After 3 decades, 'White Boy Rick' Wershe Jr. to go free
Richard Wershe Jr. is about to experience freedom for the first time in his adult life.
The notorious teenage FBI informant known as "White Boy Rick" spent three decades in jail cells while serving a life sentence on a drug conviction he was handed at age 17.
The world went on without him.
A son was born, six grandchildren came and modern technology took hold of most of life's mundane daily rituals.
Paroled in Michigan in 2017, Wershe was sent to Florida to serve time for a 2006 conviction stemming from his role in a car theft ring. The crimes happened while he was incarcerated in Florida as part of the federal witness protection program.
On July 20, he's set to leave a Florida halfway house and return to Michigan. Two days after his 51st birthday, he will walk out a free man.
"Sadly, the wheels of justice can often move slowly. It took 32 years, but the light at the end of that tunnel is now this white hot spotlight that has finally sprung him from his chains," said Scott Burnstein, an author, historian and investigative reporter, who has long reported on Wershe's case and now considers him a friend.
"I couldn't be happier for him to finally be getting a second chance at a new life. It's way beyond the time for that to occur," added Burnstein, who put together and starred in a documentary on Wershe's life.
Wershe's career as a drug runner and FBI informant was the focus of a 2018 Hollywood movie, "White Boy Rick," starring mega-star Matthew McConaughey. A year earlier, a documentary titled "White Boy," by Shawn Rech, also told Wershe's story.
The way to Florida
Authorities say he rose to become a ranking drug lord in one of Detroit's roughest neighborhoods, but his supporters, lawyers and retired FBI agents have said he risked his life as an informant who helped to put away the city's most notorious drug kingpins.
In a 2017 phone interview with The Detroit News, Wershe said he was “brought” into a lifestyle of drugs by the agents and police who used him as an informant from 1984 to 1986. He was shot in the stomach during those years and said he had stopped selling drugs by the time he was 16.
In 1987, when Wershe was arrested, he had 9,000 grams of cocaine and $30,000 in cash on him.
"Thank God he's free at last. This was a man who was as much a political prisoner as anyone in this country has ever seen," contends Ralph Musilli, Wershe's St. Clair Shores-based lawyer. "What they did to this young man was reprehensible."
Musilli said Wershe is not giving interviews ahead of his release. Wershe's sister, Dawn, declined an interview with The News.
Wershe most recently was transported to the Sunshine State to serve time on a 2006 conviction in connection with a car theft ring.
The Florida prison sentence began just days after Wershe was paroled in July 2017 from Michigan's Department of Corrections after serving 30 years for a drug conviction. Wershe was given a life sentence for manufacturing/possession with intent to deliver more than 650 grams of cocaine.
Once released later in July, Wershe will have no further obligations with Florida, his attorney said. But he will have to finish out parole here at home.
Time still owed
Wershe was given a mandatory four-year term of parole in Michigan based on his life sentence. Part of that time already has been served while he was in Florida, said Holly Kramer, a spokeswoman for the state's Department of Corrections.
His parole runs through Aug. 22, 2021.
Wershe won't be able to possess drugs, alcohol and weapons or leave the state. He'll also have to make contact with his parole agent no later than the first business day after his release, according to the corrections department.
The Florida Department of Corrections said Friday that Wershe had not received any disciplinary actions during his incarceration there.
Burnstein, who works for the Oakland Press, said he first interviewed Wershe around 2007 when Wershe was incarcerated at a maximum security facility in Standish.
His early coverage of Wershe's case "changed the narrative" of Wershe from "a white teenage drug dealer" to "a victim" of circumstance, Burnstein said.
"It built a groundswell of support and outrage," he said of the coverage that ultimately gained national attention.
Wershe's biggest regret
Wershe entered the system as a teenage father. Now, he's ending his prison sentence as a middle-aged man and a grandfather of six.
Over time, he dispensed fatherly advice from behind bars and watched his own children — two daughters and a son born shortly after he went away — become parents.
Wershe told The News three years ago that his biggest regret was that the time behind bars has robbed him of his ability to be a father to his three children, then ages 29-32.
“It’s been heartbreaking,” Wershe said. “I was never there (as) a parent for them.”
Wershe's main priority now is reconnecting with his family and being there for his grandchildren in a way that he wasn't able to for his own children, Burnstein said.
"These three kids all grew up not knowing their dad other than a voice on the phone or someone they saw very infrequently in between a glass partition in a prison visiting room," he said. "He has a big heart and is a person that does have so much contrition and so much awareness of the pain that he's caused. That knowledge fuels him to have a second chance and make amends with the people and entities that he brought that pain to."
Musilli noted the drug dealers Wershe helped put away have served their time and already have rejoined society.
"He's now just getting out? What a crime," he added. "This is a disaster. And the government at all levels should have been ashamed of itself."
When things went bad
Wershe came of age on Detroit's east side against a backdrop of the city's burgeoning crack cocaine epidemic. He has told the state's parole board that he was simply known to his friends as Ricky and later gained the moniker "White Boy Rick" after he was charged with running drugs.
He was introduced to drug dealing by neighborhood youngsters and later was made an informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation following an introduction by his father Richard Wershe Sr., who ran a gun and bait shop. At age 14, Wershe was the youngest informant for the FBI.
Wershe was a baby-faced teenager who moved smoothly among other high-profile street drug dealers, mostly African Americans, on the city’s east side.
Wershe was a paid FBI informant who shared a government informant identification number with his now-deceased father, Musilli said.
"They used him," the lawyer said. "He got shot. He almost got killed and they sent him right back in. Nobody other than him paid a price."
Wershe’s mom, Darlene McCormick, who reportedly is in a nursing home in bad health, has said her son’s troubles began after she let his father take him back to the old neighborhood on Hampshire near Dickerson.
“I should have not let him go live with his father,” McCormick has said, adding that her son was OK when he lived with her in the suburbs.
The state parole board voted unanimously in 2017 to grant Wershe's release.
He had been denied two previous times, including a high-profile hearing 14 years earlier, which Detroit area singer Kid Rock attended.
Why Mich. released him
The Correction Department's Kramer declined an interview on behalf of the parole board, noting its members "speak as one through their decisions."
"They do not issue statements on individual cases or have a position on (Wershe's) release in Florida," she added.
Documents obtained by The News after Wershe's parole was granted showed that his remorse and good behavior played a role in the board's decision.
Parole board members, at the time, noted Wershe "has remained misconduct free during his entire sentence with the MDOC which began in 1988."
Retired agents Herman Groman and Gregg Schwarz traveled to Florida last year to plead to a clemency board for Wershe's early release.
Schwarz declined an interview, and Groman could not be reached to discuss Wershe's parole.
Groman has said Wershe is the first defendant he has "advocated" for during his 35-year law enforcement career. He believed Wershe was being held in prison for a long time because he cooperated with federal agents investigating public corruption.
"I believe in part, the larger part, the reason for this is because of his cooperation with me on public corruption matters," Groman said in 2019.
Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, who softened her stance on Wershe in 2016, has said her office respected and accepted the parole board's decision.
“I didn’t oppose Mr. Wershe’s release on parole from the Michigan Department of Corrections in 2017 and do not have a problem with him being released on probation by the Florida correctional system," she said in a Thursday statement provided to The News.