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. Wershe was paroled in Michigan last year after serving about 30 years in prison. He is now serving a sentence in Florida for his involvement in a car theft ring while he was behind bars there. His release date is 2021. The book is scheduled for release on June 25 as an e-book and in paperback.
The following is a condensed version of Chapter 1. This is the first of two installments.
By Vince Wade
At the worldly age of 14, Richard John Wershe, Jr., a street-savvy kid who didn’t sell or use dope, was recruited by FBI agents to become America’s youngest soldier in the War on Drugs. His secret paid mission was to go behind enemy lines to gather intelligence. He wasn’t an ordinary teen and he wasn’t an ordinary snitch. Wershe was “arguably the most productive drug informant of the Detroit FBI during that era,” according to John Anthony who was the legal adviser-agent of that office at the time.
By the time he was 17, Wershe, who is white, had been consorting with Detroit's biggest drug dealers and baddest hitmen, jetting to Las Vegas and Miami, sleeping with the mayor's hot, married, 20-something niece and telling the FBI about top-level police corruption. His reward, in a strange episode of law enforcement intrigue, was to be abandoned by the federal government. He became Rick Who? Wershe, who was eventually labeled by the media as White Boy Rick, was now a broke school dropout from a dysfunctional family. He turned to the only trade he knew—the one the narcs had taught him. He tried to become a wholesale-level drug dealer, got caught, and was sentenced by local authorities to life in prison without parole. Wershe became a Prisoner of War—the War on Drugs.
❖Knew "Sammy The Bull"
During his life in prison Wershe came to know Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano, an admitted Mafia killer who helped the government put Mob boss John Gotti in prison for life. He met a world-class drug smuggler named Steve Kalish who lavishly bribed Panama leader Manuel Noriega. On numerous occasions, Wershe discussed the finances of illegal drugs with Carlos Lehder, one of the founders of the notorious Medellín cocaine cartel.
Wershe (pronounced Wur-shee) joined the national battle against the never-ending flow of illegal drugs in June, 1984. That same month, 13 years earlier, President Richard M. Nixon declared the United States of America had to go to battle against the nation’s drug habit.
"America's public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse,” President Nixon told reporters after sending a message to Congress on the issue. "In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive."
Over a decade later, when the federal government pressed a young Detroit kid in to service in the War on Drugs, the country was losing the struggle. In truth, it never started winning. The story of Richard J. Wershe, Jr is a down-in-the-trenches view of why the War on Drugs is a trillion-dollar failure and will never be won.
❖Youngest In FBI History
Whatever Wershe’s dreams and fantasies may have been as a lower middle-class white boy growing up on Detroit’s east side, becoming an FBI snitch, a rat, a fink, a canary, a stool pigeon and eventually spending his life in prison was certainly not his life’s ambition.
Wershe, known to his family and friends and on the streets as Ricky or Rick, became a paid Confidential Informant for the FBI, apparently the youngest in the agency’s history, without any real say in the matter or time to think it over.
It wasn’t a recruitment, really. It was more like being drafted. The FBI, for its part, was willing to pay and pay regularly for what the kid could find out. For the boy’s fast-buck, business-hustler father, the FBI’s informant cash was the motivation to agree to this dangerous scheme. The stress of sustained undercover deception on an adolescent mind and the very real physical danger inherent in informing on men who regard murder as a cost of doing business don’t seem to have troubled Wershe’s father or the FBI agents.
On the other hand, working as an FBI informant didn’t seem to have any negative effect on some famous Americans from Wershe’s childhood. Growing up, Rick Wershe, Jr. watched Walt Disney movies not knowing that Uncle Walt had been an FBI stool pigeon for over a quarter of a century, keeping the Bureau informed about suspected Communist agitators and Leftist subversives in Hollywood. Most of Walt Disney’s informing involved labor unions. He didn’t like them.
At the time Rick Wershe was lured in to working as an FBI informant, the man occupying the White House had been a long-time snitch for the Bureau. President Ronald W. Reagan was known as FBI Informant T-10 during the Communist-hunting Red Scare that profoundly impacted the Hollywood film community in the early days of the Cold War.
