Sunday, June 18, 2017

Rick Wershe’s Parole Hearing: His Tormentors Just Won’t Give It Up

On June 8th, Richard Wershe, Jr. spent over four hours fighting for his life. He was tested by an Assistant Michigan Attorney General who ignored key elements in the Wershe story while grilling him at length about other parts. And for good measure, the media was chided for not finding a bombshell that turned out to be a dud.

Rick Wershe handled himself pretty well, all things considered, at his long-awaited hearing before the Michigan Parole Board. A lot of time was spent asking Wershe about his criminal activities before his conviction and imprisonment for life for a non-violent drug offense committed when he was a teen. Wershe is Michigan’s last remaining prison inmate doing life for a non-violent drug conviction. The Michigan Parole Board is facing two federal lawsuits over the question of why they are keeping Wershe in prison when all other inmates similarly charged have been released for time served.


Richard J. Wershe, Jr. - hoping the Michigan Parole Board will end his life sentence. (MDOC photo)


There were some tense moments at the hearing, which will be explored in this blog post.

In response to questions from Assistant Attorney General Scott Rothermel, Wershe explained his troubled childhood and how he came to be recruited by the FBI to become a paid informant against the Curry drug gang, which dominated the drug trade on Detroit’s east side in the mid-1980s. Wershe is believed to be the youngest informant ever recruited by the FBI for criminal investigations.

Over the course of the hearing it became clear that Rothermel was determined to highlight all of Wershe’s crimes and mistakes and bad choices. Rothermel was not interested in hearing about all of the help Wershe provided the FBI. Perhaps that’s because Wershe helped expose corruption in the so-called criminal justice system of Michigan. To elicit details about Wershe’s informant work on public corruption would mean Rothermel would have to shine the spotlight on the graft, corruption and injustice within the system of which he is a part. Can’t have that, now can we?

Wershe was required to be truthful about every crime and misdeed brought up in the questioning. He knew and understood that total honesty was vital to winning parole. That’s why he became agitated when Rothermel threw him a curve ball.

To understand the curve ball, it’s necessary to offer some background. After Rick Wershe was sentenced to life in prison in Detroit in 1988, he was approached in Marquette State Prison by FBI Special Agent Herman Groman, his “handler” when Wershe was working as an informant from the summer of 1984 until the spring of 1986.

Groman told him the government would get him transferred to the federal Witness Security program if he would help initiate an FBI undercover sting operation aimed at prosecuting drug corruption in the Detroit Police Department. The Witness Security program (WitSec) is a prisoner version of the Witness Protection program. Certain federal prisons have a special secure section for convicts who are informants and who have helped the government make important cases. It’s still prison, but life in the WitSec units is far better than in regular prison facilities.

Wershe agreed to help the FBI again, and Operation Backbone was a big success. Close to a dozen police officers were indicted and pled guilty or were convicted. Operation Backbone also ensnared Willie Clyde Volsan, the former brother-in-law of Detroit’s late Mayor Coleman Young.

Rick Wershe was transferred to a WitSec unit at federal prison in Phoenix, Arizona. His time there was unremarkable until he befriended Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano, the Mafia hitman turned informant who helped bring down John Gotti, the Godfather of Godfathers in the U.S. Mafia.

Gravano found out Rick Wershe’s father was a licensed gun dealer. Soon, Gravano asked Wershe to help him get some guns that could be used to murder John Gotti, Jr. for some feud he and Gravano had.

Wershe informed Herm Groman, his longtime FBI handler, about what Gravano was up to. Groman had to report it to Washington. This stirred up a hornet’s nest in Washington at the FBI and Justice Department. Here was one informant informing on a higher profile informant, the government’s prize witness against the Mafia.

The FBI/Justice Department investigation of Wershe’s claims about Gravano got muddled, perhaps deliberately, and the matter ended inconclusively. But Wershe, for his own safety, had to be transferred. They moved him to another WitSec unit in a federal prison in Florida.

While there, Wershe got wind of a used car sales scheme involving guys on the outside and a fellow WitSec inmate named Lorenzo “Fat Cat” Nichols.

Wershe saw an opportunity to buy used cars in Florida and ship them to Michigan to be re-sold at a higher price. He says he did it to help his mother and sister make some money. He also admitted he learned, at some point, that these were stolen cars.

Wershe was busted along with a number of others involved in the car scam. One of them was Antonio Ferrer, a car salesman on the outside. When Ferrer was arrested, he did what millions of criminals do: he told on the others in hopes of getting a break on his part of the case. It worked. Ferrer was charged, like Rick Wershe, with Racketeering and Conspiracy to Commit Racketeering. For singing a song about everyone else in the scheme, Ferrer was sentenced to probation on both counts. No time served. He did, however, have to pay a fine for his part in the car scheme.

The Miami-Dade police detective on the car case, Les Cravens, apparently loved the story Ferrer told him. Cravens wrote up what is called a probable cause affidavit, laying out all the claims Ferrer made about the others in the case, including Rick Wershe. Such affidavits routinely list all the crimes and possible crimes related to the investigation. It’s like throwing all the allegations against a wall and seeing which of them stick.

One of Ferrer’s allegations was that Rick Wershe proposed hiding drugs in the door panels of cars being shipped out of Florida as a means of smuggling narcotics.

The Florida prosecutor never pursued this allegation against Rick Wershe. He pled guilty to racketeering and racketeering conspiracy. But there was nothing—nothing—in the charges against him or in his court paperwork for the plea agreement that mentioned drugs.

Thus, Rick Wershe was stunned at his June 8th parole hearing when Assistant Attorney General Rothermel brought it up and asked him about it. Wershe, getting agitated said, “I never saw that document.”

Rothermel proceeded to quiz Wershe, over and over and over about Ferrer’s “admission” that he, Wershe, suggested shipping cocaine in the door panels of cars.

Wershe raised his voice and said, “I never dealt with drugs in prison.” Rothermel told him to calm down.

