Film revives controversy over 'White Boy Rick'

Matthew McConaughey and Richie Merritt in "White Boy Rick."

A highly anticipated movie about Rick Wershe Jr. hits the big screen Friday, reigniting controversy over the former drug dealer who gained notoriety during Detroit's crack cocaine epidemic in the late 1980s.

"White Boy Rick" debuted Thursday night with a red carpet premiere at Emagine Novi, but some of those involved in Wershe's case say the film presents a distorted picture of the onetime teenage narcotics hustler and federal drug informant. 

Wershe, 49, was paroled in August 2017 after spending nearly three decades behind bars in Michigan, only to be transferred to prison in Florida in a separate case. Wershe, who is expected to be released in 2020, could not be reached this week to be interviewed about the film's release.

In an interview last year, Wershe called the movie "long overdue" and said he hoped it would clear up “this myth created by the media” of him being a larger-than-life dealer who played a significant role in Detroit’s then-burgeoning drug trade.

“The truth was hidden for so long,” Wershe told The News while he was incarcerated at the Oaks Correctional Facility. “People will come away from it angry.”

Richard Wershe Jr. in 1987. He said he hopes the film clears up the “myth” of him being a larger-than-life drug dealer.

But his attorney, Ralph Musilli, said "White Boy Rick" paints Wershe — played in the film by Richie Merritt— as a narcotics kingpin, yet nothing could be further from the truth.

"He wasn't even on the radar," said Musilli. "He was a small-time guy."

Musilli also takes exception with the portrayal of Wershe's father, Richard Wershe Sr., played by Hollywood actor Matthew McConaughey.

Musilli said the movie mischaracterized Wershe Sr., who has since died, as an autoworker but that the elder Wershe was a "hustler."

Retired FBI Agent Herman Groman, who used the younger Wershe as an informant and now lives in Las Vegas, said the movie "doesn't meet the whole truth."

Groman met Richard Wershe Jr. through the then-teenager's father. The former federal agent said the young drug dealer became an informant in 1989 and helped him with "Operation Backbone," which resulted in convictions for drug-related corruption within the Detroit Police Department.

The movie "White Boy Rick," according to Groman, is "far from fact"  because it depicts the younger Wershe as a bigger drug dealer than he really was.

"He wanted to become a significant dealer and of course he failed," Groman said Thursday.  

The retired FBI agent also questions the image the film presents of Wershe's father.

 Groman said while Wershe Jr. loved his father and vice versa, Wershe Sr. was a "bizarre" father figure and unlike the one portrayed in the film by McConaughey.

"What kind of father turns his son out to be an FBI informant?" said Groman.

Freelance journalist and author Vince Wade, who wrote a book about Wershe, "Prisoner of War: The Story of White Boy Rick and the War on Drugs," said the portrayal of Wershe as a drug kingpin is inaccurate and that the movie depicts Wershe's father too kindly.

"The movie's premise as father and son against the world is just not true," said Wade. "The truth is ... Rick's father was violent and he was abusive and he risked his son's life for FBI informant cash."

As for the younger Wershe, Wade said: "They say he was a kingpin. He was never a kingpin. There is nothing in the records to support that smear. There is no basis for calling Rick a kingpin despite what they have on the movie poster."

Wade says Wershe was the  "actual catalyst"  for the FBI investigation/prosecution of then-Detroit Police Chief William Hart in the late 1980s and the probe of drug corruption in the Detroit Police Department that resulted in 10 convictions.

Wershe has said he was given the moniker "White Boy Rick" by a former Detroit television reporter and was not known on the streets by that name.

In the meantime, Wershe's supporters are hoping to get the remainder of his Florida prison term commuted and get him released within the next few months. Musilli said Florida clemency officials have scheduled a Dec. 3 hearing to listen to arguments on the request.

This image released by Sony Pictures shows RJ Cyler, from left, Richie Merritt, YG and Jonathan Majors in a scene from "White Boy Rick."

University of Miami law professor Craig J. Trocino, the director of the  Miami Law Innocence Clinic, said he doesn't believe the movie will influence the Florida clemency board.

"I can't imagine it's going to have an impact," said Trocino. "All the bad stuff is already known about him. The facts of the record are already known."

Trocino said commutations are rare and "it comes down to how badly the state of Florida wants to keep him in jail."

He said the cost of keeping Wershe behind bars is $74,000 a year.

While thousands of moviegoers will see the movie this week, Wershe will not be among them, according to Paul W. Walker, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Corrections.

"There does not appear to be any accommodations set at this time to  allow him to see the movie," Walker said Thursday. 

Groman said he went to Florida along with another retired FBI agent in May to talk with Florida officials about releasing Wershe earlier than 2020.

He said he believes Wershe's former role as an informant who helped achieve convictions and bring down some drug operations will help persuade Florida officials to let him go. The film should help too, he said.

 "Favorable things are going to happen," Groman said.

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