As a teenager in Detroit in the 1980s, Richard Wershe Jr. ran with some of the city's biggest crack kingpins. Before he was even old enough to vote, Wershe was having cocaine shipments flown in from Miami, taking weekend trips to Vegas, and cruising the streets in a white Jeep with "The Snowman" inscribed on the back. He was young and white, an anomaly in the city's drug trade, which earned him an infamous nickname: White Boy Rick.
Wershe was busted in 1987 — at age 17 — for possession of eight kilos of cocaine with intent to distribute. Twenty-eight years later, he's still locked up. He was sentenced under the state's draconian "650 Lifer" law, which mandated life in prison for anyone caught with more than 650 grams of cocaine. He has now spent more time behind bars than any non-violent juvenile offender in Michigan history.
On January 25, the Supreme Court ruled that juveniles serving life in prison should be allowed to have their sentences reviewed, expanding a 2012 decision by the justices that struck down mandatory life terms without parole for juveniles. The court also said its 2012 ruling must be applied retroactively, a decision directed at three states — Pennsylvania, Louisiana, and Michigan — that had refused to comply, leaving up to 1,500 juvenile offenders serving life terms with no possibility of release.
While Michigan has dragged its feet on allowing juvenile lifers the chance to regain their freedom, other states have embraced reform. In Washington, for example, a state law passed after the Supreme Court's 2012 ruling recently allowed a man sentenced to life without parole at age 14 for a 1987 murder to walk free. But while killers and other violent juvenile offenders across the country are now getting second chances, a confluence of factors have combined to keep Wershe behind bars for his decades-old drug charge.
His situation can ultimately be traced back to the height of the crack era in Detroit in the mid-'80s. When Wershe was 14, he was recruited by a federal drug task force to work as an informant. Technically, the agents recruited his father, Richard Wershe Sr., who had been selling weapons to drug dealers in their neighborhood. But the younger Wershe was already running the streets and had much more valuable info to share with the feds, who used their existing relationship with his dad to skirt the rules on underage informants.
Gregg Schwarz, a retired 30-year FBI veteran who spent 10 years in Detroit, recalled how the young Wershe had already ingratiated himself with Leo "Big Man" Curry and his brother Johnny "Little Man" Curry, who together ran one of the city's major crack operations.
"I met Rick Wershe when he was involved with the Curry brothers," Schwarz said. "He was always polite, street smart, and cooperative."
Wershe excelled at his new job, and he infiltrated the drug game with James Bond-like duplicity. He spoke to VICE News by phone from Michigan's Oaks Correctional Facility, and described the lifestyle he enjoyed while working for the feds and hanging out with some of Detroit's most powerful drug lords.
"I was just a kid when the agents pulled me out of high school and had me working for them," Wershe said. "They gave me a fake ID that said I was 21 so I could travel to Vegas and to Miami to do drug deals."
'I was just a kid when the agents pulled me out of high school and had me working for them.'
His claims would almost be too sensational to believe if they weren't backed up by police and FBI records uncovered last year by The Atavist, which published a lengthy profile of Wershe that detailed his exploits as a teenage informant-turned-drug baron.
After he helped make a case against the Curry brothers, the task force cut Wershe loose. He was eventually busted by some of the same cops he worked for previously. Though there's ample evidence to suggest that he was already involved in the cocaine business before the police came along, Wershe blames his informant work for his downfall.
"I was brought into this life by law enforcement," Wershe said."I was taught it, they left me alone and a year later I'm busted and put in jail for life."
Michigan repealed its 650 Lifer law in 1998, and Wershe was resentenced to life with the possibility of parole. Last September, Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Dana Hathaway tried to resentence Wershe again, saying "his youth and the circumstances surrounding the crime" warranted a further reduction in the length of his term. The move was blocked, however, by Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy. She appealed the resentencing, and a higher court ruled in her favor, leaving Wershe at the mercy of Michigan's parole board.
In light of the Supreme Court rulings about juveniles sentenced to life, Wershe considers the efforts to keep him locked up a grave injustice.
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"In Wayne County there's someone somewhere telling them to keep me in prison," Wershe said. "The United States Supreme Court, in Graham v. Florida, says a juvenile cannot have a life sentence without a meaningful opportunity of release. They're not giving me a meaningful opportunity of release. This prosecutor in Detroit says she believes in honesty and integrity in the justice system. She doesn't even believe in our nation's Supreme Court. This lady has to have some personal vendetta against me for something I did."
