Richard John Wershe Jr. is a political prisoner in America. The political component of his ordeal is local, it’s harsh and it’s vindictive.
Wershe, who grew up in Detroit, was sentenced to life in prison without parole for a non-violent drug crime committed when he was 17. The law was eventually changed to allow parole but that hasn’t made a difference for Wershe. He is Michigan’s last remaining juvenile non-violent drug offender, still behind bars after 27 years.
Wershe, who has been described by a prison official as a near-model prisoner, was never charged with any drug-related violence, he was never charged with ordering any drug violence, he never operated crack houses, he was never charged with conspiracy because he never had a gang, he was never named as an unindicted co-conspirator in any narcotics case and he was never called as a witness in any drug trials. Yet, he’s been labeled a drug lord and kingpin.
Rather, Wershe was a paid confidential informant for the FBI who helped the feds prosecute drug-corrupted cops and the drug-dealing brother-in-law of Detroit’s mayor. The decades-long effort to keep Wershe in prison smacks of a political machine vendetta against someone who dared help the FBI root out big-city corruption.
The story of Richard “Rick” Wershe, 46, known in the media for years as White Boy Rick, is a tale of crime and punishment gone awry. It provides a glimpse in to the world of police informants and drug-related political corruption.
Wershe was recruited by the FBI at age 14 to join the fight in the war on drugs as a paid confidential informant. He had no prior involvement with drugs. He was selected for informant recruitment because he knew and was trusted by a neighborhood black family targeted for investigation as suspected cocaine traffickers.
It was 1984 and Detroit, like many American cities, was suddenly awash in crack cocaine.
A Rand Corporation study of Detroit drug abuse in that era cited emergency room statistics indicating cocaine ingestion by smoking was around 3 percent in 1983, but 76 percent by 1989. The same study noted metro Detroit narcotics arrests “grew from 9,000 in 1986 to nearly 16,000 in 1988.”
When the crack epidemic hit town business picked up at the local morgue, too.
“There was a war going on in the city,” recalls retired FBI agent Herman Groman, who was assigned to the drug squad in that era. “Detroit’s always been a tough town, but it was getting even tougher.”
Groman says the FBI had been focused on heroin cases because that was the dominant illegal drug until crack cocaine arrived.
“I remember we would debrief informants and they would talk about crack and somehow we ended up thinking they were saying cracks. We wondered what the heck is cracks? Eventually we figured out that it was crack they were talking about.”
The Detroit FBI was keenly interested in the cocaine wheeling and dealing of the Curry Brothers, an east side gang of suspected traffickers. Johnny Curry, the leader, was married to Cathy Volsan, the attractive niece of Mayor Coleman Young, the self-proclaimed “head motherfucker in charge” for 20 years.
The late Willie Volsan, the mayor’s brother-in-law and Cathy’s father, had been a major figure in Detroit’s black underworld for many years. Volsan began as an illegal gambling racketeer, and then moved to dealing heroin in the 1970s and cocaine in the 1980s. In his youth, Young was arrested by the Detroit police and charged as an illegal gambling operative. The FBI wanted to know if Young had any connection to the drug dealing of his brother-in-law and his niece’s husband.
Young, now deceased, was a skilled and cagey politician who was a perennial target of FBI investigation for suspected corruption. Young had been on the FBI radar dating back to his defiant appearance in 1952 before the infamous House Un-American Activities (HUAC) Committee. The hostility between the FBI and Young was mutual. Everyone who knew Young understood he detested the FBI, especially its “stool pigeons” who helped put away some of his loyal allies over public corruption, including his longtime police chief who was convicted for stealing police funds meant for narcotics enforcement. Detroit’s power establishment also knew Young was a master of rewarding his friends and punishing his enemies.
“Detroit has been and continues to be the gold standard for public corruption in the United States,” says Gregg Schwarz, a retired FBI agent who worked with Wershe briefly in the late 1980s. “Mayors, city officials, judges, police, it’s all there.” (Kwame Kilpatrick, Detroit’s mayor from 2002 to 2008, was convicted twice on corruption charges, is now serving a 28-year sentence at a federal prison.)
Agent Schwarz eventually transferred from Detroit to Washington, D.C., where he was in charge of sensitive FBI background investigations of prospective presidential appointees and employees at the White House. (Among those Schwarz and his team vetted was an intern named Monica Lewinsky.)
Rick Wershe came from a dysfunctional lower-middle-class family. His parents split in a bitter divorce, his sister Dawn was addicted to drugs and his father was a business hustler frequently on the edge of the law. As a hedge against going to jail Rick’s late father became a paid FBI informant. That’s how agents came to recruit his son, Rick.