The Detroit Free Press, always willing in past years to smear Rick Wershe as a “drug lord” and “kingpin” without any evidence to support that libel, had a screaming headline on its Web site after the hearing that Wershe had a “meltdown”! They got over their own hyperventilating "meltdown" and calmed down later, posting a more professional headline.

Wershe did not have a meltdown. He didn’t “lose it.” No one had to restrain him in his seat. Not even close. He did become agitated and verbally combative about a serious charge he had never heard before. This was serious stuff. This was his one shot. His parole hearing. And a lawyer for the state was bringing up something that blindsided Wershe.

The reason he hadn’t heard about it was simple. It was a document of unsubstantiated allegations from a co-defendant who was angling for the best deal he could get. And he got a good one. Probation. No jail time. In the end, the Florida prosecutor apparently concluded there wasn’t enough evidence to bother with this allegation. That’s why Wershe had never heard it before. It was an unsupported allegation in a cop’s affidavit to get criminal charges in a case.

Rothermel showed his real motive, I believe, when he kept stating, repeatedly, “I found this document in the Florida court file. I don’t know why no one else did.” Before long, it became evident his repeated harangue about the document was less about Rick Wershe and more about tweaking the noses of those of us in the media who have lambasted the Attorney General’s Office for sloppiness and negligence in the Wershe case. It was Rothermel’s chance—or so he thought—to get back at the media. “I-I-I” found this, why didn’t anyone else?”

Well, others, myself included, did find it, but disregarded it as an unsupported allegation from a guy looking to get a good plea deal. It happens all the time in law enforcement.

Here’s an excerpt from the probable cause affidavit that Scott Rothermel mistakenly assumed no one else found but him:


Excerpt with highlights from a Florida "Probable Cause" affidavit in Rick Wershe's case in that state.


If the Parole Board reviews the affidavit and the official record in Rick Wershe’s Florida case, they will discover that Mr. Rothermel made an ass of himself over a document with unsupported, unsubstantiated allegations by a criminal looking to get a good deal.

Since Rothermel made such a big deal about “finding” documentation in the Wershe case, it’s time to point out the sloppiness and negligence of his office in a federal lawsuit Wershe has pending against the Michigan Parole Board for violating his civil rights by refusing to grant him parole.

The Attorney General of Michigan is the “lawyer” for the Michigan Parole Board, so the AG’s office is litigating Wershe’s civil rights case.

In a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, the Michigan Attorney General’s office claimed—falsely—that Rick Wershe, the plaintiff, had been convicted in federal court for possession of gun silencers. They got it wrong, plain and simple.


The Michigan Attorney General's Office has been so determined to find dirt on Richard J. Wershe, Jr. that they cited to a federal court a gun silencer case they attributed to Rick Wershe. If they had done thorough and accurate legal work they would have noticed the case involved his father, Richard J. Wershe, Sr. and not Richard J. Wershe, Sr. His prison file is full of these kinds of sloppy criminal justice "fact" assertions and it has cost him all of his adult life behind bars. 


If the Attorney General’s Office had done what lawyers call due diligence they would have discovered that case involved Rick Wershe’s father—Richard Wershe, SR—and not Richard Wershe, JR. There IS a federal case about gun silencers against a defendant named Richard Wershe, but the Michigan Attorney General got it wrong. They cited the wrong person. The wrong defendant. There is no evidence they have done anything to correct their mistake. Apparently they have a hard time admitting mistakes.

Note to Scott Rothermel: I found this, why didn’t your office? “I-I-I” found this. Why was the Attorney General’s office so sloppy and negligent that you couldn’t find it?

The difference between Rothermel’s big show at the Parole Hearing over the unsubstantiated Probable Cause affidavit that HE found in Florida and what I just pointed out is substantial. Did I mention HE found it? He told us that over and over at the parole hearing. Another note to Scott Rothermel: Good for you! Way to go! Attaboy! Give yourself a gold star.

The error by the Attorney General’s Office in the Wershe civil suit is real, it is factual, it is in the court record. The co-defendant’s claim in Florida about Wershe conspiring to smuggle drugs in the door panels of cars, is not.

Rick Wershe can only hope the Michigan Parole Board can distinguish between Scott Rothermel’s showboating about an irrelevant document—and fact.

***
The next step in the Wershe parole process is for a stenographer to type up the entire four hours of his parole hearing. Copies of the transcript will be given to the full 10-member Parole Board and they will vote, in July or August, on whether to grant him parole. Six of the 10 members must vote to grant parole.  
  



Thursday, June 8, 2017

Wershe has his Parole Hearing at last.

Richard J. Wershe Jr., Michigan's longest - serving prison inmate for a non-violent drug crime committed when he was a juvenile, had a hearing before the Michigan Parole Board today. Overall it went well. Here's a brief recap. A more detailed report will be in the next blog  installment on June 18:

Rick Wershe Jr. Answered questions, admitted guilt and gave a full and granular - detail accounting of his brief life of crime and longer life as a confidential FBI informant, beginning at age 14, in a very detailed exploration of his saga in questioning by an assistant state attorney-general. Wershe answered questions from 9:00 am until 1:10pm, with a brief 10-minute potty break in between. 

Wershe got agitated by questions about allegations made against him by a police informant in Florida, but generally answered questions smoothly.

"I've lost 30 years of my life," he told the two Board members present for the hearing. I messed up. I'm sorry."

An official transcript of the hearing will be prepared, and after a review, the full Board will vote up or down on parole. The vote is expected some time this summer. 

More in the next blog posting. 

Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Moment of Truth for White Boy Rick: Richard Wershe’s Parole Hearing Is At Hand



The years of waiting are over. On Thursday, June 8, 2017, the Michigan Parole Board will hold a public hearing on the issue of parole for Richard J. Wershe, Jr.—the longest serving inmate for a non-violent drug crime committed as a juvenile. Wershe has been locked up for 29 years, the victim of a criminal justice system vendetta against someone who told on the wrong people—people in political power. Here’s what to expect:

The day Richard J. Wershe, Jr. has dreamed about, prayed for, longed for, will arrive later this week. After 29 years in prison on a life sentence for possession of cocaine, Wershe will get his first meaningful chance at parole. The Michigan Parole Board has voted to consider granting him parole.