But Walt Disney and Ronald Reagan were adults when they became police informers. Rick Wershe was a juvenile and a young one at that. To understand how he got in this situation, it is important to examine his childhood and the changing city where he grew up.
Rick Wershe, Jr. was a rambunctious, mischievous kid prone to stunts like shooting at rats in alleys and setting off illegal firecrackers. In his early teens he participated in a few home break-ins as a way to raise easy cash. He was tutored in the art of burglary by a small-time black criminal who was dating his older sister, Dawn. Drugs were plentiful but Rick Wershe was not a drug user.
Dawn had tumbled down the rabbit hole of drug addiction. She has fought her drug habit all of her life. Rick’s Aunt Carolyn, his father’s sister, was also a drug addict who turned to prostitution to support her habit. Young Rick saw what drugs were doing to his family and he chose not to use them. He was, however, impressed by the lavish, free-spending lifestyle of the city’s rapidly growing cadre of drug-dealing entrepreneurs. Over the course of three years, federal agents and local police narcs from a drug task force taught the young boy the ways of the drug underworld. They had a willing student. What thrill-seeking, hormone-fueled teenage boy wouldn’t relish the chance to go undercover for-real in a sleazy and dangerous world awash in fast cars, fast women, “bling” and so much cash that machines were needed to count it?
By the time guys his age were prepping for their SAT exams, Rick Wershe had been shot once and targeted for a hit murder another time. When other boys his age were learning to drive, Rick Wershe had been jet-setting to Las Vegas prize fights, flying to Miami to meet cocaine importers, hobnobbing at nightclubs favored by black gangsters and buying himself jet skis, hot cars and flashy jewelry. He also began to give the FBI insights regarding drug-related police bribery.
Yet, by the time he reached his 17th birthday, the feds had abandoned their star snitch. He wasn’t just another criminal working off a beef by turning informant against his friends. Rick Wershe had been recruited by government agents.
Suddenly, he was too hot. Too many people knew or had guessed what he was doing. As we shall see, his informant work caused crisis meetings at the very top levels of the Justice Department. He was in danger of being exposed as an under-age FBI informant in the War on Drugs. What’s more, FBI investigative files had been falsified to make it appear the information was coming from his father. Falsifying federal files is a felony.
Over time, city officials in positions of power became deeply afraid of what the kid might know about public corruption and what he might expose about them. The feds, having committed file falsification crimes in order to use him as an informant, feared what he might expose about them.
Young Wershe was suddenly adrift. He had worked night after night in his paid role as a Confidential Informant. Now it was over. The cash had dried up. The only trade he knew was the dark art of slinging dope. With all the immaturity and bad judgment he could muster, Rick Wershe set out to become a “weight” man, a wholesaler of cocaine. His adventure as a drug dealer lasted less than a year. He was busted and sentenced to prison for life.
Before all of this, there was a discipline-free and largely love-free childhood that was starved for the right-from-wrong rules that accompany true parental concern for a child.
❖Dad, The Hustler
Richard John Wershe, Senior was called Rick. Richard John Wershe, Junior was known to his friends and neighbors as Ricky. Rick and Ricky. The fact they shared the same name differentiated only by Senior and Junior was significant for the FBI.
The elder Wershe, now deceased, once described himself as a business hustler. “He was always looking for a better mousetrap,” longtime friend Fred Elias recalls. Elias says the elder Wershe always seemed to be starting a new business venture, anything that might turn a quick buck. Elias remembers Richard Wershe, Sr. as whip-smart about guns and electronics. Attorney Ralph Musilli knew Richard Wershe, Sr. for close to 20 years. Musilli says Wershe never looked beyond making money that week. Musilli says prospective business partners found Wershe aggravating, self-serving and uninterested in the basics of building a thriving, long-term enterprise. Physically trim, Wershe was a fast talker with a faint lisp.