Federal agents and Detroit police officers working on a combined federal and local drug task force taught young Wershe the ways of the drug underworld. They gave him a realistic fake ID stating he was 21. They gave him cash to play the role with the real drug dealers. They put informant reports from Richard J. Wershe, Jr. in the FBI file of Richard J. Wershe, Sr. They had young Wershe sign for money under the code name “Gem,” the same one used by his father.
“I was blinded by the life,” Wershe says as he recalls flying to Las Vegas with the Currys for the Marvin Hagler-Tommy Hearns prize fight in 1985 when he was 15 years old. He was living a life unknown to other kids his age.
Wershe was giving the FBI regular intelligence on the Curry drug organization, including the inadvertent murder of a 13-year old boy, Damion Lucas. The Curry group did a drive-by shooting to intimidate the boy’s uncle and the youngster was killed in the fusillade. Wershe told the FBI that Johnny Curry received assurances from Inspector Gil Hill that he shouldn’t worry, that he (Hill) would ensure the investigation was steered away from the Currys. Wershe says he overheard this on a speakerphone conversation between Curry and Hill. Hill has repeatedly denied to reporters he obstructed justice in the murder of Lucas.
In fact, an innocent man was arrested and charged with the murder, but the case was eventually dropped when FBI Agent Groman, who became Wershe’s main “handler,” interceded and told the lawyers and judge the FBI had wiretap information indicating a drug gang did the killing. To this day no one has been prosecuted for the killing, but as a result of Wershe’s informant tip, former Detroit FBI agents say, Hill became a long-standing target for investigation of police corruption.
(Hill opted for a second career in politics, eventually becoming president of the Detroit City Council. Hill was a local celebrity because he played the role of Eddie Murphy’s boss in the Beverly Hills Cop movies. These days he is said to be in ill health.)
Thanks to Rick Wershe’s informant work the FBI was able to get permission for court-authorized wiretaps and listening devices trained on Johnny Curry.
About a year after the murder, the federal agents and local cops on the task force quit taking Rick Wershe’s phone calls, though. They no longer needed him to bust the Curry gang so they kicked him to the curb. Wershe thinks it’s because someone “higher up” got wind of the fact they were running a juvenile informant in a dangerous drug investigation and ordered an end to his secret life.
Wershe had dropped out of school to play the role of drug spy, but now he was 16 and without a job or education. So he turned to the only trade he knew, the one law enforcement taught him. In the summer of 1986 Rick Wershe Jr. decided to become a “weight man,” a cocaine wholesaler.
Wershe’s association with the Curry brothers enabled him to make connections in the drug underworld. One of those “connects” was a suburban man named Art Derrick who owned a small fleet of aircraft which enabled him to bring drugs from Miami to Detroit easily and quickly. Derrick was the weight man Wershe aspired to be. It was Derrick who gave Wershe the nickname White Boy Rick. In a sworn affidavit before he died from complications of drug abuse, Derrick said he had two customers named Rick. One was black, the other white. To avoid confusion between the two, Derrick says he called the black customer Maserati Rick for the car he drove and nicknamed Wershe White Boy Rick for his age and race. Narcs heard Derrick refer to White Boy Rick and the nickname soon found its way to a local TV news reporter working the police beat. When Wershe was eventually arrested headline writers fell in love with the nickname and used it often.
By this time Johnny Curry was in jail and his wife, Cathy Volsan Curry, who was several years older than Wershe, boldly approached him and suggested they have a fling. (Plus, she had a cocaine habit Rick could satisfy.) Unknown to her she was sleeping with an aspiring teen dope dealer who helped send her husband to prison.
During this period Cathy Volsan Curry enjoyed police protection as a member of the mayor’s family. That protection included keeping her out of trouble ranging from traffic tickets to criminal investigations. Police contacts kept her informed of any investigations that might involve her or those close to her. Federal drug task force operatives discovered this when they raided her home and found Detroit police narcotics investigative reports and a laminated card with the private unlisted phone numbers of top-ranking police officers. Wershe was there during the raid because he had been sleeping at Cathy Volsan Curry’s townhouse nightly as he worked to become a cocaine wholesaler. Wershe said nothing while the narcs searched the place. They didn’t find any drugs.
Wershe was 17 when he was arrested in May 1987 near his family home after a “routine” police traffic stop that was quickly followed by a swarm of cops who had been waiting for the signal to take action. There was a scuffle involving the Wershe family after a cop spotted a shopping bag full of cash on the floorboard of the car. Wershe’s sister grabbed the cash and ran inside her grandparents’ home nearby. Rick Wershe drifted away amid the chaos but he was soon taken into custody. The police later claimed he went to a neighbor’s backyard and stashed a box under a porch containing over 17 pounds of cocaine, even though Wershe’s fingerprints were not found on the box or on the packages of cocaine inside. Nor did he have the box with him when he walked away from the traffic stop.
