Former teenage drug dealer Richard Wershe Jr. was one of the youngest informants in history when he began co-operating with federal investigators at the age of 14. Unfortunately, helping the law did nothing for Wershe’s case when it was his turn to face the wrath of the Michigan justice system a couple of years later. His story, though, is somewhat legendary.
Wershe Jr. knew the life of crime at an early age. His father, Richard Wershe Sr., specialized in selling stolen goods and illegal guns. By the time Rick Jr. was eight, his father had taught him how to use a gun, and he was using rats for target practice. But, from an early age, Ricky Jr. had bigger plans in mind that didn’t involve popping caps in rodents.
In his early teens, Wershe Jr. followed in his father’s footsteps by making his own money through illegal activities. His sister’s boyfriend introduced him to the world of petty crime, and they robbed houses together to make some bucks. But when Rick befriended the little brother of local drug lords Johnny and Leo Curry, he developed loftier ambitions.
Shorty after becoming acquaintances with the younger Curry sibling, the rising criminal was selling drugs on his own accord and hanging out with his kingpin siblings. They took a liking to young Rick because he was earning money that didn’t interfere with their income potential. I guess they thought it was admirable for adolescents to sell drugs as long as you weren’t stepping on their toes.
Wershe’s newfound status shadowing the Curry’s also earned him the nickname “White Boy Rick” among their peers and the city’s criminal underworld. He was driving fancy cars before he was even old enough to own a license. This only further cemented his credibility in the streets and earned him levels of most seasoned criminals found hard to come by.
However, while Rick was hanging out with Johnny Curry and getting close to his criminal organization, he was simultaneously feeding the authorities information about their unlawful activities. As we’ll discover later, Wershe’s intelligence helped lead to their downfall. But, like all good stories, nothing was ever as simple as it seemed.
As it turned out, Rick was in cahoots the feds before he knew the Curry’s and their connections personally. It all started in 1984, when he was 14-years-old. At first, the agency only wanted to co-operate with Rick’s father. They had helped him out with a few jams in the past, and now they sought their repayment. They wanted to know more about the local drug players, but Ricky Sr. wasn’t of much help to them. He sold guns and minded his own business. His son, however, could identify the people in their photographs and shed some light on their activities.
Afterward, Rick Sr. became a confidential informant and accepted money from the bureau. What they wanted, though, was to use his son. Of course, given that he was underage at the time, they had guidelines to adhere to which made matters quite complicated — at least on paper. As such, the kid’s co-operation was kept off the books. The father was the registered informant, but Wershe Jr. was the true source of the information.
White Boy’s co-operation with the authorities started off basic enough. He identified suspects and told them where drugs, money, and weapons were being held. Eventually, he got deeper into the city’s criminal network as a result of the FBI’s prompting. As he gained the Johnny Curry’s trust, he became privy to some vital information — including the homicide that paved the way for their fall from grace.
This homicide in question pertains to a drive-by shooting Curry had set up to scare an acquaintance, which culminated in the death of his 13-year-old teenage boy instead. The homicide didn’t lead to any charges for the parties involved, but it did set in motion the chain of events which led to their crew eventually being busted on drug charges and taking plea deals.
The young informant’s revelations didn’t just end with exposing the crimes of a few gangbangers, though. He also exposed political corruption at the top. He recalled sitting next to Johnny Curry as he openly discussed the aforementioned drive-by shooting with none other than Gill Hill, who was a high ranking officer in the Detroit police’s homicide department at the time (FSR readers will know him as the actor who played Eddie Murphy’s boss in Beverly Hills Cop). Hill was allegedly responsible for protecting the interests of then-mayor Coleman Young, whose niece, Cathy Volson, was Johnny Curry’s fiancée. White Boy Rick had an affair with Volson when Johnny went to jail. He was 17 at the time. She was 24.
Wershe was no innocent informant, however. He always had aspirations to be rich and successful, but the cops enabled him to become the criminal he became. The money he was making from snitching helped fund his burgeoning cocaine ambitions. The feds don’t deny playing their part in what became of Rick, either. As former FBI agent Gregg Schwartz told The Atavist: “We brought him into the drug world, and what happened? He became a drug dealer. And we’re surprised by that?”
Wershe was arrested in May 1987 after some cops found eight kilos of cocaine stashed near his house. He was subsequently charged for possession with intent to deliver and sentenced to life in prison. He also had the misfortune of being convicted under Michigan’s 650 Lifer law, which mandated that those caught in possession of at least 650 grams of cocaine or heroin must be incarcerated for life without parole. Under the Lifer law, pushing drugs was considered a worse crime than mass murder.
Wershe refused to take a deal because it would have forced him to testify against others. Not only did he feel that this would mean an instant death sentence, but he was also convinced that there wasn’t enough evidence against him for sentencing. His informant work wasn’t brought to light either, but since there was no concrete evidence to prove that he’d illegally co-operated with the FBI, they’d probably have denied the claims unless it benefited their larger goals.
But he issue here isn’t the fact that Wershe was sentenced under a harsh law. He was a criminal, and he deserved to go to jail (he later admitted that the cocaine that got him imprisoned was his, though he didn’t stash it). Where the problem lies is with the law itself, which was abolished in 1998 after being deemed a mistake. More notorious criminals walked as a result, but Wershe remains in prison waiting to be released while his old associates have since been released.
Some theorists speculate that the reason why Wershe has been left to rot is to keep him silent. If Hill’s murder cover-up is to be believed, you can understand why some members of the Detroit Police Department don’t want to see him back on the streets. Important members of the police department allegedly wanted him silenced before his prison sentence out of fear that he’d come back to haunt the bad apples.
In the documentary White Boy, former hitman Nathaniel Craft says that he was hired by Hill to assassinate Rick to stop him sharing what he knew about corruption in the police department. Some of those cops probably wish the hit had been carried out when Wershe provided enough information to ruin a few of them later on.
When the FBI carried out the 1991 sting Operation Backbone, which targeted corruption and drugs in Detroit, White Boy Rick assisted proceedings from behind bars. The case led to the prosecution of 18 police officers and politicians, but Wershe didn’t score brownie points in the eyes of the justice system for his input.
Rick was granted parole in 2017, but it could be years before he sees the free world. Regardless of his crimes, the punishment wasn’t consistent with other drug dealers who were sent down for the same felonies — or worse. But his story is an interesting one nonetheless, and very worth the Hollywood biopic it has just received.