It's hard to know where to start when addressing the mammoth, convoluted case of White Boy Rick, the puppy-faced white boy who became a verified legend due to his involvement in the '80s Detroit drug scene. Charged with possession and smacked with a life sentence at the age of 17, Richard Wershe Jr. remains behind bars today. And the story of his incarceration continues to be one of the most scandalous tales of police corruption in recent history.
His backstory, which is filled with crack rocks, gun crime, one homicide and a huge police cover-up, is currently being transformed into a feature film starring Matthew McConaughey, set for release in January 2018. So, months before the movie hits theaters, let's delve into the extraordinary tale of his conviction. This is the "true" story of #WhiteBoyRick.
NB: The main source comes via an outstanding piece in The Atavist Magazine by Evan Hughes, which was shortlisted for the 2015 National Magazine Award for Reporting.
First Things First: What Is The 650 Lifer Law?
To fully grasp the gravitas of Richard Wershe Jr.'s situation, we must first delve into the details of his arrest. In 1987 he was charged with possession with intent to deliver eight kilos of cocaine, which police discovered stashed near his home. He was sentenced under Michigan's 650 Lifer Law, a law that is widely recognized as one of the, if not the harshest drug statutes in US history. It delivered life imprisonment, without parole, to anyone caught for the possession, manufacture or sale of 650 grams or more of cocaine.
The 650 Lifer Law was rolled back in 1998 and many of those imprisoned under it became eligible for parole, often being released after their first appeal. In 2010 it was deemed unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court. Wershe is now the only person who remains locked up under the old law for a crime he committed as a juvenile. That's 30 years in prison for moves he made as a teenager — at a time when murderers on average served less than 10 years.
Who Is White Boy Rick?
So, who is Richard Wershe Jr. and why does he still reside within a cell while many of the major, notoriously violent Kingpins from his day roam free? The answer to the latter question, if his — and many others' — claims are to believed, is quite simple: He was systematically taken down by local police for breaking the sacred rule: You do not snitch on cops. Wershe helped the FBI unearth huge corruption in the Detroit Police Department and local political authorities, which led to the arrest of 11 officers. And that, my friends, is a no go.
However, before we get ahead of ourselves, here's an idea of what life was like for him before he wound up behind bars. Wershe grew up in Detroit during the 1980s crack epidemic. His father, Rick Wershe Sr. — who'll be portrayed by Matthew McConaughey in the movie — was somewhat of a "Jack of All Trades," extremely well connected and made his bank primarily as a firearms dealer, buying out stores that were going into liquidation and reselling the products. After divorcing Wershe Jr.'s (let's just call him Rick from now on) mother, he became the boy's primary caretaker. He would take Rick to gun shows with him at the Light Guard Armory on 8 Mile, and Rick — who was 8 or 9 years old at this point — would learn countless tidbits about firearms from the various vendors. He also developed his father's hunger for money, his head for business, and his thirst for a better quality of life.
When Rick was around 10 or 11, his elder sister Dawn got into crack, no doubt helped by the fact she was dating a petty thief who introduced Rick to the world of small crime. From this point on, Rick — a white boy in an almost entirely black neighborhood — started climbing the ladder of the Detroit crime hierarchy. But it wasn't until meeting the Curry brothers that he really started to cut his teeth in the scene.
The Man, The Myth, The Legend
Leo and Johnny Curry were running the local drug scene in Detroit for around a decade, starting in the '70s with marijuana and moving on to heroin and cocaine in the '80s. They shifted huge amounts of the product — often around 100 pounds — had huge houses, designer clothing, beautiful women. To a poor teenager desperate for a taste of the good life, they had it as good as it gets. Rick wanted in. He and the younger Curry brother, Boo, started hanging out, they'd ride around town together, picking up ladies and getting into trouble. Before long, Rick was holding credence; the older brothers started riding with him too, taking Rick to predominantly Black clubs and hanging out with their associates. He was building a status, a status that was solidified after being shot in the stomach at age 15 and surviving. The same year he dropped out of school and started dealing crack.
Despite holding no driver's license, Rick started rollin' around town in a white jeep with the words "The Snowman" on the rear. As The Atavist article states: "He wore tracksuits and chains, mink coats, a belt made of gold, a Rolex encircled with diamonds," and soon started making use of the connections he'd made courtesy of the Currys. One such hook up was with Art Derrick — a cocaine dealer reportedly raking in around 100k per day in profit. The man was so rich Rick claims that he kept a private jet and a speedboat in his gated ghetto mansion. Derrick treated Rick like a son and the then still 15/16-year-old boy would accompany him on trips to destinations such as Miami and Las Vegas, buy huge amounts of crack — sometimes around 50 kilos per time — and resell it in Detroit.
