of registered vehicles and miles of paved roads, by 1928, the DMV was authorized to hire 20 more inspectors.

There were over 500 applications, and one of those hired was Fauquier County native W. Neville Hatcher (1902-1928) of The Plains. Tragically, he is remembered as the first member of the state police to die in the line of duty; shot while attempting to apprehend a murder suspect in Culpeper County in August 1928.

Inspectors were assigned an additional duty that year – pursuing traffickers of illegal whiskey on the dirt roads and trails in Virginia, as well as on the highways. This led to an important change in 1932, when inspectors were empowered to enforce criminal codes as well as motor vehicle regulations, and given the authority to make arrests anywhere in Virginia.

“A mobile enforcement agency was now ready for duty wherever civil strife or emergency conditions might exist that might warrant police personnel to ensure peace and security,” according to the history of the VSP originally written by Lt. E.E. Schneider and later updated. “It was at this time that the inspectors became known as ‘troopers.’”

The 1930s saw a growing emphasis on training, with initial classes and refresher courses conducted at the National Guard Camp at Virginia Beach. In 1932, troopers were issued white motorcycles or Chevrolet roadsters (at a cost of $250 each), which made up the “Great White Fleet.” With over 400,00 motor vehicles registered in the state, a law was passed in 1933 requiring semi-annual safety inspections at local “adjustment stations.”

Beginning in September 1934 Virginia State Troopers were able to receive official radio transmissions, courtesy of Richmond City Police Department radio station WPHP – if they had one of the 48 cars equipped with receivers. The fleet was upgraded in 1935 when the DMV took delivery of 100 new Ford V-8 sedans.

Lew Wetsel joins the VSP

During the 30 years he patrolled the roads of Fauquier County, Lew Wetsel (center, background) was called to investigate many automobile accidents, including this roll-over in 1960. The Fauquier Democrat photo.

In July 1936, the DMV was authorized to increase the number of its personnel from 100 to 150.  There were 18 men already on the reserve list, and the agency received over 1,200 applications for the remaining 32 positions. One of those hired was Lew Wetsel.

Born in Clifton Forge and raised in Greene County, Lew attended Fork Union Military Academy, and studied for two years at the College of William and Mary.

Intensive training was conducted at the Civilian Conservation Corps Camp in Spotsylvania County. In addition to the 1932 curriculum, candidates received training in traffic control, fingerprinting, photography, proper methods of obtaining a confession, and police communication.

Upon graduation, Lew was issued Badge No. 103, and assigned patrol duties in the Norfolk area. In 1938, he was sent to Fauquier County, where he would spend the next 30 years.

Several long-lasting changes in the VSP also took place in 1938. Slacks were adopted as part of the standard uniform, replacing the breeches and boots, and in November, the title “State Trooper” was made official for the personnel involved in law enforcement. The VSP Bureau of Criminal Investigation was created, primarily to cooperate with counties on major crimes.

The Wetsel family at home in Warrenton in 1949 (from left): Lawrence Jr., Jane, ‘Tillie,’ Lew and James. Family photo.

The General Assembly abolished the existing Division of Motor Vehicles in March 1942, creating two separate agencies, the Division of Motor Vehicles and the Department of State Police.

Closer to home, Lew Wetsel’s career as a State Trooper in Fauquier County involved not only  law enforcement, but as a member of the community.

Lew was married to the former Florence “Tillie” James (1917-1990), and they had two sons, Lawrence Jr. and James, and a daughter, Jane. The Wetsels bought their first house on Moffett Avenue from Harold Hamby in 1950, and in 1955 purchased a lot on Chestnut Street from Blanche O’Connell, where they built a fine home.

A familiar face in Fauquier, Lew was a long-time member of the Warrenton Baptist Church, as well as Mount Carmel Lodge No. 133, AF&AM. He also worked with the Fauquier County Sheriff’s Office with their “Junior Deputy” program for area youngsters. Tillie was also a “familiar face” in Warrenton, working as the executive housekeeper at Fauquier Hospital and as a beautician.

Longtime friend Joe Grimsley recalled that Lew kept a few cows in the pasture behind his house on Moffett Avenue. Later, he rented pasture elsewhere for his small herd and his pony, “Shadow.”

