White Boy Rick, a gritty new crime film starring Matthew McConaughey, has been promoted as the true tale of a poor, dysfunctional, family battling to stay together in 1980s Detroit. McConaughey plays Richard Wershe, Sr., a divorced, dreamer/schemer father, a loser in the business world who is doing all he can to provide for his kids.
Wershe’s son, Rick, became a paid FBI informant in 1984. He was 14 years old. Three years later, the bureau had cut him loose and he turned to the only trade he knew, the one law enforcement taught him, selling cocaine. He was arrested for possession of eight kilos or over 17 pounds of cocaine, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison where he remains today.
Promoting the film on the Tonight Show, McConaughey recapped the story line as follows:
“Early eighties. Southeast Detroit. Young man, Richard Wershe, Jr., 14, begins dealing on the streets. The FBI comes to him and says ‘We want you to be an informant.’ He says, ‘No, I’m not going to be an informant.’ They said, ‘Yeah, you are going to be an informant, because we got two bodies we traced back to guns that your dad was selling.’ So, he says, ‘Yes. I will be an informant.’”
It didn’t happen that way and the film whitewashes significant parts of Wershe’s past, ignoring his history of domestic violence.
I am a former Detroit TV news investigative reporter and documentary producer. I was on the streets when crack cocaine and “White Boy Rick” Wershe were hot news in the Motor City. But the challenge to the Hollywood version of how a 14-year-old kid was recruited by the FBI to be a drug informant is disputed by others with more direct knowledge than me.
Retired FBI agent Jim Dixon, who was one of the recruiters of the Wershes, confirmed the falsity of McConaughey’s tale that Rick was pressured in to becoming a drug snitch to protect his dad from charges in a gun case.
“It was all about the money [for Wershe],” Dixon told me. He was referring to FBI informant money.
Rick’s “handler” for many years, retired agent Herman Groman, agrees with Dixon. There is nothing in the files, Groman said, about a gun case against the father at the time of the recruitment.
Several years later Wershe was arrested by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms for possession of unregistered parts for 23 silencers. He was found guilty and sentenced to seven and a half years in prison. But that case had nothing to do with the FBI’s recruitment of the father and son in 1984.
The true story was the FBI had discovered through surveillance and informant tips that a young white kid named Rick Wershe was a frequent visitor to the home of the Curry Brothers, a family of black drug dealers who had attracted the feds’ attention because the leader of the gang was engaged to the niece of Detroit’s then-emperor-mayor, the late Coleman Young.
Coincidentally, as the federal investigation of the drug gang was solidifying, Wershe reached out to some Detroit FBI agents he knew for help in finding Rick’s sister Dawn, a drug addict. Wershe had met the agents while working for a time in a gun store. Dawn Wershe had disappeared into the twilight world of drugs. The FBI came calling at the Wershe home with an offer: they would help find Dawn in exchange for some help they wanted. In an interview in early 1988 with the Detroit News Wershe said he and his son became informants after agents helped “get his daughter back.” The recruitment wasn’t about beating a gun charge.
In the 1984 recruiting meeting Dixon and the other agent showed the senior Wershe surveillance photos of some black men. Wershe said he didn’t know them, but his son might. Indeed, young Rick was standing in a doorway watching and listening. He came to the table and identified each man correctly by his street name.
At that meeting the agents mentioned the magic words. They would pay cash for the information. During the recruitment pitch, Wershe did not object to the FBI putting his son in harm’s way in the murderous drug underworld. He didn’t mind subjecting an adolescent to constant life-or-death situations. The senior Wershe wanted the informant cash. It fit his get-rich-quick mentality.
It was understood the senior Wershe would be the informant of record, but everyone involved knew it was the young teen who had all the info the agents wanted.
At subsequent informant meetings Rick did all of the talking and Wershe signed for the cash from the agents. Dixon, the former agent, marveled at the 14-year-old's depth of knowledge of the criminal underworld.
“It was unbelievable what he had been involved in at that particular time,” Dixon said. “He started rattling off stuff and you’d go, ‘How does this 14-year old kid know all this’? But he was a street guy. He knew all these guys. He ran with them. He talked like a black street guy. He was hip.”
The kid roamed the streets at will and “knew all these guys” because he had no adult supervision.
During my many conversations, emails and written correspondence with Richard Wershe, Jr. for my blog and my book he never once mentioned being coerced into his informant role to protect his father from a firearms case. He sometimes complained bitterly about how the agents wanted a quid pro quo for finding his sister Dawn, but a gun case involving “two bodies” was never mentioned.
“He was a jerk,” is the way Ralph Musilli, Rick's longtime criminal appeals attorney, described Wershe. Musilli knew Rick’s father for years through legal work for him. That’s one of the kinder descriptions I’ve heard of Rick’s father.
Here’s the truth about the father Matthew McConaughey plays in White Boy Rick: Richard Wershe, Sr. was a terrible husband and father. Bel Powley, who plays Dawn Wershe, Rick’s sister, may have the most accurate line in the film. She tells the Matthew McConaughey character, “You realize you are the worst father, ever.”
