Inside the internal affairs interview room, a 22-year-old North Carolina state trooper was crying. Weeks beforehand, he had lost his department-issued hat. Now the top brass was suspicious about the circumstances surrounding its disappearance, and they wanted answers.
The hat in question is a flat-rimmed, Smokey-the-Bear-style headpiece, often called a "campaign cover" because of its military history. Trooper Thomas Wetherington lost it during a 2009 traffic stop in Craven County. Three weeks later he became the subject of a Highway Patrol investigation, and he was ultimately fired for violating the patrol's truthfulness policy.
The hat was the subject of a hearing yesterday morning at the North Carolina Court of Appeals in Raleigh. While Trooper Wetherington's termination was upheld by the State Office of Administrative Hearings and the Personnel Commission, last December a Wake County Superior Court judge reversed the decision. The judge did not believe a trooper should be fired for violating the truthfulness policy because of a missing $45 hat. The state Attorney General's office appealed, bringing the matter in front of the three-member appellate court.
Trooper Wetherington's attorney, Michael McGuinness, told the judges that during dangerous situations, troopers' memories don't always work perfectly. "He thought the hat was on his head," McGuinness said.
It was a blustery night on March 29, 2009, with wind gusts up to 28 miles per hour. Trooper Wetherington was stationed on U.S. Highway 70, where he saw a speeding truck. He pulled the truck over and got out of his cruiser, making sure he was wearing his hat. It violates Highway Patrol policy to conduct a traffic stop without a standard-issue hat. Trooper Wetherington had already been reprimanded for operating without a hat once before.
The inside of the truck smelled like alcohol. Trooper Wetherington searched the vehicle and discovered an alcoholic beverage, a retired trooper's service revolver and a loaded .357 magnum. This made Trooper Wetherington nervous. During the search, another car pulled to the side of the road. This made Trooper Wetherington more nervous. By now he was no longer thinking about his hat.
Trooper Wetherington seized the guns. Then he approached the second car. When he arrived, he was not wearing his hat.
At some point in the evening, Trooper Wetherington became aware that nothing was on his head. He drove up and down the road, searching for his hat, but he could not find it. This made him upset. He did not want to be reprimanded again because of a hat.
However, he did find the gold cord that wrapped around it. In North Carolina, the cord is adorned with a pair of gold ornaments, which are called acorns. When Trooper Wetherington picked up the cord, he noticed the acorns were slightly flattened.
Trooper Wetherington called his supervisor, Sgt. Oglesby. He told Sgt. Oglesby a gust of wind had blown his hat off his head.
Sgt. Oglesby sent two troopers to help look for the hat. They searched for two hours, but they could not find it. One of the men, Trooper Rink, told Trooper Wetherington that he shouldn't worry. Everyone loses stuff, he said. You should simply tell Sgt. Oglesby that you don't remember how you lost the hat.
"It is too late for that, because I already told Sgt. Oglesby the wind blew it off my head," said Trooper Wetherington, according to Trooper Rink's later testimony.
The next day, the Highway Patrol dispatched a search party to find the missing hat. During the search, Trooper Wetherington repeated his story to Sgt. Oglesby about the wind, which he said was blowing from the southeast to the northwest. The hat blew off my head and into the path of a burgundy 18-wheeler rolling down the highway, and then I heard a crunching sound, Trooper Wetherington told Sgt. Oglesby.
The search party still could not find the hat, so Trooper Wetherington requested a replacement, size 6 ¾ inches.
Three weeks later, the Highway Patrol received some news: Trooper Wetherington's hat had been found.
After forming in 1929, the North Carolina Highway Patrol started issuing campaign-style hats in 1935. Today most state troopers in the U.S. wear the campaign hat, originally adopted by the American military in the 1870s. It has a four-divot "Montana crease," which, unlike the single-crease Stetson, funnels rainwater onto the ground.
In North Carolina, the campaign hat was briefly replaced by a summer pith helmet in 1950, and by a Stetson in 1953. For many years troopers wore straw hats in the summer and felt hats in the winter. Now the Highway Patrol uses a year-round black straw hat with a triple brim for longevity. Each hat carries a diamond-shape badge displaying the initials "SHP" and "NC" over the state seal. In 1989, the North Carolina Highway Patrol was recognized as the best-dressed police department in the country by the National Association of Uniform Manufacturers and Distributors.
