The writer is a former investigative reporter for WXYZ and Fox 2 who lives in California. His book, "Prisoner of War: The Story of White Boy Rick and the War on Drugs," chronicles the story of Richard Wershe Jr., aka "White Boy Rick," and how he got caught up in the war on drugs at age 14, only to be sentenced to life in prison for cocaine trafficking a few years later.
This is the second of two installments. The following is a condensed version of Chapter 11.
By Vince Wade
Rims were a big deal to the dopers Rick Wershe, Jr. ran with when he was working as a secret informant for the FBI. Rims are wheel rims, the sometimes-fancy, outward-facing design of wheels on a car, costing as much as five-thousand dollars or more. In the inner cities, costly rims are evidence you have money. You are somebody. At least, by ghetto reckoning.
Comedian Chris Rock used rims in one of his stand-up routines to explain the difference between being rich and wealthy. Real wealth is empowering, Rock said, and most blacks are new to having money so they don’t understand the difference between rich and wealthy. He cited highly-paid NBA star Shaquille O’Neill as rich, versus the white man who signed O’Neill’s paychecks, as wealthy.
Rock said black people love wheel rims. “We’ll put shiny-ass rims on any piece of shit car in the world,” Rock said. He suggested black men might even try to put wheel rims on a toaster. Rock was saying car wheel rims are a poor man’s idea of appearing rich. But they aren’t evidence of being wealthy.
For inner city dope dealers, it’s important to have and show “bling.” Fur coats, gaudy gold jewelry, designer sun glasses and luxury cars with fancy rims are symbols of success among ghetto dope slingers.
Rims were a “Check it out—I’ve arrived” symbol when Rick Wershe, Jr. went clubbing with Johnny Curry. Pulling up to a club in a luxury car with gaudy rims was part of the see-and-be-seen ritual.
“The Lady” on Detroit’s lower east side was a favored night spot. “It was like they had taken a scene out of Scarface (the Al Pacino gangster movie),” Wershe said. Tuesday nights were dope dealer nights, Wershe said. He described a milieu that evoked the social cliques in high school. "Everyone would have their own little section," Wershe recalled. "Everything was excess. Everyone wanted to be seen. Everyone wanted the best table. Everyone wanted to spend the most money."
Johnny Curry was treated like a god at the nightclub and he liked the shock value of making an entrance with a white boy as his sidekick, or perhaps he was a mascot. As a teen, Wershe looked every bit his age. His wimpy moustache didn’t make him look any older. According to Wershe, Curry had the kind of clout that allowed him to bring a kid in to a nightclub, no questions asked: “I remember the first time I went with him to The Lady on Jefferson, and they were like, ‘Who’s this kid? You can’t come in.’ And Johnny was like, ‘He’s with me.’ And they were like, ‘Oh, go ahead.’ It was like nothing else mattered once they knew I was with him,” Wershe said.
Participants in the club scene say Johnny Curry didn’t like to stay long at the night spots. It was part of his effort to keep a low profile. Still, as Johnny Curry’s novelty sidekick Rick Wershe got to meet most of the top low-lifes of the Detroit drug trade in the mid-1980s. The task force narcs may have severed their relationship with Wershe in 1986, but he didn’t sever his relationships with Detroit’s drug dealers.
“Maserati Rick (Carter) was always there,” Wershe recalls. “He never missed a night.” “Big” Ed Hanserd and Clifford Jones were among the major dopers Wershe encountered in the drug underworld social scene. Nightclubbing enabled the FBI’s teen informant to meet Larry and Leroy Buttrom, the leaders of the Pony Down drug gang, which succeeded Young Boys, Incorporated as the top purveyors of heroin in Detroit—for a time. The Pony Down crew was flying high until the feds busted them. But others quickly took their place. The drug pushers knew and understood the street saying, don’t-do-the-crime-if-you-can’t-do-the-time. The lure of easy money and lots of it and the reality that consumer demand was always there had strong risk/reward appeal for many young men in the inner cities.