Innovation and change, 1940-1968

In the parking lot behind his home on Chestnut Street, Lew Wetsel stopped for a photo, resting his foot on a bag of cattle feed. Just how did it get there? Family photo.

Other landmark changes were also happening during Lew Wetsel’s 30-year career patrolling the roads of Fauquier County. The VSP built its first radio tower in 1940, broadcasting to mobile units from station WRIH (later (WSPH), and in 1946 acquired its first three aircraft, used for air observation and transportation. Starting in 1948, new patrol cars came painted in the standard blue-and-gray color scheme we see today.

Uniforms changed as well. The old visor cap was replaced by the wide-brimmed Stetson, and in 1950, a new, elliptical-shaped shoulder patch replaced the old triangular patch.

Radar was first used as a speed surveying device in 1952, and after following detailed investigations of traffic accidents, in 1954 the VSP recommended seat belts be installed in vehicles – nine years before they became required standard equipment.

For years, Troopers had a six-day workweek, usually 10-12 hours a day. With the growth of the VSP, that changed in 1959 when Troopers got a five-day workweek. By then, the department had 666 uniformed members and 50 radio dispatchers.

In 1961, the VSP instituted its first canine program, with one German shepherd tracking dog and handler assigned to each division. An additional team was added to each division in 1965.

In Fauquier, Lew Wetsel often spoke to local civic groups, explaining new state laws taking effect in the Commonwealth, giving updates on VSP activities, and describing new equipment being used in law enforcement.

Retirement, remembrance

Lew Wetsel retired in late June 1968, and was feted at a retirement party in the Airlie Hunting Lodge. After dinner, several notable citizens offered praise – and stories – about the man they called “Mr. Virginia State Trooper.” Master of Ceremonies was Trooper C. M. Baber of Marshall.

Del. Tom Frost read a telegram from recently-retired VSP Superintendent Col. Woodson, offering his congratulations and adding,  “Lew is the bravest man a police captain ever had – when he came to Warrenton, he bought furniture for the whole house before his wife ever saw a piece of it!”

Sgt. J.C. Ogburn Jr. presented Lew with a plaque shaped like the map of Virginia, with the message, “Presented to Trooper L.E. Wetsel, for 32 Years of Dedicated Service, 1936-1968, from Members of Area 12.” Del. Frost added, “Lew is as much loved as any man in this county. We hope he has a happy retirement.”

One of the most memorable moments came after Warrenton Attorney Carroll Martin made the major presentation of the evening, an International farm truck purchased by members of the Fauquier Bar Association in appreciation of their close working relationship over the years. It was lettered “L.E. Wetsel Livestock,” and bore his badge number, 103.

“Lew is a damned fine state gentleman, but he’s a farmer first,” said Martin, referring to Lew’s long-time avocation. This led to recollection of “The Calf Legend,” as told by Del. Frost:

“Trooper Wetsel bought a calf for his farm and was carrying it home in his state patrol car when his sergeant stopped him and asked, naturally, how it happened that a calf was riding in a police car. ‘That calf,’ Trooper Wetsel explained, ‘…was square in the middle of the road. Someone could have run over that calf!’”

That led to a second presentation by Trooper Dennis Robertson – a framed photo of Lew’s patrol car double-parked on Culpeper Street, with a feed sack laid across the trunk. It was passed around to the audience, where Division Commander Capt. Felix Bradley was seated. “Please send that picture back up here,” said Lew. “My retirement isn’t official for three days yet!”  Following his retirement, Lew continued his cattle operation on pastureland he rented, and worked for Better Homes Realty in Warrenton.

Over the 50 years since Lew Wetsel retired, the Virginia State Police has continued to execute and refine its mission, while facing times of change and challenge.

Lew died at home on March 9, 2004, at the age of 95. At the time, it was reported that throughout his long career, “Lew Wetsel was universally respected and admired for his ability to deal successfully with people under what were often difficult circumstances.” 

 

John Toler
About John Toler 4 Articles
Broad Run resident John Toler is the co-author of the recent Fauquier County and Town of Warrenton history books, and has contributed numerous newspaper and magazine articles focused on the history of Fauquier, Prince William and Loudoun counties.

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