Richard “White Boy Rick” Wershe Jr. cleared a hurdle Friday on his road to freedom when the Michigan Parole Board voted unanimously to parole him from a life term for dealing drugs as a teenager.
As Wershe’s family and supporters celebrate the long-awaited decision, his attorney and other supporters are preparing for the last obstacle to overcome before he can be a free man.
Wershe, who will remain behind bars in Michigan until at least mid-August, has 22 months left on a five-year Florida sentence stemming from a case involving an interstate car theft ring.
Corrections officials said Wershe declined an interview request from The Detroit News, but his longtime attorney expressed joy at the parole board’s decision.
“I feel great. I feel good for him. I feel relieved for him,” attorney Ralph Musilli said. “Now we can go on and see what we will do (about) Florida.”
Musilli said he’s ready to file a motion by the end of the month to get a “reformation” on the Florida sentence.
Wershe’s Florida prison sentence stems from his conviction in 2006 while he was incarcerated there; he had been moved to Florida from Michigan for his protection.
“Mr. Wershe’s sentence remains unchanged,” read a statement released Thursday by Kylie Mason, a spokeswoman for Florida Attorney General Pamela Bondi. “... There is no agreement with the State of Florida for any change of sentence.”
Wayne State University law school professor Peter Henning, a former federal prosecutor, said Wershe’s situation is unusual because he would be going from a lengthy prison sentence in one state to a shorter prison term in another state.
“I’m not sure there are a lot of cases like this,” Henning said Friday. “This is an unusual case.”
Henning added that Florida could demand that he serves the rest of the five-year prison term there or the lawyers involved could get “creative” and come up with their own solution, such as having Wershe serve parole in Florida.
Florida officials might not want to spend the money to get Wershe back, Henning said.
“There’s a point when the costs of punishment exceeds any benefit from it,” he said.
Wershe, who gained notoriety during the crack cocaine epidemic in the 1980s, was convicted in 1988 of possession with intent to deliver more than 650 grams of a controlled substance.
He has said he was “brought” into a lifestyle of drugs by FBI agents and police who used him as an informant from 1984 to 1986.
Musilli said he thinks there were “several things” that swayed the parole board in its decision, including the length of time Wershe has served.
“Thirty years is 30 years,” said Musilli, adding that recent legal challenges to the lengthy sentence played a role.
The decision comes after the parole board held a public hearing for Wershe on June 8 at the G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility in Jackson.
During the hearing, Wershe told board members he had turned away from drugs and crime for good.
“I’ll never sell drugs again,” he told assistant Michigan Attorney General Scott Rothermel, parole board chairman Michael Eagen and member Sandra Wilson at the hearing. “I know what they do.”
Wershe’s family members were overjoyed by the news of his parole.
“It means the world to know there’s an end date in sight. I sent the last birthday card I had to in the mail,” said Wershe’s niece Gabby Wershe, referring to his July 18 birthday. “I can’t wait for him to call and hear the excitement in his voice. It dragged him down a little bit but he wasn’t going to stop fighting for this. You hate to get your hopes up and we could have gotten a no answer.”
His sister Dawn Scott said she “expected it.”
“I couldn’t be happier,” she said. “It was him addressing he committed a crime … and he’s so anti-drug now. I can’t wait so I can give him a hug.”
It was a great day for other Wershe supporters such as retired special FBI agent Herman Groman. Groman, who was based in the Detroit field office from 1982-93, spoke on Wershe’s behalf at a 2003 parole hearing.
He also attended the June 8 hearing to speak up for the former informant he worked with and promised to help decades ago.
“I’m just elated that justice finally prevailed,” Groman said. “Maybe after all these years, he can get his life back. He was a bad kid; he needed to go to jail, but not for 30 years.”
Groman said he believes “the biggest obstacle” to Wershe’s release was Operation Backbone. The 1991 sting caught nearly a dozen Detroit area politicians and Detroit cops through a fake drug shipment operation at Detroit City Airport. As a dealer who had worked as an undercover drug informant, Wershe provided information to the FBI that helped implicate the defendants, Groman said.
Shawn Rech, the director of “White Boy,” the documentary about Wershe that debuted in Detroit earlier this year, said Friday: “What happened today was the right thing. The first right thing that’s happened for Richard Wershe Jr. What anyone following this case has witnessed over the past 30 years was a teenager making a mistake and losing half of his life due to the 650 Lifer Law.”
Rech added, “This law was nothing more than politicians’ panicked, knee-jerk reaction to the crack epidemic. Rick’s situation was made worse by people in power who wanted to keep him locked up.”
Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, who softened her stance on Wershe in 2016, said Friday in a statement: “The position of the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office is that this is a decision that has been made by the parole board and that we have no further position. We respect and accept the decision of the parole board.”
During his parole hearing last month, Wershe, a father of three and grandfather of six, plainly told of his time on the streets both as teenaged FBI and Detroit police informant distributing drugs to other dealers during the mid-1980s.
Wershe testified about having access to cash and flashy clothes as a 15-year-old, being treated to a trip to Las Vegas at the expense of the FBI.
The trip allegedly was arranged as part of his role as an FBI informant to get information on some of Detroit’s top drug dealers, who were there for the Thomas Hearns boxing match against Marvin Hagler.
Support for Wershe’s release has steadily grown in the past decade. His supporters include writers, Hollywood producers and directors. During his time behind bars, Wershe has gained a cult following with movies and books telling about his life on Detroit’s mean streets.
Nearly 30 years behind bars has changed him, Wershe told the parole board members in June.
“The only thing I can tell you is I’m not the person I was,” said Wershe, with his voice cracking at times. “I can’t go back. I can only forward ... that’s all I can do.”
It was Wershe’s first parole hearing since 2003. Wershe was previously turned down for parole in 2007 and 2012.
During his parole hearing, Wershe said he was a “stupid” teenager when he became “immersed” in the drug culture. He disputed reports that he made millions from the drug trade and said he netted about $250,000, which “went pretty quick” on “a lot of stupid stuff” such as a gold belt and expensive cars.
Asked if he felt remorseful about his role in Detroit’s drug epidemic, Wershe said: “It’s devastating to lives and destroys communities.”
He said he has seen the images of the destruction and devastation created by the cocaine and crack epidemic in Detroit.
“I sit there and stare at them. It’s sad. I know the lives it destroyed,” Wershe said. “I can’t take it back.”
Staff Writer Sarah Rahal contributed.