The youngest paid drug informant in the history of the FBI has spent his entire adult life in prison. He is finally free, released Monday from a halfway-house prison facility in Florida.
Richard J. Wershe Jr.—known to the public as White Boy Rick—was picked up by his fiancee at 10:30 a.m., Detroit TV station WXYZ reported.
That means Wershe is tasting freedom for the first time since he was a teenager. He’s been behind bars since 1988 for a non-violent drug crime, even though he was one of the FBI’s most productive paid drug informants.
To say he got screwed by the criminal justice system is an understatement.
Two years ago, I wrote a book about him called Prisoner of War: The Story of White Boy Rick and the War on Drugs.
In a very real sense Wershe was a prisoner of the war on drugs. His story typified the nation’s years-long failed effort to stop the relentless flow of illegal drugs on our streets.
Over time his story attracted worldwide media attention.
Rick Wershe was a white kid living in Detroit’s black ghetto. He got to know and consorted with major, politically-connected black drug dealers. That led to his recruitment as a secret, underage paid informant for the FBI.
Sony Pictures made a movie about him starring Matthew McConaughey. The film, White Boy Rick, tried to tell a tale of a lower-class father-and-son-against-the world, which missed the real story of a 14-year old kid paid to snitch on powerful and dangerous drug dealers in a sorry episode of questionable judgment and motives by adults. Law enforcement taught him the dark art of drug dealing. Young Wershe, with all the common sense of a teen, succumbed to the allure of fast cash and fast women in the drug underworld. He tried to become a wholesaler, a “weight” man. He got busted by the local police with a large load of cocaine, enough to trigger a state drug law with a mandatory life sentence. The feds abandoned their snitch rather than face public criticism for using a teen informant.
Richard Wershe Sr. was a street hustler and con man, always chasing get-rich-quick schemes and seldom home. Richard Wershe Sr. didn’t drink, but police records show a history of domestic violence against his family, including his son, Rick.
Rick Wershe Jr. roamed the streets and adapted to the changing complexion of the neighborhood. When he befriended some rising stars in the ghetto drug underworld, it caught the attention of the FBI.
Through his father, the FBI recruited Rick—age 14—to become the Bureau’s youngest drug informant. Richard Wershe Sr. readily agreed to put his adolescent son in a dangerous high-stakes secret life in exchange for FBI cash.
Since father and son were Richard Wershe Sr. and Jr. the FBI cleverly listed the father as a secret paid informant in FBI files but it was the son who was the real snitch. The informant on the books in the FBI’s files was simply known as Richard J. Wershe.
Young Rick was a gold mine of information about top-level drug dealing. When he told the FBI about possible connections between a drug gang and city officials, the feds assigned special agent Herman Groman to be his so-called “handler.” Groman worked with Rick Wershe on and off for years.
When Wershe was busted, the FBI and Justice Department didn’t come to his aid most likely because they would face intense criticism for recruiting a teenager in the war on drugs. To avoid criticism and a possible congressional inquiry, the federal government was apparently willing to let one of their best informants go to prison for under a life sentence.
I recently spoke by phone with Groman about Wershe finally becoming a free man:
“It’s a difficult thing for me to process,” Groman said. “He was locked up when he was 17 years old for a non-violent drug crime—possession—and largely in part because of his cooperation with the FBI, and more specifically with me, on a major police corruption case, he essentially wound up not getting any credit for that and he ended up spending more than 30 years in prison.”
As a result of his informant work on corrupt cops, Wershe was put in the federal Witness Security Program for criminals who cooperated with the government. For a time Wershe was in a Witness Security prison with Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano, the government’s star witness against the late Mafia boss, John Gotti. Wershe would call Groman from prison and occasionally put Gravano on the phone. Groman recalls Gravano once told him, “I don’t understand it. I whacked 19 guys for John Gotti and I cooperated. I’m getting out of this place in April. This kid, who’s never pulled the trigger on anybody... has got to stay here for the rest of his life. That don't make no sense.”
Wershe has been a model prisoner for three decades. In 2017, he was paroled in Michigan on the drug conviction after years of appeals work by his attorney, Ralph Musilli.
But Wershe had an outstanding conviction and prison sentence in Florida in a car theft fraud case that happened while Wershe was in the federal witness program. Wershe has been in prison in Florida since 2017.
“As a result of his cooperation, a lot of major crimes were [prosecuted] and it was always my thought that at some point he would be given some consideration by the government for that and it never really happened,” Groman said.
After three decades in prison, Richard Wershe Jr. is going to have challenges adjusting to freedom, even if he gets plenty of help and support.
“I think it’s going to be an interesting journey for him,” Groman said. “I think it can be fraught with a lot of peril. Think how much the world has changed in the last 30 years. You know, in every way. His world is going to be completely different.”
Groman is pleased and relieved that one of his best informants who was screwed by the criminal justice system is finally able to have a life. “My feelings are, I’m very, very happy for him. I’m happy for his family and I wish him a lot of success.”
While he’s been in prison, Wershe has been keeping a low media profile. At the time of his 2017 parole hearing in Michigan, Rick Wershe Jr. said the person known as White Boy Rick doesn’t exist anymore. He said once he’s free, he wants to disappear from the headlines and public view. It’s a worthy goal and he’s earned the chance to achieve it.