White Boy Rick: Time to Set Him Free?

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Photo/Michelle Andonian

On any ordinary day, Richard Wershe Jr. sleeps in and skips breakfast in his prison in northern Michigan. But on Tuesday -- the 25th anniversary of his arrest in Detroit -  he couldn’t sleep, so he grabbed some oatmeal with skim milk.

“I probably slept two hours,” Wershe told me. “I’ll never forget May 22. It still will always be the worst day of my life.”

Wershe is better known as White Boy Rick, one of the most famous drug dealers in Detroit history, a baby-faced, blond-haired, magazine cover boy who was only 17 when police arrested him in 1987 with $25,000 in cash while driving a new Thunderbird that had been rented by his girlfriend, Cathy Volsan. She was the niece of Mayor Coleman Young. Authorities later found eight kilos of cocaine, and they linked the dope to Wershe. He was convicted of drug trafficking Jan. 15, 1988 and sentenced to life in prison.

Wershe is in the news these days because he can’t get paroled -- not even after 25 years in prison -- not even after FBI agents and a federal prosecutor have vouched for him. Not even after he cooperated over many years  and helped put away a bunch of dirty cops along with violent drug dealers.

While Wershe received a life sentence without parole, the state law was later changed, and he became eligible for parole, but in 2003 and 2008 he was rejected by a parole board. He’s up again in December for consideration. 

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I’ve known Wershe since the early 1990s. He helped me on some stories while I was a Detroit News reporter. We’ve kept in touch since. We’ve had plenty of conversations.

I know Rick was no angel. He was slinging drugs as a teen, living a good life, buying fancy clothes, and providing information to a task force comprised of the FBI, DEA, Immigration and Naturalization Service and Detroit Police.
But he was never charged with any murders or violent crimes. And he’s sorry for his drug trafficking as a teen.

Now, 25 years later, it’s time for him to go free.

Can we as a society be so unforgiving as to lock up a teen for life for selling drugs? Particularly one who cooperated repeatedly with local and federal law enforcement. Mobster Sammy “The Bull” Gravano killed 19 people, but cooperated with the feds, and, as a result, got five years in prison.

It’s time.

When he first went to jail, Wershe already had three children -- two daughters and a son -- all from different mothers.

Today, his kids are in their 20s -- one attends the University of Michigan -- and he has four grandchildren. 

He says he’s  really not looking for a break.

“I wouldn’t call it a break, I’ve paid my debt to society 10 fold,” said Wershe, who is in a special protective section of the prison because of his cooperation with law enforcement.

At his  parole hearing in 2003, some law enforcement people testified  for him and others spoke against him.  Those against insisted he was a dangerous drug dealer that needed to remain behind bars.

 Wershe says some lied by suggesting he had ties to violent drug gangs and that he was involved in murder, even though he was never charged. 
Retired FBI Agent Gregg Schwarz, who testified on behalf of Wershe, and who worked on a federal drug task force back in the 1980s, formed a relationship with Rick after he left Detroit in 1989, and eventually vowed to help him get out.  

He’s been frustrated. Schwarz claims people who promised Rick something in return for his cooperation lied or reneged on their deal. He felt some people tried to keep Wershe locked up because Wershe, during his cooperation, crossed their friends.

“The events surrounding the incarceration of Richard Wershe in 1987 are a classic example of the corrupt manipulation of a system... by lies, abuse of power, political corruption,” Schwarz said.

“Richard is now 42 and someone I have spoken to every week for 25 years. I have heard remorse and regret of his actions set forth in a community where drugs, that and crime were a way of life. I am more convinced that it serves no purpose whatsoever...to continue to have Wershe confined.”

Schwarz says the parole board has missed the mark.

“How long does somebody have to stay in prison before enough is enough? He never involved himself in murder or rape or any kind of violent offense. Why anyone would come to the conclusion that Richard Wershe is a threat to society, that’s just stupidity.” 

Schwarz also fired off a letter last month to the sentencing, Judge Thomas E. Jackson, expressing the need to free Wershe.

Granted, Wershe had a slip up in prison. He was charged in 2005 and later convicted of being a bit player in a stolen car ring while behind bars. He made an introduction to someone and his sister received some money for it,  $6,000. He says he wanted to help his family.

“It was a stupid thing,” he says.

That being said, Wershe has tried to pass on some of the wisdom he’s acquired, including to ex-Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who spent time at the same prison, the Oaks Correctional Facility in Manistee in Northern Michigan.  

When Kilpatrick was indicted, Wershe advised him to talk to a prosecutor he knew at the U.S. Attorney’s Office and work out a deal.

“Be honest...don’t lie,” Wershe advised Kilapatrick.

But he said Kilpatrick told him that he didn’t do anything wrong.

Wershe called Kilpatrick “a super nice guy, super intelligent. Real charismatic.”

He added: “I can see how he can make people like him.”
Wershe thinks his own reputation was embellished by law enforcement and police. He insists, for example, that he only partnered with a friend, and didn’t have a “crew.”

He also thinks his “White Boy Rick” nickname made him sound far more notorious than he was. He noted that no one called him that on the streets, and maintains the name was created by  TV reporter Chris Hansen, who was at Channel 7 at the time. 

Hansen, who now works for NBC Dateline, told me Tuesday: “I didn’t make the name up. But I did report on him enough to make it well known in Detroit at the time.”

Whatever the case, Wershe says he can’t believe he’s still behind bars.

 “It’s a little bit surreal to be sitting here 25 years later, truthfully. If you had told me at 18 I would still be here now I probably would have killed myself.
It’s hard to imagine 25 years in this place.”

What’s kept him going?

“I have to say my kids,” he said. “I talk to them as much as I can.”

Because he’s cooperated with the locals and feds, Wershe knows he could never return to living in the Detroit area.

He says some folks would like to “blow his brains out.”

Despite endless setbacks, he still holds out hope with the parole board.

“I guess I hope one day they’ll listen to the truth and say ‘hey, this isn’t right,’ and try to rectify the wrong.”

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