Those who knew Richard J. Wershe, Sr. as a neighbor and family member paint a harsh, unflattering picture. They say he was a jerk. They recall he was an arrogant, insufferable and controlling know-it-all with a violent temper; a chronically abusive husband and negligent father who was obsessed with the next business hustle. He never held a real job for long. Richard Wershe, Sr. was convinced he was destined to become a successful self-made millionaire based on some scheme-of-the-week. He had two children; Ricky and Dawn. By all accounts both children had difficult childhoods made more so by their largely absentee father.
When Richard Wershe Sr. was around, which was seldom, he wasn’t a responsible parent, according to someone well-acquainted with the father and the son.
Wayne LeCouffe is Rick Wershe, Jr.’s cousin by marriage. He’s two years younger than Rick and in some ways as street-savvy as his cousin. But he took a different path in life, a path that led to business success and a family. He has clear memories of his Wershe cousins in their youth.
"Rick’s father was never home for Dawn or Rick," LeCouffe states flatly. "He was never there. Rick and Dawn grew up without parents."
LeCouffe tells the story of the time Wershe decided to take some kids—Ricky, Wayne and Wayne’s two young brothers—up on a garage roof to shoot at rats in the alley. The elder Wershe gave one of Wayne’s brothers a loaded .45 caliber pistol and told him to climb the ladder. As the boy climbed the ladder, he lost his footing. The gun went off. The shot hit the ground inches from one of his brothers. Instead of taking responsibility for his own negligence in giving a loaded pistol to a youngster on a ladder, Wershe smacked the kid who had accidentally fired the shot.
Even as a child, LeCouffe had Richard Wershe, Sr’s number. "He was always up to something, trying to make a fast buck," LeCouffe remembers. "When cable TV first came out, you had the illegal cable TV boxes. He was in on that immediately. When cell phones were the size of a cinder block, he was in on that, getting chips for the phones. He was getting the chips so you could use the phone until whoever found out and shut it off. There was nothin’ there that was legitimate. Nothin’."
In business Richard Wershe, Sr. tried anything and everything, typically walking along the edge that separates legal from illegal. He prowled estate sales of the recently departed looking for clothing he could sell at second-hand outlets. He owned a military surplus store for a time. He was a bit of a health nut so he tried his hand at selling vitamin supplements. He was well-versed in firearms, having worked in a gun shop.
The elder Wershe eventually got busted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) for possessing unreported parts for suppressors or silencers. A box of silencer parts was found in a raid on his mother’s home. An appeals court ruled the government had proved the senior Wershe had “constructive possession” of the silencer parts.
At Richard Wershe Sr.’s 1988 federal weapons trial, his elderly mother, Vera, made a sad effort to take responsibility for the silencers. At age 77 and in poor health, she had to use a walker to make her way to the witness stand. She tried to claim the silencers were in a box to be thrown out, but she saw them and hauled the box back to her basement thinking they must be valuable. She admitted she didn’t know what they were. The jury didn’t buy her story.
Richard Wershe, Sr., his mother and his trial attorney are deceased so we will never know if Wershe talked her in to testifying at his trial. But it’s highly unlikely that an elderly, ailing, always-follow-the-rules Polish woman would dream up such a preposterous story on her own and repeat it in front of a jury. What’s more likely is, it’s an indication of how Richard J. Wershe, Sr. was willing to put his own mother in a precarious legal situation to save his neck.
Wershe was convicted and sentenced to seven and a half years in federal prison.
As LeCouffe noted, the senior Wershe had a knack for consumer electronics. He was the first in his neighborhood to have a backyard satellite dish for TV reception. Soon, he was selling them to homeowners. Wershe had enough skill with electronics that he installed several home theaters for wealthy customers. No matter what the endeavor, he wasn’t interested in working for someone else in a 9-to-5 office job or in doing shift work in a factory. He relished the idea of becoming a successful entrepreneur. He never made it. Richard Wershe, Sr. died of brain cancer in 2014.
❖Kids Didn't Matter
Like many white ethnic families in Detroit, two generations of Wershes lived just a few doors apart. When Richard Wershe, Sr. got married, he and his wife bought a house in the same block as his parents.