Richard J. Wershe, Jr. - Hoping for parole after 29 years. (MDOC photo)



He had a parole hearing in 2003, but that was a sham, a go-through-the-motions kangaroo court staged to give the appearance of a consideration of parole. It was far from it.

The Michigan criminal justice system—from Detroit to Lansing—was furious that Wershe had told the FBI about political and police drug corruption in Detroit. Wershe had told the feds how the late Gil Hill, the former Inspector in charge of Homicide and later Detroit City Council President, had been paid off by the Johnny Curry drug gang to ensure a homicide investigation did not find the true killers of a 13-year old boy, Damion Lucas, who had been killed mistakenly by two members of the Curry organization.

For a $10-thousand-dollar bribe, Hill focused the investigation on an innocent man, who was released after months of intense behind-the-scenes intrigue between the FBI, the Detroit Police and the Wayne County Prosecutor’s office. The Detroit Police Department, through Hill and other top command personnel, obstructed justice to protect the Curry gang because Johnny Curry was married to the niece of Detroit Mayor Coleman Young, one of the most powerful and feared politicians in the city’s history. In 2003, the powers-that-be manipulated Wershe’s parole hearing to ensure he stayed in prison. It was retribution for daring to tell the FBI about the sewer of corruption flowing through Detroit’s criminal justice system. The 1985 Damion Lucas killing has never been solved and prosecuted.

None of that will matter on Thursday. This parole hearing is sure to be different. The first thing to know is this: no decision is expected that day. There will be no immediate vote on parole for Wershe. The full board will be given a written transcript of the hearing and the full board will vote after considering the transcript. The full board has to vote. That’s the way it is in lifer cases.

The only expected witness is Wershe himself. Two members of the Parole Board, chair Michael Eagen and Member Sharon Wilson, will conduct the hearing. An assistant state attorney general will ask questions. The Michigan Attorney General is the official lawyer for the Parole Board.

Wershe is expected to be contrite and remorseful. He will tell the Board he was brought up in a dysfunctional family with no meaningful parental supervision. His parents divorced after a stormy, violent marriage. Wershe’s mother left Rick and his sister Dawn with their father, a man with a violent temper and dreams of becoming a self-made millionaire. Success eluded him and he was seldom home. 

When the FBI came around looking to recruit 14-year old Ricky to be a secret informant against the Curry drug gang, Richard Wershe, Sr. readily agreed to let his son enter a dangerous arrangement no responsible and caring parent would accept. Rick’s late father saw an opportunity to make another quick buck.

Wershe is expected to recite all of this to the Parole Board as he did in 2003. "I really didn't have any parental supervision at the time," Wershe testified 14 years ago. "I was basically raising myself and I went down some wrong paths."

If Wershe is bitter toward his parents, he hides it, for the most part. But there is no doubt he understands he is, in a sense, a victim of his childhood. "I went down the wrong path and I grew up in prison" he testified in 2003. "I had no one there to guide me other than older people who were all criminals their selves."

The Parole Board will hear or read in reports that Wershe has been what amounts to a model prisoner. He doesn’t get in trouble and strives to get along with everyone. He got his high-school diploma equivalency while he was behind bars. He has taken every course and counseling opportunity provided to him.

The Parole Board won’t hear testimony about how federal and local narcs in the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF) used their teen informant and then kicked him to the curb when they made their case against the Curry gang. 

Wershe was suddenly without a source of money and without a viable trade. He turned to the only trade he knew. 
The one law enforcement had taught him. He tried to become a big-time drug dealer—and got caught before he could make the big leagues.                                                         

The media helped bury him behind bars by relentlessly calling him White Boy Rick. Gullible reporters bought the dubious prosecution tale that this white kid somehow ruled the roost in Detroit's murderous drug trade; that prison-hardened adult black men were taking orders from a white kid who couldn't even grow a decent moustache. Newspaper and TV reporters never questioned the evidence for the claim that Wershe was a "drug lord" and a "kingpin." The image of a white teen Godfather of drugs in the black ghetto was too sensational to ignore.

Wershe is expected to say he understands the gravity of his brief life of crime. He is expected to say he has done all he can to prepare for life on the outside. He has lots of people willing to help him and he doesn’t lack for employment opportunities. Hollywood has become interested in him thanks to a movie about his strange tale, that is now in production.

Wershe’s attorney, Ralph Musilli, hopes the hearing will be brief. That means less pages that have to be transcribed. That means the full Parole Board can vote sooner, perhaps at their meeting in July.                                                 

Maybe the legend of White Boy Rick is about to end.
Maybe the rest of the life of Richard J. Wershe, Jr. is about to begin.

###

Parole Hearing for Richard J. Wershe, Jr.
Date: June 8, 2017
Time: 9:00 a.m.
Location: G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility
the T-100 Training Center (limited seating available)
Address: 3500 N. Elm Rd. Jackson, MI 49201
This is a correctional facility with commensurate security measures. Cell phones and recording devices will not be permitted.


Sunday, May 21, 2017

Jeff Sessions wants more Rick Wershes in our nation’s prisons


Earlier this month, tucked between the daily scandals and Constitutional crises emanating from the White House, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a plan that will cost additional tax dollars. He’s ordered federal prosecutors around the country to get tough again on crime, across the board. Punishment to the max. Go for the toughest sentence possible, no matter what the crime or the circumstances. Leniency will require special permission. This policy flies in the face of national crime and punishment trends and prevailing public views on imprisonment. But for Sessions and others like him, it makes no difference. It’s the kind of prosecution attitude that landed a kid named Richard Wershe in prison for life.


Richard J. Wershe, Jr. has never walked the streets as an adult. He’s been in prison for 29 years for a non-violent drug dealing conviction from an arrest when he was 17 years old. 

Drug hit men who have murdered multiple victims have been tried, convicted, sentenced, imprisoned and released in the time Wershe has been in prison. He’s been described as a model prisoner, yet he’s been kept behind bars as a result of a law enforcement vendetta. Wershe was an informant for the FBI and he told on the wrong people. He told the feds about corruption involving politically powerful cops and the brother-in-law of Detroit’s former mayor, Coleman Young. He’s paid a horrific price.

