When ex-Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick landed in jail on public-corruption charges in 2012, he needed some advice. He sought out Rick Wershe, a long-time inmate and Detroit legend.
“I was with him when he was indicted by the government,” Wershe said in an interview with a Detroit CBS affiliate. “We were in the state facility together, and I think he made a phone call, and he went outside and his attorney told him, ‘Listen, you’re going to be indicted by the federal government.’
“He came in, and he just looked sick. He told me what happened, and I said, ‘Dude, you’re in for the fight of your life.’”
It was one of those “only in Detroit” stories that news outlets couldn’t help picking up. A headline even dubbed Wershe “Detroit’s Most Notorious Gangster.”
Better known as White Boy Rick, Wershe is a former drug dealer and police informant who was convicted in 1988, at the age of 17, of possessing 17 pounds of cocaine.
The most prominent photo of Wershe is a head shot of him frowning, cherub-cheeked, half of his young face lost in shadows. It looks like a bad prom photo. In the popular consciousness, he’s been frozen like that for the last 26 years—White Boy Rick, the kid who showed up to court wearing an Armani suit and who was declared “worse than a mass murderer” by the judge.
But behind the urban legend is a real person. Wershe, now 46 and a father of three, is the only convict in Michigan behind bars who was sentenced to life in prison as a minor under a mandatory minimum law that has since been repealed.
“He’s the last one that I know of still serving life,” said Robert Aguirre, who was on the Michigan State Parole Board from 2009 through 2011. “I don’t know if I quite have the words, other than I don’t understand it. I just don’t understand.”
In prison, Wershe worked with the FBI to take down a group of corrupt cops and several violent gangs. Since then, Wershe’s contemporaries—drug dealers, murderers, and former police—have all cycled through the criminal justice system, but Wershe sits in prison still. The Michigan State Parole Board has refused to release Wershe, despite his cooperation with federal agents and the recommendations of US Attorneys, FBI agents, and even Kid Rock.
Most recently, Wershe’s lawyer, Ralph Musilli, got a sworn affidavit from a former Detroit police officer claiming he and other officers had been ordered to testify against Wershe, despite having no knowledge of him or his case. According to the affidavit, the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office had given the police officers sealed grand-jury testimony from Wershe for review, which is a felony.
So why all the fuss over White Boy Rick?
“What it is is public corruption in Detroit, and in the State of Michigan, that has been in existence for years,” said Gregg Schwarz, a retired FBI special agent. “It’s the old boy system.”
Schwarz met Wershe on a drug raid in the mid 80s, when he was part of a task force of federal agents and local police known in the papers as the “No Crack Crew,” which had been formed to combat Detroit’s drug wave. Schwarz was the case agent serving a search warrant on the house of Johnny and Leo Curry, who controlled most of the crack trade on Detroit’s east side.
As agents swept into a room full of some of Detroit’s major drug dealers, Schwarz came across the odd sight of a white, blond teenage boy.
“Hi, I’m Rick Wershe,” the teenager said, putting his hands up. “What would you like me to do?”
“Sit down and shut up,” Schwarz barked.
Police were initially caught off guard by the complex criminal enterprises that had sprung up around the crack boom. Gangs like Young Boys Inc. were operating organizations that resembled corporations—complete with franchising, branding, and hostile takeovers—more than they did street-corner hustles.
Detroit in the 80s was “Dodge City,” Schwarz said. “It was wild. People did whatever the hell they wanted to do. If you had a problem, you got out your wallet and solved the problem.”
Detroit’s top drug barons drove around in flashy cars and executed rivals with near impunity. There was “Maserati” Rick Carter. There was “Wonderful Wayne” Davis. There was Art Derrick, who flew cocaine into Detroit on a private plane that he was rumored to have bought from the Rolling Stones.
“Everybody was running and gunning in that city because there wasn’t any control over the drug scene,” Schwarz said.
And in the middle of this scene was Wershe.
By all accounts, Wershe’s home life was grim. His parents, in the midst of a bitter divorce, were negligent. His older sister was stuck in a cycle of drug addiction and stints in rehab.