As Rick's ego grew, he started hooking up with the beautiful ex-girlfriend of Johnny Curry, Cathy Volsan. (By this point, Curry's drug empire had been taken down and he was sitting in a cell somewhere, so couldn't really do much about Rick banging his bird — but more on that later.) Volsan happened to be the niece of a longtime Detroit mayor, Coleman Young — and that's when heads really started to turn. You can't run around Detroit dealing crack, raking in the cash, dating a former kingpin's girlfriend who's also the niece of a local government official, without people starting to take note. As timing would have it though, their relationship didn't really have chance to bloom.
In 1987 Rick Wershe Jr., 17, was arrested and delivered a life behind bars for possession of 650 grams of crack cocaine. However, as is often the case in any insane #truestory — the case wasn't as simple as that. You see, according to Rick and his father, they both had been working as FBI informants the entire time. An excerpt from The Atavist reads:
“They used me, and they used my son." The Wershes had put themselves at great risk, [Wershe Sr.] claimed, to help authorities gather important evidence of drug dealing on the East Side. “And now they turn around and fuck us over."
Ain't No Such Thing As Halfway Crooks... Or?
Here's where things start to get a little more complicated, names are dropped like flies and stories overlap, so to keep things as easy to follow as possible, let's bullet point the primary points.
- Wershe Sr. used to run a gun store close to the FBI's field office and would talk with agents from time to time as they browsed the store. They would do Wershe Sr. favors such as letting him know if his eldest daughter Dawn was in trouble or pulling their weight to let him off a weaponry charge. Soon they started to wonder what the gun dealer could do for them.
- The FBI comes knocking at the Wershe's home looking for intel on individuals in various photographs and, to their surprise, his 14-year-old son had more information to share. Wershe Sr. was the registered informant — mostly because using a juvenile was against standard protocol — but Jr. was the useful one.
- The FBI starts coming to the house more often, offering cash — sometimes in thousands — in return for knowledge. Soon Rick is meeting the agents without his father in parking lots. He gives information that leads to big raids, the busting of major figures and huge amounts of cash and drugs being seized. He tells The Atavist: “What kid doesn’t want to be an undercover cop when he’s 14, 15 years old?”
- Rick claims that he did not start dealing drugs until he became an FBI informant. More over, he said that sometimes the officers would help him out by letting him keep the drugs he'd bought in undercover sales using their cash, which he would then sell on. Longtime agent Gregg Schwartz told Hughes:
“We brought him into the drug world. And what happened? He became a drug dealer. And we’re surprised by that?”
- Rick also claims that the FBI gave him a professional grade fake ID so he could go to Vegas with the big boys and work their contacts, which is backed up by the below document:
- When Rick was 14, he was charged with firing a gun during a car chase — someone was trying to pinch his grandmother's car. The case went to court but was dropped as the arresting officer never appeared for trail. Apparently this officer was instructed not to attend the hearing because of Rick's cooperation so far. Additionally, when Rick was shot in the stomach, the agents appeared at his bedside and registered him in the hospital under the name John Doe to avoid suspicion.
- FBI agent Mr. Herman B. Groman is enlisted to the case. He was tasked with investigating the Curry brothers, which was around the same time that Rick started getting closer to them, traveling to Las Vegas, etc. They tapped Johnny Curry's phone to listen out for drug deals. However, while monitoring the dealer, they discovered that he was involved in the murder of a 13-year-old boy. Rick was now a homicide informant. And this is when the fun really begins.
A Deal Gone Wrong, Child Murder And A Police Cover-Up
Shortly before the aforementioned Las Vegas trip, the Currys had enlisted the help of a dealer to hook up some of the minor details and, displeased with the results, had shot up the dealer's family home, accidentally murdering his 13-year-old nephew. A mistake that, as one would expect, caused a major panic throughout the Curry clan and led to Johnny paying for silence from his associates and, apparently, the police. The Atavist excerpt reads:
When Groman checked the log for the morning after the shooting, he found that the first two calls made from Johnny Curry’s phone were to members of the Detroit Police Department. One number belonged to a sergeant named Jimmy Harris. The other was the unlisted direct line of Harris’s supervisor, Commander Gilbert R. Hill.
At the time, Commander Gill Hill was a prominent figure in Detroit, not only because he had starred in the 1984 movie Beverly Hills Cop, but because he was the chief inspector of the Detroit homicide department. It's more important to note, however, that many of the staff under his command were tasked with an "unofficial detail": looking after the mayor, Coleman Young. They also had to look out for the mayor's family, including his niece, Cathy Volsan, with whom the mayor was particularly close and adamant about her protection. And do you remember who she was once dating? Yup, drug kingpin Johnny Curry. Queue suspicion.
Yet, despite FBI agent Groman tapping Curry's phone, listening in on conversations where the murder is actually talked about, and informing the Detroit PD of the case, no charge's were ever filed against Curry's associates. Johnny Curry was eventually arrested and given a 20-year sentence for his drug operation, but the homicide charge was completely dodged.