"I loved that hat," said Bryan Gregory, a retired North Carolina trooper and author of Ole Man on the Porch: The Trooper. But, he added, "If I'm in danger or about to get in a fight with someone, the last thing I'm going to think about it is the hat."
Campaign hats include straps that wrap around the base of the skull. "It's virtually impossible to blow that hat off your head," said William Mauldin, a retired trooper and author of State Troopers of America. "But you might have to put it on the roof of your car if you go looking for drugs [in another vehicle]."
Mauldin, who said he lost several hats during his career, enjoyed the authority the campaign hat gave him. As a Florida trooper, he witnessed the changeover from Stetsons to campaigns. "We had fewer problems with violators after that," he said. Most troopers don't wear their hats inside their cruisers, Mauldin said. "It would be a pain in the butt to get out."
The truck driver Trooper Wetherington pulled over was a teenager named Clint Collins. After Trooper Wetherington seized the guns and issued a citation, Collins saw the campaign hat in the road. He decided to take it home with him. A few weeks later, he gave it back.
Sgt. Oglesby summoned Trooper Wetherington to a meeting. First Sgt. Rock was there, too. They asked him to repeat his story about the wind and the burgundy 18-wheeler, which Trooper Wetherington did. First Sgt. Rock opened a cabinet door. He pulled out the hat. It was in good condition. It didn't look like it was run over by an 18-wheeler. Trooper Wetherington began to cry.
Trooper Wetherington told Sgt. Oglesby and First Sgt. Rock that three or four days after the traffic stop, he suddenly remembered that the hat did not blow off his head. Perhaps I left it on the roof of my car, thought Trooper Wetherington. I would have reported this realization, but I am intimidated by Sgt. Willis, who throws and slams things around the office when he gets mad.
The internal affairs interrogation room in the Highway Patrol's headquarters in Raleigh is sometimes called the Dungeon. It has carpeted walls, designed to dampen sound. A video camera is trained on the interviewee.
When Trooper Wetherington was called in, Lt. Blanks and Sgt. Poole sat on either side of him. Trooper Wetherington had never felt so nervous in his life. Lt. Blanks asked similar questions over and over. He raised his eyebrows and tapped his fingers on the table. He rolled his eyes and gave Trooper Wetherington blank stares.
Trooper Wetherington was mentally exhausted. But Lt. Blanks did not let Trooper Wetherington take a break, even when Trooper Wetherington was crying.
Lt. Blanks asked Trooper Wetherington if he knew he was being untruthful when he made his written report. "I don't think so, sir," said Trooper Wetherington.
"Did you know that it had not blown off your head when you told him in fact that it had blown off your head?" said Lt. Blanks.
"I would say yes, sir, I guess. Ah, yes sir," said Trooper Wetherington.
"This case is not about a hat," said Assistant Attorney General Tamara Zmuda at the Court of Appeals hearing yesterday. "This case is about a lie." Specifically, she added, a premeditated lie sustained for nearly a month. "If patrolmen will be untruthful about something like a hat, then what else would they be untruthful about?" Zmuda said.
Judge Donna Stroud asked how significant a lie must be in order to violate the truthfulness policy. For instance, she asked, if one trooper said "How are you doing," and another trooper said "Fine," even though he had a headache, his toe hurt and his dog had fleas, would that violate the truthfulness policy?
Zmuda said Trooper Wetherington's misstatement was more significant because it was motivated by fear of being reprimanded.
McGuinness, Trooper Wetherington's attorney, said his client made an honest mistake. He said many Highway Patrol officers with high ranks were never fired after willfully lying about things such as sexual misconduct in cruisers and death threats against a spouse. Trooper Wetherington "didn't think it mattered if it was on the light bar or on his head," said McGuinness.
The Court of Appeals will rule on the case in the coming months. Trooper Wetherington was in the courtroom. He declined to comment. He said he did not know where the hat is now.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Look out, it's Hat-gate."
Editor's note: Different images have been used in the online version of this story.