Anyone who takes the time to search newspaper archives since 1971 regarding narcotics enforcement will be struck by the hamster wheel nature of this kind of police work. Law enforcement is endlessly “dealing a blow” to some city’s drug trafficking by arresting “Mr. Big.” But the Mr. Bigs Rick Wershe met strutting in nightclubs, the ones who wear fur coats while driving around in luxury cars with garish wheel rims are ultimately the bottom feeders in the drug trade. They are—temporarily—a notch or two above nobodies. They are big fish only for the purposes of the police and prosecutors telling the public that this time, with these arrests, they’ve made a real difference in the drug racket.
Seldom, if ever, are the Big Dogs—the narcotics wholesalers, the importers, the money launderers or international bankers—featured in perp walks for the TV cameras. In the War on Drugs, law enforcement wins an occasional battle, but never the war. The war never ends.
❖The "It" Drug
Rudy Thomas can attest to that. He’s a retired Detroit Deputy Police Chief who is both proud and ashamed of what he accomplished in his law enforcement career.
Crack cocaine became the “it” drug in the nation’s ghettos about the time the FBI recruited Rick Wershe to become an informant. Crack houses suddenly proliferated in many inner-city neighborhoods. Unlike heroin “shooting galleries” where junkies would shoot-up a syringe of smack, crack houses were cocaine convenience stores. Addicts were in and out of them all hours of the day and night and residents got fed up.
Thomas, who had a reputation as a can-do honest cop, was summoned in January, 1986 by Police Chief William Hart and given an assignment to clean up the crack house problem. "‘Rudy, the community is all over me,'" Thomas recalls Hart telling him. 'I have around 800 corners with young kids slinging drugs,' the Chief said. 'I want you to eliminate that. Solve the problem. Create (request) new laws if you have to. Do whatever you have to do so I can satisfy the citizens of Detroit.'"
Thomas, a lieutenant at the time, said he assembled a hand-picked crew of police officers to do the job. They had a list of addresses where the neighbors had complained about the crack traffic. Thomas and his team went after them relentlessly. He would send a surveillance team in to a target neighborhood, identify the pushers and where they kept their dope, where they kept their money. Unmarked vans would roll in and the narcs would jump out. "We’d go running after the drug dealers," Thomas said. "Identify them, arrest them, confiscate their drugs and the monies and anything else they may lead us to at that point." Thomas says his crew was tenacious.
"We were conducting these types of operations seven days a week," Thomas said. "We were averaging 5 to 10 thousand arrests a year. We led the Narcotics division in monies forfeited."
The results were noticed by Detroit’s older, mostly black, citizens. "We made the senior citizens and those that were engulfed with drug houses on both sides of them, love us," Thomas said. "They wanted to cook meals for us. They thought we were the only ones (police officers) doing work at the time."
This was in 1986. It wasn’t until years later that Rudy Thomas, who is black, had deep regrets and second thoughts about all that work busting thousands and thousands of young drug dealers. Thomas now realizes he was helping incarcerate an entire generation of young black men. It doesn’t seem to matter to a new generation of black activists that in the mid-1980s black people were the ones demanding tougher police enforcement on the streets. It’s easier for people to blame the police—rather than themselves—for law enforcement that later proved so corrosive to the community’s long-term social health. It’s easy to overlook the Law of Unintended Consequences.
Former Deputy Chief Thomas is a man who has given a lot of thought to crime, policing, mass incarceration and the War on Drugs. His father, Porter Thomas, who ran a Detroit auto collision repair shop, was killed in a robbery. Thomas says his mother thinks that, as a police officer, he should have somehow been able to stop the killing of his father, a random act of crime.
Thomas struggles with what he knew then and what he knows now. In his heart, he knows he and his crew tried to do the right thing for decent people who were victims of drug trafficking. “Especially the senior citizens,” Thomas said. “They were literally locked in their houses. Imagine: some of them had crack houses on one side and on the other. They were taunted. They were robbed. They were afraid. They couldn’t leave their house. They couldn’t live.”
Thomas says his team would shut down a neighborhood crack house and another would pop up. “The crack houses would reappear like roaches,” Thomas said.
Several years later a Rand Corporation study quantified what Thomas and his narcs and the citizens saw on the streets. Detroit emergency room data on drug abuse showed that between 1983 and 1989, smoking drugs, meaning crack, had quadrupled, and "...the proportion of patients who ingested the drug by smoking had soared to 76 percent." The Rand study noted in 1987 "half the homicide victims in Wayne County tested positive for cocaine."