Wershe could be a poster child for the argument against mandatory minimum sentences. Yet, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions wants to return to that kind of sentencing at the federal level. More on that in a moment.


Attorney General Jeff Sessions wants to fill these up again.


The United States continues to throw far more of its people in prison than any other civilized nation with no evidence we are more law abiding as a result. I’ve borrowed a chart from the Prison Policy Initiative because it’s so startling. You are encouraged to look at this chart and other data on their Web site:





There is a segment of this nation that is hateful and vindictive and rigid in its view of punishment for crime. As the Guardian of London newspaper put it, “Americans like to punish.” The British paper says America, or a significant segment of it, is “addicted to punishment.”

This isn’t entirely accurate or fair. A public opinionsurvey last year by the respected Pew Charitable Trusts found six in ten Americans believe there are too many drug offenders in our nation’s prisons. The same survey found an overwhelming majority of Americans—79 percent—agree mandatory minimum sentences should be abolished and judges should be given latitude to let the punishment fit the crime.

Then there’s U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his ilk. Sessions is a vengeful throw-the-book-at-‘em kind of prosecutor, even though there’s no evidence this has any effect on the crime rate. In fact, the evidence suggests just the opposite.

As a nation, we have been moving toward a more balanced and reasoned view of crime and punishment. Are we in greater danger as a result? No. The overall national crime rate is trending—down. Survey and statistical compilations by the Pew Charitable Trusts, show violent crime in the United States is down sharply in a trend that has continued over the past quarter century! It’s not down some piddling amount, either. The FBI’s annual compilation of crime statistics from police and sheriff’s departments nationwide show violent crime fell by fifty percent—50%!!—between 1993 and 2015. The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) regularly surveys 90 thousand households about crime issues. During that same time frame, the BJS surveys show Americans believe violent crime declined by 77 percent.

Property crime is down over the long term, too.

In announcing a return to a policy of the past, Sessions claimed the homicide rate is on the rise. Like the claims of many politicians, there’s a nugget of truth in what he says. Homicide rates are climbing—in some cities. But overall, crime is in decline nationwide.

It appears Sessions is pandering to roughly a third of the American public that mindlessly supports every politician who speechifies that we need to “get tough on crime.” This same third of the population usually makes the most noise about hating—absolutely hating—to pay taxes. Duh. Do these simpletons think prisons are free? Where do they think the money comes from to keep the prisons running? I’m assuming here that these people think. That may be a reckless assumption on my part.

Careful observers of the War on Drugs might note Sessions and his cohorts and predecessors never ever ever try to stop the flow of the money of the international drug trade. That would mean putting some bankers in jail. Good luck with that. Name me one banker or financial industry tycoon who has been prosecuted for enabling the massive flow of illegal drugs by taking a cut of the action to keep the cartels in business. That’s why the War on Drugs is such a costly failure. It’s easier to give the appearance of doing something by arresting and prosecuting the bottom feeders, the lowest part of the illegal drugs pipeline. You can be sure all the “kingpins” and “drug lords” the DEA, FBI, U.S. Customs and thousands of local police narcs have locked up are essentially bottom feeders who sit in our prisons while their replacements push dope as fast as they can until they, too, get caught.

Corrections, the prison system, gobbles up about 20 percent of the Michigan state budget. That’s a huge amount of money. In Michigan, it costs about $40 thousand tax dollars per year to keep someone locked up in prison. Federal prisons are a little cheaper at a little over 29 thousand dollars-per-inmate, according to 2015 data, but that cost is multiplied by several hundred thousand prisoners. Is it tax money well spent?

Well, sometimes. It’s true there are repeat offenders—recidivism is the term the experts use—who will never be rehabilitated, who can never live within society’s norms and boundaries and rules. Serial killers come to mind. These sociopaths and psychopaths need to be locked up. But they are a minority of the prison population.

Others may need to be locked up, but not for decades or for life. They need a carefully developed and supervised path back to the outside. It’s going to be hard because society brands them with a Scarlet C forever. They’re ex-cons and ex-cons always have a challenge becoming useful citizens because society and the economy tend to shun them. It’s hard to be law abiding when no one will give you a chance.

But dope dealers? Eh. That’s a tough issue. The standard line from prosecutors and police chiefs is, harsh penalties are a deterrent. Oh, really? As soon as the narcs bust some big “kingpin” or “drug lord” there’s someone else standing on the street corner, so to speak, taking their place. The ink isn’t even dry on the court paperwork for the dethroned kingpin before his replacement is slinging dope in his place.  

Like Prohibition in the 1920s and 30s, the War on Drugs is a colossal failure. You don’t think so? Then explain why the cost of cocaine is down.  The illegal drug trade is the ultimate supply-and-demand business and the never-ending police drug busts have been such a failure at reducing the flow of illegal drugs that there’s a glut of cocaine on the streets.

In the meantime, throwbacks like Attorney General Sessions want to spend more tax dollars sending drug dealers to prison. No one in law enforcement, from Sessions on down to the lowest narc, can credibly argue that the War on Drugs has been anything but a failure.

As Ralph Musilli, Rick Wershe’s attorney puts it, the War on Drugs is like trying to fight a termite infestation one termite at a time.

About now, some narc wants to challenge me by saying something like, ‘So what’s the answer? Let ‘em sell all the drugs they want?’

Well, no. But we haven’t tried demand reduction. Every western country treats drug abuse as a medical/social problem that needs serious public resources (tax dollars) devoted to demand reduction. The dealers can’t deal if the customers disappear. But we haven’t tried that because of what the British newspaper called our punishment addiction. That, and the fact that drug enforcement is a cash cow for many police departments due to draconian forfeiture laws and procedures. 

It’s widely believed that Albert Einstein once defined insanity as going the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result each time. That could be applied to the War on Drugs. The cops and prosecutors keep crowing about this week’s drug bust of the century. “We really got ‘em this time!” Yes, of course you did.