Beverly “Bev” Srbich was a neighbor. She was known as “Aunt Bev” to Ricky and his sister, Dawn. Over a period of years Bev Srbich watched the disintegration of the Wershe families—and the neighborhood.
"Richard thought the world revolved around Richard and what Richard wanted," Srbich remembers. "His kids didn’t matter. Nothing mattered." Her voice begins to quiver. "You have no idea of the hate I have in my heart for this man."
❖FBI Agents Come Knocking
Rick Wershe remembers standing in his family home one day in June of 1984, watching and listening as his father sat at the dining room table talking with two black men who had come to the house unannounced. They were showing Richard Wershe, Sr. some snapshots of other black men. The elder Wershe said he didn’t recognize anyone in the photos, but he suggested his son might. He asked Richard Wershe, Jr. to join the conversation.
The younger Wershe approached the men and looked at the photos spread across the table. “That’s Big Man, that’s Little Man, that’s Boo,” he said, pointing to the photos one by one.
The visitors, FBI agents Jim Dixon and Al Finch, knew they had hit pay dirt. The fourteen-year old was correctly identifying, by street name, the Curry Brothers drug gang. In the criminal underworld, street names are often the only names used. It makes it harder for the police to figure out the true identities of crime suspects.
"For a fourteen-year old kid, he had so much information," recalled Jim Dixon, one of the FBI agents who was there for the recruitment of Richard Wershe, Jr. as an FBI CI—Confidential Informant. This was no random house call by a pair of FBI agents. They started the conversation with the father, but the agents knew it was the younger Wershe who had the knowledge—and access to the Currys—that they wanted. It was expedient to involve the father. In a way, Richard Wershe, Senior had opened the door by contacting the FBI looking for help with Dawn, his drug-addicted daughter—Rick’s sister. She had taken up with a known burglar and the elder Wershe wanted the FBI’s help in finding her. The FBI wanted something in return, a quid pro quo.
Even though he was an adolescent, Rick Wershe knew he was the real target for recruitment. The agents told his father they wanted to recruit him—Wershe Senior—as a paid Confidential Informant, but the teen knew from the outset he would be the real source of information. Asked when the agents recruited his father and when they recruited him, Rick Wershe says, “It was the same day, in that same meeting.”
The FBI agents were not enlisting the help of some sweet, innocent Leave It To Beaver sitcom adolescent. Young Wershe had had numerous minor run-ins with the police. Dave Majkowski, Rick's lifelong friend, said they were always getting stopped by the police for juvenile misbehavior of one kind or another.
Three months earlier, the younger Wershe had been arrested and charged in Juvenile Court with Assault with Intent to Commit Murder.
One night in March, 1984, Rick Wershe and his sister were driving together but in separate cars when Rick stopped at a gas station to get a soft drink. He was driving his grandmother’s car. He left it running while he went inside to get his drink. A thief saw an opportunity and jumped in the idling car and drove off. Dawn Wershe leaned on the horn. As Rick stepped outside he could see his grandmother’s car was gone. He dashed to Dawn’s car, jumped in and told her to chase the stolen car, now on a nearby freeway.
As they gave chase Rick asked Dawn if she had a gun. She did. Rick found a .22 and began firing at his grandmother’s car. It was Rick Wershe’s buzzard luck that an off-duty Detroit police officer was in the traffic mix as he was shooting at the fleeing car. Rick Wershe was arrested. His grandmother’s car was later found on the side of a freeway with a gun inside.
Rick eventually beat the charge with the help of a Detroit Police narcotics cop working with the FBI on the drug task force. It took some months for the attempted murder charge to make its way through the juvenile court system. By the time the case came up, young Wershe was making lots of undercover drug buys for the Detroit narcs. When the case was called on the Juvenile Court docket, the officer who had written the complaint wasn’t at court. Case dismissed.
Years later, a parole board attorney asked Wershe why his sister had a gun he could fire at the stolen car. Rick Wershe said guns were part of their world. "We played with guns, we had guns," Wershe said. "I mean, I really didn't have any parental supervision at that time. I was basically raising myself and I went down some wrong paths."