Michigan had a draconian law at the time that mandated life without parole for anyone convicted of possessing more than 650 grams of cocaine, even if there was no violence associated with the possession of the drugs. The police claimed Wershe had 7,711 grams (17 pounds) of the stuff. He was not charged with any violence. In 1992 the Michigan Supreme Court ruled Michigan’s “650” law was “…not consistent with our constitutional prohibition of ‘cruel or unusual punishment.’ The penalty is therefore unconstitutional on its face.”
Wershe was represented by longtime criminal defense attorney William E. Bufalino II. Wershe says today he pushed Bufalino aside at the urging of Cathy Volsan Curry. Wershe recalls Cathy told him that her “family” told her that he needed black attorneys to represent him in the drug trial. At Cathy Volsan Curry’s urging, Wershe says, he hired two black attorneys, Ed Bell and Sam Gardner. Both lawyers were in Mayor Young’s orbit of associates. (Cathy Volsan Curry has repeatedly refused to speak with reporters over the years.)
When Bell took over Wershe’s defense he quickly withdrew a Bufalino pretrial motion challenging the drug evidence in the Wershe arrest. Bufalino’s motion made sense because Wershe’s fingerprints weren’t on the drugs. By withdrawing the evidence suppression motion, Bell and Gardner left Wershe without an issue to appeal should he be convicted. And he was convicted. In Wershe’s one and only parole hearing in 2003 Bufalino testified that in his opinion Bell and Gardner, both deceased, deliberately made sure Wershe had no basis for an appeal of the conviction that would keep him locked up for good.
“They hung this boy out to dry,” Bufalino told the parole board.
Significantly, no one from the FBI, the federal drug task force or the U.S. Attorney’s office in Detroit stepped forward to help Wershe in his state case. To do so would have required them to admit publicly they had lured a juvenile in to the drug underworld to help them make a case. They remained silent as their teen informant went to trial, was convicted by a jury and sentenced to life in prison.
Much later, in Wershe’s parole hearing, Bufalino testified under oath that he received a personal warning from Mayor Young to stay out of the Wershe case.
“I was personally told by Coleman Young: ‘Stay out of this. This is bigger than you think it is,’” Bufalino testified. He went on to speculate in his testimony to the board that Young may have been trying to protect his brother-in-law. (Bufalino and Young are deceased, so neither can be questioned about it.)
Even after Wershe went to prison, the FBI asked him for help. Around 1990 at the FBI’s request Wershe told Cathy Volsan Curry that one of his trusted “connects” from Miami needed police protection. The “connect” was an undercover FBI agent posing as a big-time Miami drug dealer. She in turn introduced undercover FBI Agent Mike Castro, posing as Mike Diaz, to her father, Willie Volsan. Volsan then introduced the agent to various police officers willing to take bribes to provide protection for what they believed were drug and cash shipments through Detroit. One of the cops Volsan tapped for help was Sgt. James Harris, a member of Young’s security detail. Volsan also brought his friend Gil Hill into the undercover sting operation.
Eventually Hill grew suspicious and backed out. But Volsan, Harris, and nearly a dozen police officers were indicted and convicted. Hill was by now a major Detroit politician with his own growing political power base. When Volsan and the cops were indicted in the sting that was set up with Wershe’s help, it had to be clear to Hill the FBI had been after him for five years as a result of Wershe’s work as a paid confidential informant.
In a sworn affidavit obtained by Ralph Musilli, Wershe’s defense attorney, one of the Detroit police witnesses who had testified at the parole hearing says he knew nothing about the infamous prison inmate and had never encountered him in any investigation but said he was ordered to testify “through channels.” He says in the affidavit that he spoke with Gil Hill about it and states Hill was involved in planning the witness lineup testifying against Wershe’s parole.
For Coleman Young, this was perhaps the ultimate outrage; a white FBI “stool pigeon” sleeping with his niece had sent his brother-in-law to prison.
In Hill and Young, Wershe had made enemies of two of the most powerful black politicians in Detroit.
When Wershe had his parole review in 2003, the Wayne County prosecutor, Mike Duggan, sent a scathing letter to the Michigan Parole Board vehemently opposing his release, accusing Wershe of being a “gang leader” and “violent kingpin” who intimidated witnesses who “just disappeared.” The letter also accused Wershe of operating a “criminal enterprise.” “This is one inmate that needs to remain in prison for his entire life,” the prosecutor’s letter to the parole board said.
Duggan is now the mayor of Detroit (and the first white one since before Coleman Young was elected in 1973). Through a spokesman Duggan says he cannot recall the Wershe letter. Duggan is also a political protégé of the late Ed McNamara, who was the Wayne County Executive when Coleman Young was mayor. McNamara and Young were all-powerful politicians and the unquestioned leaders of machine politics in Detroit and the county surrounding it. Both men knew the benefits of not getting mad, but getting even.