There is a not-too-bright, gullible segment of the population that believes this nonsense. The law enforcement fairy tale about the War on Drugs endures.




Sunday, May 7, 2017

Cameras roll on the Rick movie and a look back at his trial defense

They are hard at work on the White Boy Rick movie about Rick Wershe, Jr. Filming is underway in Cleveland, which is substituting for Detroit, as explained in a previous blog post about how incentive packages influence where movies are shot. In the last post, we took a look back at the prosecution’s argument in the 1988 trial that resulted in his conviction and life sentence. This post recaps the puzzling defense position in his case.

They are busy filming a movie inspired by the saga of Richard J. Wershe, Jr., known in the media as White Boy Rick. The Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper did a photo spread last week showing scenes being shot at a Cleveland Mall that is supposed to be the backdrop for the unveiling of the Detroit People Mover.  "Matthew McConaughey films scene for 'White Boy Rick' in Cleveland's Tower City" features photos that show star Matthew McConaughey and a first look at Richie Merritt, the newcomer who plays Rick Wershe in the film. There are a series of photos that can be scrolled by using the right-hand arrow near the photo spread. Merritt is the young man with the curly hair, gold chains and a fur coat. There's also a photo of the actor who is playing the role of Detroit's late mayor Coleman Young. And, of course, there are photos of Matthew McConaughey, sporting a mullet, who is playing the role of Richard Wershe, Sr.

***

Rick Wershe’s defense attorney at his trial was not the one he had when he was arrested. Initially, he was represented by William Bufalino II, a veteran criminal defense lawyer. Bufalino’s father, William Bufalino I, was a close associate of Jimmy Hoffa and represented the New Jersey Teamsters who were called before a federal grand jury and grilled about Hoffa’s disappearance.

After reviewing the facts of Wershe’s arrest in May, 1987 for possession of cocaine in excess of 650 grams, the first thing Bufalino did was file a court motion to suppress the evidence. The evidence was 8 kilos of cocaine in a box that did not have Wershe’s fingerprints or palm prints on the box or the packages of cocaine inside it.


The late Ed Bell



Between Wershe’s arrest and trial, he replaced Bufalino with Detroit attorney Ed Bell. This was done at the urging of Cathy Volsan Curry, the niece of Detroit Mayor Coleman Young. Wershe and Cathy Volsan Curry were having a fling at the time and she and her family convinced young Wershe that he needed a black attorney for a case to be heard by a Detroit jury in Recorders Court. Bell was black. Bufalino was white. Wershe pushed Bufalino aside and hired Ed Bell as his defense attorney.

The first thing Bell did when he took over the case was to withdraw the motion to suppress the evidence. Why he did this was never explained. Bell and Bufalino are both deceased.

But we do know this: Bell was close to Mayor Young in Detroit’s black political power structure. Young did not like his niece consorting with drug dealers, especially a young white kid who aspired to become a big-time drug man.

What if, just supposing for a moment, Bell set out to make sure Rick Wershe would go to prison for life if he was convicted? That would end Wershe’s affair with Cathy Volsan Curry, and it would eliminate a family headache for the mayor.  

Withdrawing the motion to suppress made no sense. It did not hinder the case in any way and it provided a viable avenue of appeal in the event of a conviction. After all, this was a trial about possession of cocaine. There were plenty of reasons to challenge the police claim that it was Wershe’s dope. There was no fingerprint evidence on the drugs or the box they were in, and witness testimony was in conflict about who did what and who had what when Wershe was arrested. If the appeals court could be persuaded to suppress the evidence, the prosecution case against Wershe would fall apart. Without the motion to suppress, Wershe’s chances on appeal were not good.

Instead of attacking the evidence, which was vital to the prosecution’s case, Bell pinned his argument to the jury on the suggestion that the police may have planted the cocaine to fabricate a reason for his arrest and to cover up police brutality. Police officer Rodney Grandison, who arrested Wershe and lied under oath when he told the jury he did not know Wershe, gave Wershe such a beating in between some houses at the time of the arrest that Grandison fractured his prisoner’s eye socket. Wershe says he and Grandison were well acquainted and in fact, Grandison used to invite him to his house to smoke marijuana with him. The FBI later proved Grandison was lying when he said he had never met Wershe before the arrest. Wershe called Grandison at home in an FBI recorded call from Marquette prison. The call made it obvious that Grandison and Wershe were well acquainted.

In his opening argument to the jury, Bell attacked the police version of events.Bell began by challenging the police claims about how the sequence of arrest events began. 

The police claim they made a traffic stop because the car Wershe and a friend were in was speeding through Wershe’s neighborhood. The high-speed pursuit covered half a block.

“You must determine whether or not that car was traveling at a high rate of speed to get to the middle of the block,” Bell told the jury. The implication was that the police invented the speeding story to cover the fact they made a “pretext” traffic stop on Wershe. In other words, Bell suggested they were lying in wait, looking for an excuse regarding Rick Wershe.

After the police stop, Wershe and the driver, Roy Grisson, were standing outside, between their car and the police car, as Officer Grandison and his partner, Jeffrey Clyburn, approached. The police looked in the car. There was a plastic grocery bag filled with money on the passenger-side floorboard.

Officer Clyburn reached in for the money and claimed he thought he saw a gun, too. Rick Wershe’s family came out of the house and a scuffle and fight broke out between the Wershe family and the police.

“You will hear testimony that when this was all over, there was no gun. There was no gun,” Bell said.

At this point, there are two fact questions for the jury to consider. The first is whether it’s plausible that a car was speeding for half a block, or whether the police officers made it up as an excuse to make a traffic stop. The second is whether a police officer was lying when he said he started searching the car because he thought he saw a gun inside. The police admit when it was all over, there was no gun, and that was Bell’s point to the jury. If there was no gun, Officer Clyburn had no “probable cause” to search the car—making it an illegal search by the police.

While his family was mixing it up with the police, Rick Wershe walked away. He went between the houses to the next block. Here again, the prosecution case gets shaky.