Operation Backbone: The Real Reason Why White Boy Rick Remains Behind Bars
We're now in the early '90s and Rick has been behind bars for three years. By this point, Groman is convinced that Commander Gill Hill and some of his high-ranking allies in the Detroit Police Department are bent. And, in order to prove it, he visits an old informant who could help him uncover the police corruption once and for all: Rick Wershe Jr.
Rick was still friendly Cathy Volsan at the time, she visited him regularly in prison, assumedly to ensure that their relationship stayed sweet and he wouldn't use the information he had against her. Little did she know that he was about to do just that. Hughes writes:
After the meeting with Groman, Wershe spoke to Volsan on the phone and told her that his sister, Dawn, was coming up to visit him for his 21st birthday. Accompanying her, he said, was an old friend of his from Miami named Mike Diaz. Wershe told Volsan she should get together with Dawn and Diaz and go out for dinner. The word “Miami” was enough, Wershe says, to plant the idea of what kind of friend Diaz was—Volsan would assume he couldn’t explain further over a monitored prison phone.
From this point, Operation Backbone, as they christened it, went as follows:
- Diaz and Volsan met for dinner. He told her that he was looking for a connection in Detroit, whom he would pay, to protect laundered money. Volsan boasted of her connections within the Detroit Police, agreed to work with him, and left the restaurant. She was completely unaware that she had not met with a Mr. Mike Diaz, but Mike Castro — an undercover FBI agent. Groman had been sitting at the next table.
- Fast forward a few months and Diaz, a.k.a. Mike Castro, was introduced to Willie Volsan, the mayor's bother-in-law, who in turn introduced him to police sergeant Jimmy Harris. In exchange for cash, more cops were brought in on the plot.
- Five shipments followed. The team, led by Willie Volsan and Harris, would enter Detroit Metro Airport, and meet Castro, who pretended that he'd just flown in. Castro was apparently carrying suitcases filled with $1 million in drug money (blank paper with a layer of real bills on top). The police would escort him to a bank where he would pretend to deposit the cash, and then return to the airport.
- One officer even slipped a machine gun past security, understanding it was going to be used in a homicide in Chicago.
- Goman remains determined to get to the top of the chain and bring down Gill Hill. And, as Willie Volsan continuously talked of his connection to Hill, he managed to score two meetings with the Commanding Officer. Goman tells The Atavist:
Afterward, back in Volsan’s car, Hill said that he was taken aback by how direct “Diaz” was about his illegal intentions but that he thought he could probably help out. “Do they have money?” he asked, according to Groman. Volsan assured him that Castro and his partner were loaded. “I’m just elated at this point,” Groman told me. “I felt like a maestro at the symphony.”
- It's May 1991 and Groman has planned his grand finale: A small plane lands on a Detroit airport runway and is met by a car filled with police officers, including Jimmy Harris. They take a number of bags off the plane, put them in the car and drive out of the city to a parking lot in a suburban town. The bags contained 100 kilos of cocaine (flour). Here they meet another car, transfer the bags and the deal was complete.
- Later that day, Harris arrives to meet Diaz — a.k.a. our FBI agent Castro — who hands the police sergeant $50,000 cash for the services of his team.
- Gorman is in the next room listening in, recording and filming everything with hidden microphones and cameras.
- The result: 11 police officers and several civilians including Jimmy Harris and Willie Volsan all went to prison. They have since been released.
“The undercover agent’s very life,” Groman later testified, “at times rested solely in the hands of Mr. Wershe.” Lynn Helland, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the corruption case, says that, at the time, Wershe “was the game in town as far as pursuing that investigation.” Mike Castro told me, “Without him, the case wouldn’t have happened.”
It didn't take long, however, for Gill Hill to twig onto the fact that he had been the main target of Operation Backbone, which of course he was far from pleased about. And unfortunately for Rick, this time his role as an FBI informant didn't slide by the wayside, it made the press. And again, what is the sacred rule you never break? You do not rat on cops.
In 2003, an opportunity for parole came up. Many people arrived for the hearing — including rapper Kid Rock, who'd developed an interest in the case — to support Rick. His parole was denied however as "several prominent figures" from the Detroit P.D. turned up to testify against him — agents that seemingly had no involvement nor history with his case in the slightest. They were simply following instructions.
The Atavist piece concludes:
Mike Castro, the undercover agent on Operation Backbone, believes that Rick Wershe is still in prison because he broke that all-important rule. When Wershe worked with him and Groman on that investigation, Castro told me, “it stung” the Detroit police and their allies in power. “It embarrassed them and it showed what they really were.”
On June 8 of this year, Rick will finally have another opportunity for parole — 14 years after his previous hearing, and over three decades since his incarceration.
The White Boy Rick movie is set for release January 12, 2018 and stars #MatthewMcConaughey as Rick Wershe Sr., Richie Merritt as Rick, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Bruce Dern.
To read about White Boy Rick's trial in more intricate detail, head over The Atavist.
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