‘White Boy Rick’ case still enthralls Metro Detroit
The state’s highest court is expected to take up the case of Richard “White Boy Rick” Wershe Jr., who recently lost his bid to have to his sentence reduced.
It’s the latest chapter in the case of a one-time teenage major player in Detroit’s drug trade with a blond pageboy and a baby face that has enthralled and appalled Metro Detroiters for decades.
Last month, a three-judge panel of the Michigan Court of Appeals reversed a ruling by Wayne Circuit Judge Dana Hathaway, who found Wershe, 45, qualified for reconsideration of his life sentence.
Maria Miller of the county Prosecutor’s Office said Wershe’s “original sentence remains in effect.”
But Wershe’s appellate attorney Peter Van Hoek, who plans to file briefs with the Michigan Supreme Court to have Wershe’s sentence reviewed, said his client has been in prison for 28 years under a “lifer” drug law that has since been abolished by the U.S. Supreme Court.
And Van Hoek is buoyed by the recent announcement of plans to release 6,000 federal inmates who, according to U.S. officials, received harsh prison sentences for drug crimes. The release is expected to begin this month.
“I want to stress to the (Michigan) Supreme Court that federal authorities have changed these drug laws and changed them retroactively,” said Van Hoek. “They recognized these laws were very, very harsh and didn’t work especially for juveniles."
Both Van Hoek and Ralph Musilli, Wershe’s longtime defense attorney, said Wershe was not a drug dealer or drug kingpin. He was a young kid being used by federal agents and Detroit police to serve as an informant for their investigation into high-level Detroit dealers, they said.
Musilli said Wershe has been wronged by the legal system and predicts he will eventually win the right to be resentenced, which could lead to a release.
“How can you give up a man’s life?” said Musilli. “We’re talking about someone who went into prison at the age of 18 on a nonviolent crime. You can’t let this guy stay in prison.”
Wershe’s fate again has become fodder for water cooler conversations as the public consensus is that Wershe has served a lengthy enough sentence and should be freed.
Wersche is serving his sentence in Oaks Correctional Facility in Manistee. The Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office has said it opposes Wershe’s request for a reduced sentence because “he has failed to provide a sufficient legal basis to invalidate his sentence.”
A change in the state’s drug-sentencing law in 2002 made Wershe eligible for parole. He had one hearing, in 2003, and was denied. He made subsequent requests for hearings in 2007 and 2012, but was turned down. His next opportunity to request a hearing, which comes up every five years, is not until December 2017.
“The board doesn’t look kindly on you breaking the law while you’re in prison,” Chris Gautz, a spokesman for Michigan Department of Corrections, said, referring to Wershe’s guilty plea in being involved in a car theft ring in 2006 while behind bars.
‘In the neighborhood of tough people’
Wershe was a novice and a novelty in Detroit’s booming drug trade during the height of the city’s violent crack epidemic. But authorities say he rose to become a ranking drug lord in one of the roughest neighborhoods more than three decades ago.
Wershe, called “Ricky” by neighborhood pals, was a baby-faced white teen who moved easily in a circle of other high-profile street drug dealers, mostly African-American, on the city’s east side during the late 1980s and early 1990s, when crack cocaine was making its debut in urban areas around the country.
Like so many of Detroit’s neighborhoods, the east side where Wershe grew up and ran with some of the local drug dealers experienced a decline as factory jobs dried up, property values plunged and the blue-collar neighborhood began emptying out.
For the past three decades, 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, according to author Evan Hughes, were drug dealers or runners themselves.
But his attorney said Wershe 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 prolific and dangerous drug cartels. Musilli, who has represented Wershe for the past nine years, says Wershe was a paid FBI informant who shared a government informant identification number with his now-deceased father, Richard Wershe Sr.
“He could get in and out of (drug houses),” Musilli said. “Police would drop him off at them.”
In 1987, when Wershe was arrested, he had 9,000 grams of cocaine and $30,000 in cash on him.
By that time, the 17-year-old defendant in his own high-profile trial on drug charges was a father to two young daughters. His youngest child, a son, would be born shortly after he was incarcerated.
Authorities say Wershe was a key player in the city’s drug trades since he was 14. But Musilli said Wershe was just a young teen who got into the risky business as a result of his father introducing him to federal agents who were trying to crack drug gangs on the east side.
Richard Wershe Sr., who owned a gun shop on the city’s east side, was a small-time arms dealer who also made money on the side by selling information about neighborhood crooks and drug dealers to federal agents. The elder Wershe ended up introducing his son to the informant business, according to Musilli.
Musilli said Wershe has helped authorities put away Detroit drug dealers and bring down a corrupt Detroit police ring. Some of the individuals convicted as a result of Wershe’s alleged cooperation with federal agents have served their time and been released from prison while his client still waits to be released. Musilli said Wershe has even helped Florida authorities crack drug cases while locked up in that state in the early 2000s.
Wershe’s mom, Darlene McCormick, says her son’s troubles began after she let his father take him back to the old neighborhood on Hampshire near Dickerson on the city’s east side.
“I should have not let him go live with his father,” said McCormick, who said her son was OK when he lived with her in the suburbs.
Wershe, a father of three including a recent University of Michigan graduate, is the focus of two books and a documentary. According to other published reports, a Hollywood movie is in the works on Wershe’s life. “The Trials of White Boy Rick” is based on the book by Evans Hughes with the same title.
Hughes said he could not believe Wershe’s story was true and was so intrigued by it that he wanted to write about it.
“The first thing that struck me is he was operating in this (drug) world as a kid,” said Hughes. “He was in the neighborhood of tough people and he knew who the players were.”
Wershe’s story is also immortalized in lyrics for the Kid Rock song “ Back From the Dead.”
Given the name “White Boy Rick” by a Detroit television reporter, Wershe’s moniker is often evoked among Detroit’s legendary drugs lords, most of whom have met untimely deaths.
The legendary names include Richard “Maserati Rick” Carter, shot and killed in his hospital bed in 1988 as he recuperated from an earlier shooting, and Demetrius Holloway, who was gunned down two years later in a downtown men’s clothing store by a gunman who reportedly whistled the song “Zippity-Do-Da,” as he pumped a couple of bullets into the back of Holloway’s head.
But Musilli points out the younger Wershe was never a street dealer. He said his client was a supplier who sold drugs to other dealers on a wholesale level.
“He didn’t have a gang,” Musilli said. “He wasn’t involved in violence. He didn’t have a street organization.”
Wershe, Musilli contends, was on the FBI’s payroll. As part of his duties as an informant, Wershe, then 15, flew out to Las Vegas during the Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns fight armed with money from the federal agents and fake identification to keep watch on what drug dealers attending the fight were doing.
Like other Wershe backers, retired FBI agent Gregg Schwartz, who investigated some of Detroit’s drug rings and other corruption, said others who sold drugs and committed murder during Detroit’s drug wars were freed years ago while Wershe remains imprisoned.
Wershe says he wants to go home and be a dad to his three children.
Even if Wershe is resentenced in Michigan, he faces a possible prison sentence in Florida for a 2005 conviction on a case involving an $8 million stolen car ring. Musilli said he is trying to get Florida authorities to let his sentence in the case, which Musilli says his client pleaded guilty to in order to protect his mother, run concurrent with the Michigan prison sentence. So far, Florida authorities have denied that request.
Musilli said Wershe arranged for the purchase of cars for his mother and sister believing the proceeds went to charity.