“The Prosecutor is going to ask you believe that he (Rick Wershe) escapes from the police without any dope, and then goes someplace and gets eight kilos of cocaine to walk blatantly into the street one block over, goes up to somebody that (is sitting) sits on the porch, and says ‘I want to pay you five hundred dollars to put this in your backyard.’ He’s escaped without any dope. They want you to believe he went and got some dope,” Bell argued to the jury. By now the neighborhood is crawling with police officers responding to radio calls about the fight with the Wershes. Bell asked the jury to use common sense in considering whether Rick Wershe would walk away from a police confrontation, go between some houses, get a box with about 18 pounds of dope in it and walk around the street carrying the box of durgs and asking a resident if he could hide it in her back yard.

That claim about Wershe offering money to hide a box in someone’s back yard came from a prosecution witness named Patricia Story. Yet, this same woman never said a word about it when Officer Grandison found Rick Wershe standing near the woman’s porch, without a box, and arrested him.  She never said, “Officer, this young man put a box in the back yard and offered me five hundred dollars if I would let him put It there.” She didn’t mention the conversation about the box when the police arrested Wershe. The box wasn’t found until later that evening after the Wershe family had been taken to the police precinct and Rick Wershe had been taken to the hospital for treatment of his fractured eye socket.

A team of narcs from a federal/local drug task force just happened to appear at the police precinct station when an “anonymous” call came in about a box in the back yard where Wershe was arrested. Keep in mind, Patricia Story hasn’t told the police about any box. No one knows about any box or any dope until this mysterious “anonymous” tip phone call to the police precinct about an hour after the arrests.

The call is mysterious because, somehow, the automated police phone recording system which records all incoming calls, just happened to supposedly fail at the precise moment the tip call came in.

Acting on this phone tip that somehow wasn’t recorded, the narcs go back to the scene and low and behold there’s a box with 8 kilos of cocaine, but Wershe’s fingerprints and palm prints aren’t on it. Yet prosecution witness Patricia Story contends Rick Wershe was lugging this 16-pound box around, asking to put it in her back yard.

Bell urged the jury to pay attention to the testimony about the finding of the box. 

In one version, it has been taken into the Story house. Another version has the box being found by the police under a back porch. Bell noted the witness testimony would not jibe with the police written reports from that night about the mysterious box of cocaine.

“Now, I don’t know how they could have gotten those stories so confused,” Bell told the jury. “There’s only one box, but all of a sudden the box is now in several different places when people find it.”






As he concluded his opening argument, Bell said: "It's the theory of the Defense that the police had a good reason to put the box back there. It had to do with the beating. And you will hear a lot of testimony about that," Bell said, adding, "It's a shallow, artificial, superficial case put together by a combination of the Detroit Police Department and Wayne County Prosecutor's Office because they don't like Richard Wershe. That's the reason we're here. No other."

Bell was suggesting the police planted the drugs to fabricate a case against Rick Wershe that would send him to prison for life.

There’s a concept in criminal law called constructive possession. An example might be something that is found in a suspect’s bank safe deposit box. The suspect may not have physical possession, but has constructive possession because he/she had control of the safe deposit box.

The key to constructive possession is the defendant must have had knowledge of the object, in this case a box of cocaine, and the ability to control it.

From the recitation of facts in this blog, it is easy to see why William Bufalino’s first move when he was on the case was to file a motion to suppress the evidence, the box of drugs, in the Wershe case.

Why Ed Bell withdrew the motion to challenge the evidence makes no sense. Bell was an experienced trial lawyer. He had been a circuit court judge.

It’s provocative to accuse an attorney of sabotaging his client to curry political favor with a powerful politician. But the notion that a political player like Ed Bell might maneuver to ensure that a young man who was an embarrassment to a powerful mayor went to prison for life, is a theory that makes sense in the atmosphere of 1980s Detroit.

Prior to trial, Rick Wershe had been smeared repeatedly on TV news and in the newspapers as a suspected “drug lord” and “kingpin,” in effect the Godfather of Detroit’s cocaine underworld. It had to have a corrosive effect on potential jurors. Despite all the flaws in the prosecution case, a jury found Rick Wershe guilty of possession of over 650 grams of cocaine. Under Michigan law at the time, the penalty was automatically life in prison.

By his own admission, Wershe was trying to become a cocaine wholesaler, a weight man. But as retired FBI agent Gregg Schwarz has said, he didn’t make it. He was busted before he could hit the big time.

In Coleman Young’s empire, there were many bootlickers and sycophants who were constantly maneuvering to curry favor with “The Mayah.” The police department and Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office were no exceptions.

Rick Wershe had had his share of run-ins with the police, beginning as a juvenile. Now he was strutting around wearing gold chains and expensive clothes and sleeping with the mayor’s niece. For some cops, he was a cocky pain in the ass. As Ed Bell told the jury, “they don’t like Richard Wershe.”

Mayor Young was known to be dismayed that his favorite niece had a drug habit and a penchant for dating a Who’s Who of the Detroit drug trade. Her dalliance with a white kid who was looking to become a big shot in the city’s drug underworld had to be particularly galling.

Years later, in Wershe’s 2003 parole hearing, William Bufalino II testified under oath that Bell and his law partner, the late Sam Gardner, who had been chief Recorders Court judge, and another crony of Coleman Young, “…pulled the motion. They hung this boy out to dry."

The reader is invited to make a list of the key points and facts in this blog. Then, connect the dots.
      






  




Sunday, April 23, 2017

As Rick Wershe’s Parole Fate Looms, Bogus “Facts” come out of the woodwork.


The news media, and many in the public, are finally paying attention to the story of Richard J. Wershe, Jr., a man known to many only as White Boy Rick. He’s been in prison for 29 years of a life sentence for non-violent possession of a box of cocaine when he was a juvenile. In response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Michigan has paroled or allowed the re-sentencing of every inmate charged under circumstances similar to Wershe; a juvenile non-violent offender. Every inmate, that is, except Rick Wershe. He has been in prison longer than some murderers, because he told the FBI about politically connected police corruption in Detroit. As his attorney says, he told on the wrong people. In a very real sense he’s a political prisoner. His continued imprisonment is part of a vendetta by a corrupt criminal justice system in Michigan. With the newfound attention to the Wershe case, there are claims of “facts” that simply aren’t true. This blog post will profile one example.

