The criminal case against Richard “White Boy Rick” Wershe Jr. played out during the late 1980s, when he was a teenager and the drug-trade was so high-profile in Detroit that some dealers were household names. He was convicted of cocaine trafficking.
Today, 26 years later, another crime is being committed, this time by the Michigan Parole Board: It’s keeping Wershe behind bars. No Boy Scout on the streets, Wershe trafficked cocaine. But 26 years in prison? That’s more than sufficient punishment, and more to the point, gravely unjust for someone convicted as a teen. Even a recent Supreme Court ruling surprisingly showed compassion for teens who commit murder, something Wershe has never been accused of.
For years now, FBI agents and federal prosecutors -- and even Kid Rock -- have pushed for Wershe’s release. They have stepped forward because Wershe, now 44, helped the feds put away plenty dope dealers, and played a critical role in setting up a sting in the early 1990s that nabbed crooked Detroit and suburban cops, along with Mayor Coleman Young’s common-law brother-in-law, Willie Volsan.
But some local law enforcement types -- including some who really had no clue as to Wershe’s activities on the streets-- came to his parole hearing in 2003 and successfully torpedoed his chance for freedom, painting him as a far bigger player in the dope game than he actually was, and blaming him for playing a major role in destroying the moral fabric of Detroit. One of the Detroit detectives who testified against Wershe was later charged with drug trafficking and mortgage fraud.
“I think it’s ridiculous what we’ve done,” Robert S. Aguirre, a former member of the state parole board, said of Wershe’s 2 1/2 decades of imprisonment. “It’s wrong.”
Latest to Join "Free Wershe" Campaign
Aguirre is the latest to join in the “Free Wershe” campaign. He served on the state parole board from 2009 to 2011 and previously worked as a Flint cop and Genesee County sheriff’s deputy, then ran a community corrections program in Lapeer County.
While sitting on the parole board, Aguirre took an interest in the Wershe case and pushed for a parole hearing. But he wasn’t able to muster up enough votes to get one. He said Wershe’s reputation had far surpassed reality, and that hurt him
He says “White Boy Rick” was “synonymous with everything bad in the mid-1980s.
“He was just a kid,” Aguirre said.
Gregg Schwarz, a retired FBI agent who worked Detroit drug cases in the 1980s and has been pushing for years for Wershe’s release, echoes similar sentiments: “This is a kid who tried to become a big deal but he never made it. He didn’t have anyone working for him.
"Now the parole board says he might still be a danger to society. Based on what? Was he ever arrested with a gun? No. Did he ever kill anybody? No. Did he ever assist the FBI and other local agencies? Yes.”
Known Wershe for Two Decades
I’ve spoken with Wershe by phone now for some 20 years. He helped me with stories about Detroit’s drug world while I was a reporter at the Detroit News. Over time, I’ve gotten to know his story first hand.
Aside from the teen-conviction issue, the parole board has ignored Wershe’s considerable cooperation with federal and local law enforcement. That usually counts for something.
Let’s not forget New York’s Gambino Crime underboss Sammy “The Bull” Gravano, who killed 19 people and got five years in prison for helping the feds put away his boss, John Gotti. And in Detroit, Nathaniel Craft, a hit man for the drug gang Best Friends, was linked to at least 20 murders, but received a reduction in time, and was eventually paroled after testifying in court against violent drug dealers. He served about 16 years in federal prison.
Wershe was charged at age 17 with possession with intent to distribute cocaine. In 1988, at age 18, he was convicted under a state law, which was a knee-jerk reaction to the explosive drug epidemic. It mandated that anyone caught with more than 650 grams of cocaine (a kilo is 1,000 grams) serve a life sentence without parole. It happened during the Reagan era, when crack quickly became pervasive in inner city America, and Nancy Reagan peddled her empty “Just Say No" to drugs campaign.
Law Changed Under Gov. Engler
Michigan drug law was changed during the administration of Gov. John Engler, and the mandatory sentence without parole component was dropped. In 1999, Wershe was re-sentenced to life with the possibility of parole. Today, it’s likely he would have gotten about 4 to 15 years, according to his attorney, Ralph Musilli.