This year I submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy asking for documentation for the damning accusations against Wershe contained in the 2003 Duggan letter to the parole board.
“After a diligent search for the requested records, we have determined and certify the records do not exist,” the prosecutor’s office wrote.
The prosecutor didn’t say the records had been routinely purged or were missing or ever existed at all. Instead, the prosecutor’s office admits records supporting the claim to the parole board that Richard J. Wershe Jr. is a menace to society too dangerous to be allowed his freedom do not exist.
What’s more, Wershe was never charged in state or federal court with participating in a narcotics conspiracy or racketeering, the crimes associated with being a “drug lord.” Wershe was never named as a defendant, conspirator, unindicted co-conspirator or witness in any federal or state drug prosecutions.
Veteran Detroit criminal defense attorney Steve Fishman says White Boy Rick Wershe never came up as a figure in the big drug trafficking trials of that era, either.
A Detroit judge recently tried to re-sentence Wershe to time served because he was a juvenile when he was convicted. Prosecutor Worthy fought the judge’s decision in the state court of appeals, which ruled against the judge on a technicality. The battle now moves to the state supreme court. The Michigan criminal justice establishment is fighting like hell to keep Wershe locked up until he dies. He is being treated differently than everyone else in Michigan convicted of the same non-violent drug crime as a juvenile. Wershe’s life sentence is not proportionate to the severity of the crime. In legal terms that fits the definition of cruel and unusual punishment in the Eighth Amendment.
To be sure, this is not a case of an innocent man in prison. Wershe admits he tried to become a major dope dealer after he was cut loose by the feds, but retired FBI Agent Schwarz says he never made it. Wershe put himself at risk with his role in the drug sting operation that ensnared corrupt cops so the Justice Department put him in the Witness Security or WitSec program. WitSec puts incarcerated informants in secure units within designated federal prisons.
Wershe got in trouble while in a federal prison in Florida for trying to buy a car for his mother and sister with the help of a friend on the outside. He also tried to arrange for his sister to sell four used cars to raise money for his family. It turned out to be a car theft and title fraud scheme. A Florida prosecutor told Wershe he would charge his mother and sister if he didn’t plead guilty, so he did and got a five-year sentence. Others in the same case got probation and restitution. Why did you receive a harsher sentence? Wershe says the prosecutor asked him in a conversation what he did to make authorities in Michigan so mad at him. The implication was Michigan authorities intervened to ensure Wershe received a harsh sentence. A 2005 article in the Detroit Free Press about Wershe’s involvement in the car theft case reported, “The arrests come after a two-year investigation dubbed Operation Road Runner that included cooperation from the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office.” The apparent vendetta for informing on the wrong people appears to have followed Wershe to Florida.
Over all the 27 years Wershe has been in prison former FBI Agent Schwarz has become his mentor and emotional lifeline. Schwarz has written letters to Wershe’s trial judge, the Michigan Parole Board and the governor of Michigan urging his release. Schwarz and two other FBI agents, Herman Groman and Martin Torgler, testified in Wershe’s behalf at his parole board hearing, to no avail. Groman, who was then an active FBI agent, had to get Wershe’s defense attorney to subpoena him because Bureau higher-ups wouldn’t authorize his testimony. Groman paid his own way from Nevada to Michigan for Wershe’s parole hearing.
Mike Castro, the undercover FBI agent in the sting that led to the prosecution of a dozen cops and the brother-in-law of Mayor Young, says he owes his life to Wershe, who vouched for him when the sting suspects became suspicious.
Another retired FBI agent, John Anthony, was the legal adviser for the Detroit FBI office when Wershe helped develop prosecutions. He had knowledge of all the cases the local office developed. Anthony told me Wershe is arguably the most productive informant the Detroit division of the FBI has ever had.
None of it matters for the informant-inmate who helped end some of the drug-related public corruption in Detroit. Coleman Young appears to be getting revenge from the grave.
Rick Wershe’s salvation may be political. He could be a poster child for one of President Barack Obama’s current political causes—ridding the nation’s prisons of non-violent drug offenders. Wershe meets all of the criteria the Justice Department set forth for presidential clemency except that he is in a state prison, not a federal penitentiary.
For his part, Rick Wershe doesn’t care about the politics of corrections. He just hopes someone will look at what he has done to help prosecute drug crime and corruption and what he hasn’t done in terms of his bogus reputation as a drug lord and kingpin and let him have freedom for the first time in his adult life.
Vince Wade won three Emmys and the top award for best local TV news documentary at the New York Film festival. He lives in the Los Angeles area where he is working on a book on Rick Wershe. He writes a blog focused on the Wershe saga called Informant America on thedimedroppers.com.