One day recently, retired Detroit Police Sgt. John Simon was interviewed by WDIV-TV, Channel 4 in Detroit and he claimed he was Rick Wershe’s arresting officer and that he now believes Michigan’s longest-serving juvenile prison inmate doing time for a drug case doesn’t deserve his harsh sentence.

It sounds good, but there’s one problem: the tale Simon told the TV station doesn’t match the official court record from Rick Wershe’s 1988 Recorders Court trial. I have the trial transcript, all 32 pounds of it. I’m going to share a bit of it in this blog post. I will focus on the opening argument of the prosecutor. I expended considerable effort to obtain the Wershe trial transcript for a book I am writing about Rick Wershe and the War on Drugs.



Cover page from a volume of the transcript of the Rick Wershe, Jr. drug trial in 1988.

  
One of Rick Wershe’s enduring problems over the years has been bogus information reported as fact in the media. It has contributed to his reputation—a legend—and like most legends, a lot of it isn’t true. Judges, prosecutors—and Parole Board members—read or watch this stuff, just like everyone else, and it makes an impression. Often, it’s a bad impression that isn’t supported by the facts.

Some of what Simon told the TV station is correct, such as his observation that young Rick Wershe was known to the police. As a young teen, Rick Wershe, Jr. was on the wild side. In blunt terms, he was a juvenile delinquent with no parental supervision. His parents were divorced, his father had custody of Rick and his sister, Dawn, but Richard Wershe Sr. was seldom around. Rick Wershe, Jr. raised himself, for the most part. His lifelong friend, Dave Majkowski, who manages the Free Richard Wershe Jr. Facebook page, says they were always getting stopped by the police for shooting BB guns or setting off fireworks.

Channel 4 quotes Sgt. Simon as saying Rick Wershe was no kingpin. He likened Wershe to an errand boy for the real big-time dope dealers. The statement that Wershe was no kingpin is true. The report quoting Sgt. Simon gets in trouble when the retired cop talks about the facts of the Wershe drug case.

The station reported on its web site: "But on May 22, 1987, Simon said Wershe had 8 kilos of cocaine and a bag of cash."

This is false.

Rick Wershe was a passenger in a car that was pulled over near his home on Hampshire St. on Detroit’s east side by uniformed Police Officers Rodney Grandison and Jeffrey Clyburn. The car, the officers said, had been speeding through a residential neighborhood. When the officers approached the car, Wershe and the driver, Roy Grisson, got out of the vehicle.

Robert Healy, the prosecutor on the Wershe case, told the jury in his opening statement:

"...When Grandison gets up alongside the driver's window what he sees on the floor on the passenger’s side is...one of those shopping bags...not the paper kind, but the plastic kind—and it is stuffed full of money to the point where that plastic is stretched thin enough so that you can actually see the money through the plastic."

Regarding the stated reason for the traffic stop, Rick Wershe has asked a rhetorical question on several occasions: why, he asks, would we be speeding, risking police attention, with a large amount of money in the car? He's not disputing there was a bag of money in the car. He's questioning whether the police made up a reason for doing the traffic stop. In other words, he encourages observers to wonder if the police lied about their reason for doing the traffic stop. This implies they were lying in wait, that they were determined to arrest Rick Wershe and invent a charge if need be.

The money wasn't in Rick Wershe's possession. It was on the floorboard of the car. It could have belonged to Rick's friend, Roy Grisson. Or to someone else entirely. Being near a bag of cash doesn't mean you have it in your possession. 

Wershe was standing outside the car when Officer Grandison sees the bag of money on the floorboard of the vehicle. It may seem to be a small point, but in a trial where the sentence is mandatory life, it is not a small thing.

Healy doesn’t mention any drugs to the jury because, at this point in the incident, there’s no sign of any drugs. But, according to Sgt. Simon, as quoted by the TV station: Wershe had 8 kilos of cocaine and a bag of cash."

"Police said Wershe was carrying two bags, one filled with money, one filled with drugs," the TV station reported.

This is wrong on both counts. As noted above, Wershe was not carrying the bag of cash at any time during the incident with the police. It was on the floorboard of the car and it was grabbed by his father and sister in a scuffle with the police, not by Rick Wershe. And he did not have a bag of dope. Period. As we shall see, the police claim the drugs were in a large box, not a bag. And they never actually saw Rick Wershe with the box, a fact the prosecuting attorney admitted to the jury.

It should be noted Assistant Prosecutor Healy’s opening statement to the jury was not exactly a recitation of facts and truth, either. Healy misled the jury because the police misled him. 

Healy claimed the police officers didn’t know Rick Wershe, Jr.

"They will testify they don't know young Wershe from anybody. They never saw him before, didn't recognize him," Healy told the jury. 

That is flat-out false, but Healy didn't know it because the police lied to the trial prosecutor, too. The officer who arrested Wershe knew him and knew him well. That officer lied under oath on the witness stand. There's proof.

After Wershe went to prison, the FBI approached him and asked him to help them with a covert sting operation intended to catch corrupt cops. As part of the discussion, Rick Wershe told FBI Special Agent Herman Groman that Officer Grandison had committed perjury—lied—when he testified at the Wershe trial that he didn’t know the young man he had arrested.

Agent Groman arranged with prison officials to have Wershe make a tape recorded call to Officer Grandison at his home. It was a pretext call that lasted 15 or 20 minutes. It is quite evident from the recorded conversation that Wershe and Grandison were/are well acquainted. Wershe says Officer Grandison invited him to his home on a number of occasions to smoke weed, before Wershe was arrested by Grandison in May of 1987.

Grandison was not indicted in the FBI police corruption case and the Michigan Court of Appeals was not interested in considering Wershe’s appeal, even though the FBI had audio tape evidence that Officer Grandison committed a felony and gave false testimony under oath at the Wershe drug trial.  