Despite the imaginings of the script writers, the real Richard Wershe, Sr. was not a family man. A flaw in the romantic Hollywood notion of a man struggling for his family is the fact the elder Wershe was seldom home. In the Detroit News story mentioned previously, Wershe said he always had several businesses going. “I was gone,” he said. Rick’s father was an admitted business hustler. Those who knew him say he was always chasing some get-rich-quick scheme. He was a licensed neighborhood gun merchant who did some shaky deals, but that was just one of his hustles. When satellite television arrived, he sold boxes to evade pay TV scrambling. He sold gadgets to cheat cell phone providers’ billing systems. He tried peddling vitamins. He was convinced the road to riches was paved with videocassette machines.
Wershe had a dark side, too. He was abusive and prone to domestic violence. At dawn on one wintry morning he threw Rick’s mother out the house and into the snow and locked the doors. She was barefoot, wearing nothing but a nightie. Darlene Wershe told me she ran through the snow to a neighbor’s house for help and shelter.
Beverly Srbich was a longtime Wershe neighbor who lived across the street. She recalled how Rick and Dawn would run to her house to escape the turmoil in their own. "Richard thought the world revolved around Richard and what Richard wanted," Srbich remembers. "His kids didn’t matter. Nothing mattered." Her voice started quivering. "You have no idea of the hate I have in my heart for this man."
Wayne LeCouffe, Rick’s cousin by marriage, is two years younger than Rick and clear memories of his Wershe cousins in their youth.
"Rick’s father was never home for Dawn or Rick," LeCouffe stated flatly. "He was never there. Rick and Dawn grew up without parents."
In 2003 Wershe testified to the Michigan Parole Board: “I really didn't have any parental supervision at that time. I was basically raising myself."
For many years Rick was estranged from his father. Rick realized he was spending his life in prison in large part because his dad agreed to let his 14-year old son become an informant to get FBI cash. As Richard Wershe, Sr. was dying of cancer, Rick reconciled with his father at the urging of his attorney, Musilli.
In 2002 Wershe was arrested by the St. Clair Shores, Michigan police on charges he choked his 10-year old grandson in an argument. The youngster told police he couldn’t breathe as his grandfather choked him. Wershe’s granddaughter told police he punched her in the face, grabbed her by the throat and “knocked her to the floor” for fighting with her brother. On another occasion Rick’s sister Dawn told police her father spat in her face. Wershe was arrested for domestic violence several times. In a report on one of the domestic violence complaints, responding officers quoted Dawn Wershe as saying her father “has a history of physical abuse and has assaulted family members in the past.”
All of this posed a dilemma for the screenplay writers who were struggling, trying to find a positive spin on the life of Richard Wershe, Sr. From the outset they seemed determined to make this a father-and-son-against-the-world tale, a bit like The Pursuit of Happyness, the Will Smith film of 2006. But the facts didn’t fit their goal of telling a story of a flawed but good-hearted lower-class father. The premise led to grafting a fairy tale on to actual facts and incidents.
For a time, White Boy Rick was the most productive drug informant of the Detroit FBI. Things went awry when Rick informed Agent Groman he was present when two members of the Curry gang admitted they inadvertently killed a 13-year old boy in a drug money dispute with the victim’s uncle. The tip was corroborated by court-authorized wiretaps. The FBI soon discovered the homicide investigation was being botched by the Detroit Police Department, apparently to keep the case away from the Curry gang and the mayor’s niece, the drug leader’s fiancé, who might become a trial witness. FBI agents were soon confronted face-to-face with obstruction of justice by top command officers, including the police chief. But they couldn’t make a case without exposing their use of a paid adolescent informant.
To make matters worse, Detroit FBI agents had falsified their own files to make it appear that the information came from Rick’s father, code-named “Gem.” Falsifying federal files is a 20-year felony. As one former FBI agent put it, Rick’s informant work was “spinning out of control.”
The feds abruptly dropped Rick. He was used to living off FBI informant cash and the sale of drugs he had purchased at the direction of Detroit police narcotics officers who were part of a federal drug task force. Inspired by immature teen judgment, Rick decided he would become a cocaine wholesaler. Before long he was caught with a large cocaine shipment, tried and convicted. Michigan law at the time mandated a sentence of life without parole. The FBI didn’t step up to help their star snitch because it would have exposed their own crimes. Thus, White Boy Rick became a warrior left on the battlefield. He was a prisoner of war—the War on Drugs.
Rick was finally paroled in 2017 but he remains in custody in Florida on an unrelated auto fraud conviction.
When Rick was arrested on drug charges in 1987, the Detroit news media went in to a frenzy. Without any evidence and before any trial, he was labeled in media stories as a “kingpin” and a “drug lord.” There is nothing in any official record to back that libelous smear. But the notion of a wimpy white kid as the boss of prison-hardened adult black men in the murderous drug trade proved irresistible for reporters, even if there was no evidence to support it. Then and now, the idea is ridiculous on its face. Yet those very words are featured prominently on the marketing posters for White Boy Rick.
Mark Twain said never let the truth get in the way of a good story. The news media and Hollywood have followed his advice.
Vince Wade is the author of Prisoner of War: The Story of White Boy Rick and the War on Drugs.