Yet the parole board has continued to treat Wershe as if he had to serve out the rest of his life in prison. A year ago, his bid to go before the parole board was dismissed outright. Without a hearing, the Parole Board simply said, try back in 2017.
“I just want to get a fair shake,” says Wershe, who points to other Detroit drug dealers who have been involved in violence and have served far shorter sentences. “It’s been long enough.” He's currently being housed in Oaks Correctional Facility in Manistee in northern Michigan.
Before heading off to prison, Wershe had three children -- two daughters and a son -- all from different mothers. Today his kids are in their 20s -- one recently graduated from the University of Michigan -- and he has four grandchildren.
Last year, when I asked him if he thought he’d ever get a break, he said:
“I wouldn’t call it a break, I’ve paid my debt to society 10 fold.”
But the Michigan Parole Board doesn’t see it that way.
Parole Board's Response
Russell Marlan, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections and the parole board, sent this email when asked about Wershe:
“He is serving a life sentence. Per Michigan law, they are required to give a personal parole hearing to lifers after 10 years and a file review every 5 years after that. 2017 will be the date for his next file review by the Parole Board. This is common practice for lifers. They could look at him anytime, should there be interest there. However, at this time, I don't think the Board has any interest in reviewing him earlier than his scheduled date.”
I spoke to a legal expert, who said the parole board in recent years was looking at more lifer cases. But the fact Wershe is a high-profile figure may be working against him.
Supreme Court Rulings
Interestingly, the U.S. Supreme Court has started to show more compassion for teens accused of murder. Last year, the court ruled that judges could no longer automatically sentence a teen to life without parole without considering youth and upbringing. In 2010, the court ruled that it was unconstitutional to sentence a juvenile to life without parole for crimes other than murder.
Those rulings don’t apply to Wershe since he wasn’t ever accused of murder, let alone convicted, and he’s now eligible for parole. But the findings of court go right to the heart of the matter in the Wershe case: The court is saying you can’t throw away the key for lifers convicted as teens without at least considering mitigating circumstances like youth and a messed-up upbringing -- particularly when murder is not involved. Wershe fits that bill.
In issuing the 2012 ruling on teens and murder, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan wrote: “Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and it’s hallmark features -- among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences. It prevents taking into account the family and home environment that surrounds him -- and from which he cannot usually extricate himself -- no matter how brutal or dysfunctional.”
A 14, Wershe’s dad, Richard Wershe Sr., a law enforcement informant, introduced him to the FBI and Detroit police. Wershe started working as informant in the Detroit drug world, but the FBI used his father’s informant number when writing reports out of concern it would look bad that they were using a juvenile, according to Musilli, Wershe’s attorney.
I’m not advocating we go soft on crime. But I am for a balanced justice system that shows some compassion and an opportunity for a second chance for folks like Wershe. The Supreme Court recognizes that, why shouldn't the Michigan Parole Board?
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Wershe did get in trouble in 2005. Florida authorities charged him with being part of an auto-theft ring while Wershe was in prison there in the witness-protection program. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five years. Wershe says he simply made an introduction to a fellow inmate’s son to a legitimate car dealer who ended up dealing in stolen cars. He says he did nothing wrong, and only pleaded guilty because authorities threatened to charge his sister and mother, who had bought a car that ended up being stolen.
“I feel like an idiot. I should have never pled,” he said. I called the prosecutor on the case several times but never got a return call. His attorney, Musilli. who did not represent Wershe in the case, calls the whole thing ridiculous.
Aguirre, the former parole board member who is working with Wershe’s attorney Ralph Musilli to free Wershe, says Wershe’s background is certainly something the parole board should be looking at: The fact his father introduced him to the drug trade and to law enforcement so he could be an informant.
“I look at a kid who gets up in the business, and at 17 finally gets arrested and he gets life. It makes no sense.”
Retired FBI agent Schwarz says the parole board acts “as if all of this happened yesterday. They forget it happened about 26 years ago.”
“When this all started, the spotlight was on Rick. You did something wrong, you need to be punished. Now, 26 years later, the spotlight is on the Michigan Parole Board and the state of Michigan. You’re committing the crime, and you’re not doing anything about it.”