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Why Is This Man Still in Jail?

Federal agents yanked Richard Wershe from high school and groomed him as a high-profile drug dealer. When he transformed into the notorious White Boy Rick, the feds turned their backs. Now he's doing life in jail.

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"White Boy Rick" Wershe during his 1988 trial

By Seth Ferranti

01/20/13

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Meet Richard Wershe. To other convicts in the Michigan penal system and the handful of DEA and FBI agents who once employed him as an informant, Wershe is known by the more memorable moniker, White Boy Rick. Wershe was a baby-faced, blond-haired teenager who grew up in the the middle class fringes of Metro Detroit in the 1980s. Around the time he hit puberty, he transformed into White Boy Rick, a prolific drug dealer and teenage prodigy in the cutthroat and vicious streets of the Motor City. He ranked as high in the public imagination as such colorful Detroit drug heavyweights as the Chambers Brothers, Maserati Rick, the notorious Best Friends. By the time he was 16, he was dating the beautiful black niece of the Mayor of Detriot. White Boy Rick had arrived.

He had also been recruited as one of the DEA's prized confidential informants two years earlier, when he was 14. According to Wershe, a federal narcotics task force consisting of officers from the Detroit Police Department, the FBI and the DEA pushed him into the role of drug lord and played up his image. "They turned me into an urban legend," Rick says from a payphone at the Oaks Correctional Facility, near the eastern shore of Lake Michigan.

"I was just a kid when the agents pulled me out of high school in the ninth grade and had me out to three in the morning every night. They gave me a fake ID when I was 15 that said I was 21 so  I could travel to Vegas and to Miami to do drug deals." Rick ended his relationship with authorities after serving two years as an informant. Less than a year later, he was arrested for possession with intent to deliver 650 grams of cocaine. He wasn't even 18.

So why did the authorities turn on Wershe? It started when he helped the feds investigate drug corruption in the Detroit Police Department.

Wershe was pinched on the same Detroit street where he grew up, carrying the drugs, $25,000 in cash, and driving a shiny new Ford Thunderbird that was registered in his girlfriend's name. She was five years older than him, married to Eastside drug kingpin Johnny Curry, and, as luck would have it, the niece of Mayor Coleman Young. Authorities later found eight kilos of cocaine that they linked to Wershe. On January 15, 1988, he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison under Michigan's draconian 650 lifer law, which has since been abolished.

White Boy Rick remains incarcerated, with no maximum release date. For the past 25 years, he has watched a steady parade of gang leaders convicted of much more violent offenses return to the streets—including Curry, whom White Boy Rick's undercover work helped put in jail. Members of the murderous “Best Friends” gang have also been released. Last June, the Supreme Court banned mandatory life sentences for minors—even for murder—and yet White Boy Rick will stay in prison, serving a life sentence as a first-time, non-violent offense.

"What has happened to this man is a travesty of justice of monumental proportions," says Wershe's attorney, Ralph Musilli. "From the time he was a small boy he's been exploited and prostituted by the United States government, and when the feds squeezed everything they could possibly get out of him, they threw him away like a piece of garbage."

So why did the authorities turn on Wershe? It started when he helped the feds investigate drug corruption in the Detroit Police Department. The answer is, somehow, not shocking.

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