His father was a firearms dealer who had frequent dust-ups with the law, despite allegedly being a police informant himself.
According to Wershe and his lawyers, the FBI began using him as a source when he was 14 years old.
“I was just a kid when the agents pulled me out of high school in the ninth grade and had me out till three in the morning every night,” Wershe said in an interview with Alternet. “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."
Although he was a member of the anti-crack task force, Schwarz never had access to Wershe, but he said “all the agencies used him.”
The details of how Wershe became a drug dealer and police informant at such a tender age have never been sorted out, much less confirmed. What is known is Wershe got involved with Johnny Curry and his brothers and began making a name for himself on the streets.
Within a couple of years, Curry landed in jail, and Wershe used what he had learned to take over the operation. He soon had his own flashy car and was dating Curry’s wife, Cathy Volsan, who was five years his senior and also the niece of Detroit Mayor Coleman Young.
“He was a 14-year-old put into the system to provide information,” Aguirre said. “The expectation was what? That he would choose to achieve things in high school and go on to higher education?”
By 1986, Wershe had gone from being a police asset to a target. The DEA orchestrated several small drug buys and raids of Wershe and his associates. The trap closed in 1987, when police stopped Wershe and found cocaine in his car.
Wershe was charged with possession of 17 pounds of cocaine with intent to distribute. It was the largest seizure in the city’s history.
A preliminary examination in October 1987 set the tone for the rest of the trial.
"Even though he looks like Baby Face Nelson, as far as this court is concerned, he's worse than a mass murderer," Judge William Hathaway said of Wershe. Hathaway tried to remand Wershe without bond, but his decision was later overturned by another court.
Hathaway’s statement sounds hyperbolic, but consider that Detroit’s murder rate peaked in 1987 at a staggering 686 homicides. That same year, the Chamber Brothers, who ran one of the city’s biggest cartels, controlled roughly 700 crack houses and grossed $55 million in drug sales. As a result of the crack boom, politicians, judges, and police were adopting tough-on-crime rhetoric and sentencing structures that are only now being rolled back.
And here was the perfect defendant to throw the book at. According to popular legend, Wershe showed up at court wearing an Armani suit. “Wershe often was surrounded during his trial by an entourage outfitted in leather, furs, and gold,” the AP reported. He also had two children and a third on the way, all from different mothers.
The local news outlets ate up the sensational trial with headlines like “Cocaine Kingpin or Loyal Son?” It was then that press foisted the moniker “White Boy Rick” on Wershe. He and Musilli claim it was never his street name.
Wershe’s lawyer was William Bufalino II, a portly, sharp-dressed criminal-defense attorney whose father had been Jimmy Hoffa’s trusted counsel. The younger Bufalino inherited a similar elan for choosing clients. Over the course of his 30-year career, he defended Detroit mafia boss Jack Tocco (guilty), a suspect in a trio of gangland beheadings (guilty), and a former Nazi SS officer (deported). All upstanding citizens of the fine state of Michigan, if you asked him.
At the same time as Wershe’s criminal trial, Wershe and his family were counter-suing the city for various alleged miscarriages of justice, such as beating Wershe, destroying the family’s property, invasion of privacy, wrongful arrest, and raiding the house of Wershe’s 76-year-old grandmother.
Bufalino got affidavits from three of the “leather, furs, and gold” crowd who said they had been paid $20 a piece by police to show up. Wershe’s defense found many such curious incidents.
An officer in Wershe's case admitting to using false information to get warrants, according to a 1995 book by William Adler. FBI wiretap recordings also revealed another officer admitting to giving perjured testimony against Wershe.
According to a 2003 Detroit News article, a key witness at Wershe’s trial, who police testified had disappeared because he feared for his life, later submitted a statement to one of Wershe’s lawyers claiming he was never called to testify and his earlier testimony had been coerced.
After four days of deliberation, the jurors announced they were deadlocked, but the judge refused to accept a hung jury. The next time the jury came back, it found Wershe guilty.
On January 15, 1988, Wershe was sentenced under Michigan's 650-lifer law, which mandated anyone caught with more than 650 grams of cocaine serve life without parole.