Wershe was referring to his involvement in an FBI sting operation that began in 1990, three years after he was sent to prison. In an attempt to gain his freedom, he worked with his former FBI handlers to bring about the biggest police corruption case in Detroit history. Wershe introduced an undercover FBI agent who posed as a Miami cocaine dealer to several dirty cops, who agreed to protect drug shipments coming through Detroit's airport. The case stretched all the way to city hall, implicating several top aides to then-Mayor Coleman Young, a powerful political figure in the city.
Wershe suspects that the current efforts to keep him locked up are payback for his role in the corruption case. Worthy did not respond to requests for comment from VICE News.
Jeffrey Ian Ross, a criminologist at the University of Baltimore, said it's certainly possible that local authorities have a grudge against Wershe because of his role in the corruption probe. He also suggested that the federal agents who used Wershe as a teenage informant might have their own reasons for keeping him incarcerated.
"There may be individuals in the Detroit and Michigan political establishment and perhaps the FBI that would prefer that he be locked up as long as possible as he may be perceived to be a liability on the outside," Ross said.
Schwarz, the former FBI agent, believes Wershe should be freed, and that local authorities have done everything in their power to prevent that from happening. He also cast blame on Michigan Governor Rick Snyder for failing to intervene on Wershe's behalf.
"A long line of officers, who now admit they have lied over the years and performed favors for purposes of impressing the higher ranks, admit now he should have been released," Schwarz said. "Apathy on the part of the attorney general and governor remain his enemy and have blocked his release."
Those who know Wershe believe he has matured into a totally different person than the 17-year-old drug kingpin who was arrested in 1987. His longtime friend Dave Majkowski, the administrator of the Free Rick Wershe Facebook page, said Wershe realizes the mistakes of his youth and just wants a second chance.
"There is no White Boy Rick, and any resemblance Rick may have had to that fictional character or urban legend three decades ago is long gone," Majkowski said. "Rick needs to be released ASAP. The real story here is not Rick. It's the vendetta against him and those behind it."
But there's some recent evidence that suggests Wershe might not have learned his lesson after all. In 2005, he pleaded guilty in a Florida court to participating in a multi-state stolen car scheme from jail that involved the thefts of nearly 300 luxury vehicles. He was sentenced to five years on racketeering charges to be served in Florida if he's ever paroled in Michigan. Wershe insists he was just a minor player, and that he was only facilitating what he thought were legitimate car sales.
"The media just seized on my name for that case," Wershe said. "I just made a couple of phone calls. I didn't know the cars were stolen."
Despite the stolen car case, Wershe still has unwavering support from a number of high-profile figures, including Detroit musician Kid Rock and filmmaker Shawn Rech, who recently directed a movie for Showtime about a Chicago man who was wrongfully convicted of murder. Rech is now working on a documentary about Wershe.
"This is the closest thing I've seen to a true political prisoner in America," Rech said. "To keep a non-violent juvenile offender in prison for life is barbaric. I'm looking forward to getting an explanation from those who stand in the way of his release. Public pressure will be the key. Hopefully when the public fully understands this situation they'll let their elected officials know what they think of it."
'The real story here is not Rick. It's the vendetta against him and those behind it.'
While Wershe is counting on public support — nearly 3,000 people have signed a Change.org petition calling on Michigan's governor to intervene on his behalf — he has also continued to fight for his release through the courts. He has appealed the ruling that blocked his re-sentencing last year, and plans to take the case to the federal level if Michigan's state courts continue to rule against him.
"There's a lot of people trying to get me out," he said. "People realize, like Jesus Christ, you got this kid involved in these drugs. When you're 14, 15 years old, you're impressionable. Yeah, I was blinded by the money, but [the FBI] got me involved in it. They gave me the credibility to do what I did, and now people are outraged by it."
Wershe wasn't the only Detroit cocaine dealer to be busted in the '80s, but most of his associates from that era have already served their time and been released, including the guys he helped set up while working as an informant. President Barack Obama has also worked to reform the criminal justice system at the federal level, eliminating the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine and granting clemency to nearly 100 non-violent drug offenders. (Wershe was sentenced at the state level, which makes him ineligible for the president's clemency initiative.)
But for Wershe, the recent Supreme Court rulings about life sentences for juveniles are perhaps the most maddening development yet. He's stunned that kids who were convicted of homicide are now being freed, while he remains imprisoned for the lesser crime of drug dealing.
"How can a person convicted of murder as a juvenile be entitled to relief, but I'm not?" he asked.
While he awaits his next day in court, his friends and family insist he has paid his debt to society.
"It's been way too long. He deserves to have his life back. He deserves to have a second chance," his mother Darlene said. "I just want him to come home, but there are those who don't, and only God knows why. He was a kid, now he's a middle-aged man. Enough is enough."
Follow Seth Ferranti on Twitter: @SethFerranti