Why Is This Man Still in Jail?
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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.
White Boy Rick had been locked up by the DPD on a trumped-up charge, so he turned on his former handlers in the police department, including then-Chief William Hart, Sergeant James Harris, and the mayor’s brother-in-law, Willie Volson, along with several other Detroit police officers. Wershe claimed the had been involved in unloading and guarded fake cocaine shipments from a plane at Detroit City Airport. Officers sealed the airport perimeter and gave the drug dealers—who were actually undercover FBI agents—a police radio to help them avoid detection. Rick had "vouched" for the FBI agents to the corrupt cops. The subsequent police corruption case was the largest in Detroit history.
"The events surrounding the incarceration of Richard Wershe in 1987 are a classic example of abuse of power and political corruption," says retired FBI agent Gregg Schwarz, who worked on the police corruption sting. Schwarz claims that the agents who promised Rick something in return for his cooperation in the sting reneged on their deal.
Wershe is credited with helping the government disrupt several of the Detroit's most brutal drug gangs in the '80s, including 30 members of the "Best Friends" crack-dealing crew, whom agents say killed more than 80 people. Wershe's cooperation into the police corruption case led to 14 convictions of law enforcement officers and public officials. Ironically, some of the most notorious drug dealers and killers that White Boy Rick helped convict—as well as all the policemen—now are free.
The truth of the matter is that White Boy Rick helped law enforcement crack some of the most notorious drug crimes in Detroit. "I never imagined I would still be sitting here in prison," Rick says. "I'm here because of the misinformation that's been given to the parole board, the lies—agents said under oath that I never worked for the Detroit Police Department, they said I never worked for the government, that I was this huge drug dealer. The FBI and police lied about this for more than two decades. I just want the truth to finally come out." According to Wershe and other, the truth is that the feds used a kid to do their dirty work and then lied about it to cover it up.
White Boy Rick is a poster child for what is wrong with the War on Drugs. How is it possible that a confidential informant, who provided valuable information to multiple agencies of a federal task force and who was supplied with drugs, money and assistance by the feds to facilitate narcotic transactions still be locked up after 25 years of incarceration? It's a good question. Sadly, there are no acceptable answers.
Seth Ferranti is serving 25 years for drug trafficking. He's a columnist for The Fix. To learn more about prisoners, check out gorillaconvict.com. Seth's new book, Gorilla Convict, a compilation of his writing about prison gangs, the mafia, hip-hop and hustling, is now available.