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Jackson — In a long-anticipated hearing, Richard “White Boy Rick” Wershe Jr. pleaded to a state parole board Thursday for release from his life sentence for dealing drugs as a teenager on Detroit’s east side during the mid-1980s.

About 75 people, including Wershe’s family members and supporters, packed a small room inside the Cotton Correctional Facility in Jackson to listen as Wershe told an examiner and an assistant attorney general that he was a changed man and he had learned from the errors of his previous criminal ways.

“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.

Authorities say Wershe was a Detroit drug kingpin during the 1980s crack epidemic when he was arrested at age 17. His defenders have argued that Wershe was a one-time paid police informant and that there were far worse drug dealers in the city who served less time.

Wershe and his attorney, Ralph Musilli, have also long contended Wershe was brought in by the FBI at the age of 14 to be an informant on some of Detroit’s most notorious drug gangs.

Wershe, 47, has served nearly three decades for distributing drugs when he was a teen. In 1988, he was sentenced to life in prison without parole for possession to deliver more than 650 grams of a controlled substance. His sentence was later amended to life with the possibility of parole.

Thursday’s public hearing lasted four hours and 15 minutes. Wershe was questioned about his role in the rising crack cocaine trade in Detroit. He spoke of flashy clothes, money and a trip to Las Vegas at the expense of the FBI.

Wershe said he was a “stupid” teenager when he began selling drugs becoming “immersed” in the drug culture. He said he netted about $250, 000 for himself and that the money “went pretty quick” on “a lot of stupid stuff” such as a gold belt and expensive cars.

Asked if he had remorse about his role in Detroit’s burgeoning drug epidemic, Wershe said: “It’s devastating to lives and destroys communities.”

He said he sees the devastation and the blight created by the cocaine and crack epidemic pictures from people who send him pictures of it.

“I sit there and stare at them. It’s sad. I know the lives it destroyed,” Wershe said. “I can’t take it back.”

He then spoke about his sister’s addiction to drugs. Other family members, he said, also are dealing with addiction issues.

“I’ll never sell drugs again. I’m about as anti-drugs as you are as a prosecutor,” he told the board. “I know what they do.”

But Wershe got rattled when questions arose about a 2003 Florida interstate car theft ring. He was convicted in 2006 of felony racketeering conduct while behind bars in Florida. Wershe had been moved there from Michigan for his protection, authorities said. Wershe pleaded guilty in the Florida matter, which was brought up Thursday by Assistant Michigan Attorney General Scott Rothermel.

Rothermel asked Wershe about documents in the case that included allegations of drug dealing from prison.

“I’ve never seen that document before,” Wershe said. “You’re telling me that’s what I pleaded guilty to? I’ve never seen that, sir, and I wouldn’t agree to it.”

Wershe denied during the hearing he took part in a Miami-based enterprise to snuggle cocaine inside the doors of luxury cars.

Musilli told the parole members the documents the assistant attorney general cited were not included with the final charging documents to which Wershe pleaded guilty to. If Wershe is paroled, he could do 22 months in a Florida prison.

“That’s if Florida wants him,” said Musilli, who said he is “cautiously optimistic” about Wershe being paroled.

Parole board members Michael Eagen and Sandra Wilson were also present at Thursday’s hearing.

Wershe’s mom, Darlene McCormick, said she feels “iffy” about her son’s chances for release but hopes he makes it home.

“I’m not absolutely sure,” said McCormick, following the hearing Thursday.

Wershe’s sister, Dawn Scott, added: “I have faith in God that they’re going to do the right thing and let him out.”

No decision on parole for Wershe, a father of three who’s also a grandfather, was to be made Thursday. The parole board will now await an official transcript of the hearing. Once it is received, board members who attended Thursday’s hearing will prepare the case to present to the full board at its next executive session. If the board doesn’t require any additional information, it will vote on Wershe’s case.

In December, lawyers filed briefs asking the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan to reconsider Wershe’s 1988 life sentence and “reverse the orders of the Michigan Court of Appeals and Supreme Court and remand the matter to trial court for immediate resentencing.”

In the Dec. 6 petition, attorney Paul C. Louisell called Wershe’s mandatory life sentence without parole unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment and the Michigan Constitution’s prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment.

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2010 abolished so-called “lifer” laws, calling them “cruel and unusual punishment.” But the ruling did not apply to Wershe’s case.

In June 2016, Wershe was denied an opportunity to be resentenced following a Michigan Supreme Court ruling. The justices wrote they were “not persuaded that the question should be reviewed by this court.”

Wershe is serving his time at the Oaks Correctional Facility in Manistee.

bwilliams@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2027

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