Former Deputy Chief Thomas doesn’t have a magic answer to the nation’s illegal drug problem. But he knows what he and his officers did, didn’t work.
“What I think about it now, Vince, is we put tens of thousands of minorities, blacks, in jail, for life and now they have no life, they have no family. I feel bad about that. I know it was state and federal law that was imposed. We enforced it. But we didn’t accomplish anything.”
Thomas, a veteran police executive who personally spent considerable time on the urban battlefield, summed up his view of his part in the War on Drugs: “I feel bad. I was doing my job. We were doing our jobs, we were helping the community and at the same time we helped destroy the community.”
❖Len Bias Dies
A drug overdose in Baltimore, Maryland in the summer of 1986 sent shock waves through the War on Drugs like no other event. It was one single death that changed the nation’s history.
College basketball star and highly anticipated NBA crowd-pleaser Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose, two nights after he had been selected by the Boston Celtics as a first-round draft pick. Basketball fans were sure Bias would be the next Michael Jordan. Bookies from coast to coast were drooling over the prospect of a boost in illegal sports betting centered around Bias. His University of Maryland basketball coach said, with a straight face, that Bias’s worst personal indulgence was eating ice cream. Gullible, besotted sports fans swallowed such talk whole. When news broke that Bias died from a cocaine overdose, the sports world, Congress and many in the nation went in to shock. The public, the politicians, the news media—all demanded action. How could this happen to our next sports superstar? Somebody DO something!
For Washington’s politicians, Bias was the hometown college basketball hero. It was about a thirty-minute drive from the Capitol to watch Bias play at the University of Maryland. For all of its supposed worldly sophistication, Washington, D.C. is a very parochial town. Tragedies elsewhere are an abstraction. Tragedies that affect the District are real tragedies. The death of Len Bias was BIG news in the nation’s capital city.
The Bias autopsy was controversial. There was a dispute over how the basketball star ingested the fatal dose of cocaine. Did he snort it? Did he swallow it in a drink? There was evidence to suggest he had free-based a massive amount of nearly pure cocaine while partying with friends. His buddies admitted they had been on a three-hour cocaine binge just before Bias died. The public wanted to believe he was an innocent young celebrity who had made a bad choice one night. The facts suggested otherwise. A packet of cocaine was found hidden in his leased sports car. Witnesses said the supposedly clean-living Bias spent a considerable amount of time nightclubbing. often four nights a week. Regulars at Chapter III, a popular D.C. nightclub, said Bias was often there when they arrived and he rarely left before closing.
Later, at the trial of Brian Tribble, the man who was alleged to have supplied cocaine to Len Bias, prosecutors said the basketball star was more than a one-time cocaine user. They claimed he had been an occasional dealer, selling Tribble’s cocaine to some of his close friends. Prosecutors called Bias a “courtesy middleman.” Tribble was acquitted in the Bias case but he was convicted on a separate cocaine charge and sentenced to ten years in prison.
None of this mattered in the public indignation stampede that followed the death of Bias in June, 1986.
Various media outlets, including ESPN, NPR, Salon and the Washington Post, among others, quoted Eric Sterling, chief counsel of the House Judiciary Committee as saying House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill came back from the Congressional Fourth of July break demanding legislation in the wake of the Bias death. Bias, as noted, had been drafted by the Boston Celtics. Sterling says O’Neill told colleagues all he heard while home in Boston was outrage over the Len Bias cocaine death.
In his book, Smoke and Mirrors, Dan Baum recounts how O’Neill, a powerful Democrat who always knew which way the wind of public opinion was blowing, called a meeting of all of his committee chairmen who had any role in crime legislation. "Write me some goddamned legislation,” he thundered. “We need to get out front on this now. This week. Today."
The Republicans had dominated the crime issue in 1984, a Presidential election year, with the Comprehensive Crime Control Act. Ronald Reagan easily won re-election over Walter Mondale.
O’Neill told his colleagues he didn’t want the Democrats outmaneuvered on crime again.
Thus, the overdose death of Len Bias became the catalyst for a Congressional stampede to write the toughest, most draconian, punishment-oriented legislation imaginable regarding cocaine.
Eric Sterling, the chief counsel of the House Judiciary Committee was tasked with crafting legislation to deal with crack cocaine and other drug abuse.