Wershe’s conviction was the beginning of the end of the Detroit crack empires.
A gunman shot and killed Maserati Rick Carter while he was lying in a hospital bed, recovering from another attempt on his life. Carter was buried in a coffin fashioned to resemble a Mercedes-Benz, complete with tires, grill, and hood ornament. The Curry brothers pleaded out and took 20 years apiece. Wershe’s father was convicted in 1989 of possession of 23 unregistered silencers and served seven years in prison.
It was victory for the No Crack Crew, but they didn’t exactly ride off into the sunset.
In 1992, Detroit Police Chief William L. Hart was convicted of embezzling $2.6 million in taxpayer money intended for narcotics informants. According to prosecutors, he spent the cash buying cars, gifts for women, and renovations on his home. He was caught when the money fell out of the ceiling in his kitchen.
Later that same year, the FBI snared 11 Detroit police officers, along with several civilians including Cathy Volsan, in a sting operation. The police officers accepted bribes from FBI agents, disguised as drug dealers, to guard shipments of cocaine being flown into the Detroit airport.
From inside prison, Wershe acted as a go-between for the fake deal, vouching for the FBI agents. According to FBI agents and US Attorneys, he also provided information that led to the arrests of many violent gang members in Detroit. Because of his cooperation with federal agents, Wershe was placed in the witness protection program and moved to an undisclosed federal prison for several years.
In 1998, Michigan politicians reformed the state’s 650-lifer law, and in 1999 a judge resentenced Wershe to life in prison with the possibility of parole. His first hearing came around in 2003.
Schwarz and fellow FBI agent Herman Groman went to the board to testify in favor of Wershe’s release. Groman wrote a letter crediting Wershe with helping break up the "Best Friends" gang, who he said killed more than 80 people.
Wershe has also been credited with stopping two murder-for-hire plots while in prison. Assistant US Attorney Lynn Helland testified that several investigations "would not have been possible" without Wershe's cooperation.
Wershe even received support from Kid Rock, who bragged on his second album that he “got more cash than fuckin’ White Boy Rick.”
"With Rick and I coming from the same type of background, I feel he would be able to help youths from making the same mistakes he did by reaching out to them and telling them the story of how drugs ruined his life," Kid Rock wrote to the Michigan Parole Board in 2003.
But the Detroit Police had not forgotten who snitched on them.
“The next day, after we left town, a bunch of officers testified, saying that Rick Wershe was responsible for all the narcotics problems that the city of Detroit had ever had, that he was tangentially involved in a bunch of murders,” Schwarz said. “They just said all kinds of crap that wasn’t true.”
Assistant Prosecutor Karen Woodside said Wershe “was involved in a lot of other matters that never resulted in prosecution because he got a life sentence. But there were numerous other incidents involving large amounts of cocaine, there were intimations that he was involved in murders and rapes,” she said.
One of the officers who testified against Wershe, William Rice, recently submitted a sworn affidavit to Musilli saying he had no prior knowledge of Wershe’s case before he was ordered to testify. Rice said he was in the homicide unit when he was informed he had been selected to testify against Wershe. When asked why, he said he was told it “came through channels,” meaning from superiors.
Rice also said the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office had given the officers Wershe’s sealed grand-jury testimony for review.
In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office said, “The information that you reference regarding sealed grand jury testimony being given to police officers by Ms. Woodside or the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office is not true.”
In any case, the parole board rejected Wershe’s petition for parole, and since then he’s never been given a full hearing again.
Wershe’s record hasn’t been entirely clean in prison. In 2005, while in prison in Florida, he pleaded guilty to a minor role in a car theft ring. According to his lawyer, Wershe only pleaded guilty because the prosecutor threatened to charge his mother, who had bought one of the stolen cars.
"I messed up, your honor," Wershe told the judge. "I been in jail my whole life and I tried to help my kids."
He was sentenced to five years in Florida prison, to be served in the event that he is paroled from Michigan.
In 2012, the Michigan State Parole Board canceled a planned pre-parole hearing for Wershe.
