It’s a case that has gripped Metro Detroiters for decades.
The story of a baby-faced white kid who authorities say was a major drug kingpin during Detroit’s destructive crack epidemic in the late 1980s has become legend among local residents.
Now, the life story of Richard Wershe Jr., better known as “White Boy Rick,” is being retold in a motion picture.
Filming begins this month in Cleveland about Wershe, who was convicted as a teenager and has been in prison for nearly three decades on a life sentence for dealing drugs.
Wershe contends when he was just 14 years old, he was forced into the life of a drug runner and informant by federal agents and Detroit police.
The movie being directed by Yann Demange is expected to be in theaters by January, and the project is already getting buzz in Hollywood.
Matthew McConaughey has been cast as Wershe’s dad, Richard Wershe Sr., who allegedly introduced his son to FBI agents to become an underage drug informant for them. McConaughey met this week with Wershe at the Oaks Correctional Facility in Manistee where Wershe is serving a life sentence.
Veteran actor Jennifer Jason Leigh will play a federal agent, and Wershe’s character will be played by Richie Merritt, a “little known” actor from Baltimore, movie producer Scott Franklin told The Detroit News.
Most of the movie will be shot in Cleveland, but crews will film in Detroit. A few scenes were shot here Wednesday, Franklin said.
Franklin, who produced Hollywood blockbusters “Black Swan” and “The Wrestler,” said Wershe’s story is a cautionary tale, adding: “It can happen to anybody.”
“It is both intriguing and interesting,” Franklin said. “It’s tragic. The government put him away for half of his life. Most importantly, he lost his formative years.”
Wershe, 47, said the movie is “long overdue,” and hopes it clears up “this myth created by the media” of him being a larger-than-life drug dealer who played a significant role in Detroit’s then-burgeoning drug trade.
“The truth was hidden for so long,” Wershe said in an interview with The Detroit News last month from the Oaks Correctional Facility. “People will come away from it angry.”
Wershe said he hopes he is released from prison by the time the movie debuts in theaters.
Running drugs at 14
Not yet titled, the movie is based on Wershe’s days on some of Detroit’s mean streets on the east side and includes the beginning of his years as a 14-year-old drug runner and alleged informant for the FBI and Detroit narcotics officers.
Then called “Ricky” by neighborhood pals, Wershe moved easily in a circle of high-profile street drug dealers, mostly black, during the late 1980s when crack cocaine was making its dangerous and often deadly debut in urban areas.
Like so many of Detroit’s neighborhoods, the east side where Wershe grew up crumbled into decay as factory jobs dried up, property values plunged and the blue-collar residents began to empty out.
Wershe has mostly been portrayed as a stylish, suit-wearing integral part of Detroit’s drug scene. His appearances in court in the 1980s drew crowds and curious onlookers who were drug dealers or runners themselves.
PREVIOUS REPORT::‘White Boy Rick’ regrets being ‘blinded by the money’
But Wershe’s longtime attorney, Ralph Musilli, said the teen was barely out of puberty when he was pushed into the drug underworld by federal agents and police to infiltrate some of the city’s most high-level and dangerous drug gangs.
Musilli said Wershe was a paid FBI informant who shared a government informant identification number with his now-deceased father.
“He could get in and out of (drug houses),” Musilli has said. “Police would drop him off at them.”
By the time he was a 17-year-old defendant in his high-profile trial on drug charges, Wershe was a father to two young daughters. His youngest child, a son, would be born shortly after he was incarcerated.
In sworn statements, Wershe said he wanted to go home and be a dad to his three children. He now is a grandfather.
Wershe continues to beg for his freedom, citing a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that strikes down life sentences for juveniles, calling them “cruel and unusual” punishment.
Life sentence at 18
Wershe was sentenced in 1988 at age 18 to life without parole under now-abolished criminal drug laws. A year earlier, when Wershe was arrested, he had 9,000 grams of cocaine and $30,000 on him.
Supporters call his prison term “unconscionable,” especially since the U.S. Supreme Court has outlawed life sentences for juvenile offenders.
“He’s a political prisoner,” Musilli said. “There is absolutely no reason for it. Since his 2003 parole date, there have been hundreds ... thousands (of other prisoners) released. We’re talking second-degree murder, robbery, rape ... violent criminals. Why not him?”
The Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office previously opposed Wershe’s release request because he “failed to provide a sufficient legal basis to invalidate his sentence.” But last year, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy softened her stance, saying she would re-evaluate her opposition.
“Having been immersed in the juvenile life without parole murder cases for the last six months, I have noted parallels to the Richard Wershe case that have caused me to review the office position in his case,” Worthy said in a statement in August.
Nearly two years ago, Wershe saw a glimmer of hope when 3rd Circuit Judge Dana Hathaway ruled he should get a new sentence. But the Michigan Court of Appeals reversed Hathaway’s ruling and the Michigan Supreme Court later refused to review the case.
A change in the state’s drug-sentencing law in 2002 made Wershe eligible for parole. He’s had one hearing, in 2003, and was denied. He made subsequent requests for hearings in 2007 and 2012 but was turned down.
Franklin, the movie producer, said he hopes his film has an impact and wants to see Wershe released before the film is shown in theaters.
“I hope we don’t have to wait for the film to be released for it to have an impact,” Franklin said. “I hope Rick gets released a lot sooner than that. He certainly deserves to be released.”
RELATED REPORT::‘White Boy Rick’ scheduled to meet with parole board
Franklin was among the people who wrote letters supporting Wershe’s release from prison.
“I think Rick can have a positive impact on society,” Franklin said he wrote in his letter. “He’s shown himself to be nothing but professional, caring, kind, courteous, responsible in all of my dealings with him.”
Scott Silver, who wrote the movie “Eight Mile” and was one of the writers on Franklin’s Wershe movie, said he believes Wershe is still in prison for “political” reasons.
“I think his story is tragic and (one of) injustice,” Silver said. “He was a streetwise kid but still a kid. I’d like the public to be as outraged as I am. I hope the movie does help him get out.”