In an interview with Salon in 2011, Sterling said committee chairmen were scrambling to get a piece of the action. Cocaine became the evil of the year on both sides of the aisle in Congress. "Literally every committee, from the Committee on Agriculture to the Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries were somehow getting involved."
There were no hearings. The stampede wouldn’t allow it. Ordinarily, legislation is circulated for wide-ranging review and hearings are the foundation for what is supposed to be a deliberative process. Not this time. Not after the drug death of a sports hero. There was no effort to evaluate the human consequences of using different forms and strengths of cocaine. In the hysteria that followed the death of Len Bias Sterling said, "It was hyperbole piled on top of exaggeration.".
With just days to go before Congress adjourned, Sterling faced a big problem. Republicans were demanding to know where the get-tough provisions were in the Democrat-driven legislation. Where’s the punishment, they asked. No thought was given to the long-term consequences of mass incarceration and long prison sentences.
Sterling scrambled to fill the penalty void in the legislation. "I consulted with a D.C. local narc who was assigned to the House Narcotics Committee, and he suggested numbers," Sterling told NPR host Neil Conan on Talk of the Nation.
The D.C. Metropolitan Police narc was named Johnny St. Valentine Brown, also known as “Jehru.” It was this lone local narc who dreamed up the mandatory minimums to be imposed in drug trafficking cases without any consultation with police chiefs, sheriffs, judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, law professors or any crime and punishment experts, Brown was involved with the so-called 100 to 1 rule. The new federal legislation mandated a 10-year minimum sentence for anyone caught with 50 grams of crack cocaine. For a dealer of powdered cocaine, the form of coke favored in white suburbia, the dealer would have to possess five thousand grams of cocaine to receive a similar sentence.
Clearly, the law was getting “tough” mostly on blacks and Latinos, not white sellers and users of cocaine. The New York Times described it as the equivalent of imposing the same sentence for a candy bar-sized amount of crack cocaine versus a briefcase-sized amount of powdered cocaine.
It turns out Johnny St. Valentine Brown was a poor choice of advisor on momentous drug legislation. Brown held himself out as having a Howard University degree in pharmacology and that he was a “board certified” pharmacist. Some of Brown’s fellow D.C. police narcs suspected he was a bullshitter, that he was not who he claimed to be. They were right.
In 1999, a lawyer in a civil suit, who suspected Brown was a faker, posed a trick question while deposing the self-proclaimed expert cop. He asked if Brown was familiar with the Marijuana Reagent Test. Brown said, of course, that he had administered it to suspects hundreds of times. In fact, there is no Marijuana Reagent Test. The lawyer had made it up. It was a trick question to test Brown’s credibility. The lawyer learned Brown had no degree from Howard University.
Brown was later convicted of perjury. At his trial, he submitted letters from judges and others recommending clemency. It turns out Brown had forged some of those letters. Thus, a lying, disgraced cop played a key role in sending millions of American minorities to prison in a hysteria-driven phase of the War on Drugs.
In the rush to enact tougher drug laws, "Both sides were trying to be quicker and tougher than the other," Sterling said. The result of the minimum-sentencing in the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 was a soaring increase in the nation’s prison population with an untold cost in money and human misery. But the War on Drugs didn’t stop the flow of illegal narcotics. Not even a little bit.
❖Biden Pushes For Mandatory Sentencing
While Tip O’Neill was leading the charge in the House of Representatives, the politically ambitious presidential hopeful Joe Biden of Delaware was not about to let this opportunity pass. Biden became an ardent advocate of mandatory minimum sentencing. Biden pushed for the naming of a national drug “czar” to have all power and authority over the War on Drugs. Biden was a champion of guilty-until-proven innocent asset forfeiture laws, too.
Radley Balko, a long-time observer of the criminal justice system and a blogger for the Washington Post, is not a fan of kindly Uncle Joe. "Biden has sponsored more damaging drug war legislation than any Democrat in Congress," Balko wrote.
In recent years Biden may have realized, belatedly, all of the damage he has done in the War on Drugs. His attitude on drugs seems to have softened, aided perhaps, by the fact his son, Hunter Biden, was discharged from the Navy in 2014 after he tested positive—for cocaine.