“[The prosecutor] opposes his release on parole because he has not demonstrated while he has been incarcerated that he can be a productive law abiding member of society,” the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office said in an email.
Which is an interesting argument, given who else the state of Michigan considers rehabilitated.
The Curry brothers are out of prison. The two Miami dealers who supplied Wershe are out too. So is Frank Lee Usher, who was convicted in 1979 of murdering two men and a woman outside of a Detroit club and then chopping off their heads and hands. His sentence was later overturned, and he served several more years on other charges.
James Harris, one of the Detroit cops convicted in the 1992 FBI sting, received a presidential pardon from George W. Bush in 2008.
“Those of us who are old enough can recall the media hoopla when a 17-year-old white kid with the media-friendly nickname White Boy Rick was alleged to be the capo di tutti capi of all the drug lords in Detroit in the mid-to-late 80s,” Detroit lawyer Steve Fishman wrote in 2013. ”As a lawyer who represented many of the guys who were in fact the top dogs in the drug business in those days, the notion that a 17-year-old kid—black, white, or purple—could have been the boss of those grown men is so ridiculous as to deserve no further comment. And to suggest, as the Parole Board spokesman did [...], that Rick Wershe's situation is comparable to other lifers—most of them serving sentences for violent crimes—is an insult to our collective intelligence.”
Every few years, a similar story or op-ed appears in the newspaper about White Boy Rick. Author Seth Ferranti, who is also serving time in jail for drug conspiracy charges, wrote a book about Wershe this year.
Musilli recently filed an appeal based on the Supreme Court’s decision last year to ban life sentences without parole for minors. He hasn’t gotten a response yet.
Meanwhile, Wershe bides his time while a fresh crop of corrupt public officials parades through the prison system. William Rice, the former Detroit police officer who provided Musilli with the sworn affidavit, is currently serving two to 20 years in prison on several counts of perjury and running a criminal enterprise. He is housed in the same cell block as Wershe.
“Do you remember me?” Wershe asked Rice shortly after he arrived in prison, according to a story shared by both Mussili and Schwarz.
“No, should I?” Rice asked.
“You goddamn well should. I’m Rick Wershe. You testified against me in 2003.”
“Holy shit, what are you still doing here?”
Wershe's supporters have long suspected that he was sandbagged by the former head of the Detroit Police Department's homicide unit, Gil Hill.
In 1985, 13-year-old Damion Lucas was killed in a drive-by shooting intended for one of the Curry brothers' rivals, Leon Lucas. Police documents and news investigations revealed that Hill spoke with Johnny Curry over the phone the day after the murder and that the Detroit Police Department waited months to investigate claims that the Curry brothers were involved.
"One of the biggest dope dealers in Detroit talking to the lieutenant of the homicide department for two hours," Shwarz said, incredulity slipping into his voice.
Schwarz said he travelled to Texarkana, where Curry was then housed as a prisoner. Schwarz said Curry admitted in an interview with him and another FBI agent to paying Hill $10,000 to cover up Lucas' murder.
An FBI probe and an internal investigation never amounted to anything, and Hill vehemently denied the accusations for the rest of his career.
“If they can’t get me one way, they kill me another way,” Hill, then a city councilor, told the Detroit Free Press in 1992. “This is a story that’s been bandied about for years, with no proof and no believability.”
Hill told investigators he was concerned over a tip that Cathy Volsan's car was involved in the shooting.
“I told them I would like to take care of talking to Cathy, and the reason I did it was because of who she was and the sensitivity of the situation," Hill told investigators, according to a transcript.
Damion Lucas' murder was never solved.
“I have recently learned, to my great surprise, that Richard Wershe is still incarcerated,” Rice wrote in his sworn affidavit. “I thought he had been released on parole.”
According to his affidavit, Rice believes “that the only rational explanation for the continued incarceration of Richard Wershe, Jr., and the consistent denial of even a parole hearing since 2003, is that his file has been ‘red flagged,’ which means that someone, or some group, has taken a special interest in his file.”
Wershe is not eligible for parole again until 2017.
(Ed. Note—A portion of this article was added shortly after publication)