Let’s return to Healy’s opening statement of “facts” to the jury.

Healy told the jury Rick Wershe had simply walked away from the scuffle taking place next to the car and walked between two houses to a residence in the next block. Officer Grandison follows Rick Wershe, according to Healy's statement to the jury:

"Grandison goes out between the houses onto Camden and he sees over here (pointing to a diagram) on the north side of Camden the defendant (Wershe) who is in the front yard of that address and he is at the front porch. Grandison then goes over and arrests the defendant, and takes the defendant back to Hampshire."

There is no mention of Sgt. John Simon by Healy. In fact, he was not on the witness list for the trial at all; a strange omission if he had arrested Rick Wershe that night. In fact, as Healy told the jury, Grandison was the arresting officer.

Assistant Prosecutor Healy told the jury they would hear testimony from a neighborhood woman named Patricia Storey who would say she saw Wershe on Camden St. carrying a large box, “a whisky case sized box.”

Healy made a point of it:

"Now, that's the first mention you're going to hear from any witness who testifies in this case of a box of that description," Healy told the jurors. He continued: “There's no mention of seeing a box of that description in the car that is stopped by Grandison and Clyburn, and you’re not going to hear any testimony from a witness who knows where the box came from. So, you might as well get used to that idea right now."

The Wershe trial transcript stands in contrast to the recent TV station report that, “Wershe was carrying two bags, one filled with money, one filled with drugs,"

Over the years, Detroit’s newspapers and other TV stations have routinely reported things like, “Wershe was busted with 8 kilos of dope” or “Wershe was caught with a large stash of dope.” 

Compare this with the trial prosecutor’s statement to the jury: “you’re not going to hear any testimony from a witness who knows where the box came from.”

Channel 4 quotes Sgt. Simon as saying the eight kilos of cocaine related to the Wershe arrest “filled up the front seat of my car."
Here again, Sgt. Simon’s story is totally at odds with the trial record.

Assistant Prosecutor Healy told the jury a box was found in the back yard of a house on Camden, a block away from the Wershe traffic stop, and James Storey, the head of the household, was fearful when he realized the box contained packages of cocaine.

Healy says Storey called the police precinct, attempting to provide an anonymous tip. But, curiously, Healy told the jury that Detroit narcs assigned to a joint task force with the DEA were notified to come to the precinct police station before there is a call about a box of dope:

"...and they respond to (the Precinct) and they are there at the time this phone call comes in."

Hmm. Really? Let's break this down and think about it.

Why were the Task Force cops notified to come to the police precinct? By Healy's own statement to the jury, up to this point the cops have the Wershe family in custody, a bag of cash, but no dope. Just a bag of cash. Who the cash belongs to hasn't been established and, in any event, having a bag of cash is not a crime.

According to Prosecutor Healy, the phone call about "the box" is just coming in, but the special Task Force narcs are there when it happens, for some unknown reason. 

So why were the Task Force narcs notified to appear at the police Precinct station before there was any indication drugs were involved in this arrest? It took them some time to get to the precinct station. Yet they were there when the call from James Storey came in, reporting a box of dope had been found. It is reasonable to wonder why a special Task Force team of narcs would be called to come to the precinct station, since there were no drugs involved at that point. Wershe’s defense attorney didn’t challenge it. Neither did the judge.

There are many things in Wershe's drug trial that don't add up. It was not, as they say, a slam-dunk case. If Wershe had had better defense counsel he likely wouldn't be in prison today.

Healy continued his opening statement to the jury: 

"(The) members of this Task Force, they go to Storey's house. And they get there, and as they pull up, Mr. Storey comes out (of) the door and he's got the box. The box is taken by police officer Greg Woods of the Detroit Police Department Narcotics Section."

Compare that to Sgt. Simon’s recent TV interview statement: (the 8 kilos) "filled up the front seat of my car."

If that were true Sgt. Simon would have, without question, been a trial witness. He wasn’t. Prosecutor Healy said Detroit Police narcotics officer Greg Woods took custody of the box of narcotics. 

There is an issue in criminal law called chain of custody. Sgt. John Simon’s claim that the box of drugs "filled up the front seat of my car" would have been a chain of custody issue. He would have been called to testify what he did with the dope after it "filled up the front seat" of his police patrol car. Simon's claim is not supported by the trial record.

All of this is not to say Sgt. Simon wasn’t at the scene that night. As a patrol sergeant, he did make the scene. Rick Wershe says that much is accurate and he even claims his sister, Dawn, spit at Simon during the confrontation in the street. Simon apparently joined a bunch of other cops who responded to calls for help from Officers Grandison and Clyburn. Simon may have been there that night, but the trial transcript shows he has, um, embellished his role to a considerable degree for a TV interview. He didn't arrest Wershe and he didn't have custody of the box of drugs.

Two other items worth noting:

  • The Detroit Police 911 recording system just happened to malfunction at the time the James Storey call about the box of dope came in to the police precinct desk, or so the police claim. That was their explanation for why they couldn’t produce a tape of the phone call about the box of drugs at trial.
  • Rick Wershe’s fingerprints and palm prints were not found anywhere on the box containing the eight kilos of cocaine. Nor were his prints found on the packages of cocaine.



Reporters and editors are notoriously thin-skinned when it comes to criticism. I’m regarded by some as a jerk and far worse for pointing out falsehoods reported as fact in the Wershe saga. But journalistic errors and mistakes have real-world consequences. The media-fueled legend of White Boy Rick has been largely responsible for keeping Richard J. Wershe, Jr. in prison for nearly 30 years.

It's a fact that Channel 4's Kevin Dietz has done a far better job than most Detroit reporters - print and broadcast - in reporting on Rick Wershe. The others know it. They watch and read his stuff. They have a habit of copying his reporting, rearranging a few words, and acting like it's their own reporting. 

Here's why it matters: if Channel 4 reports Rick Wershe had a bag of cash and a bag of dope when he was arrested, a whole bunch of other "reporters" are going to spread that around and add to the deeply flawed White Boy Rick legend. It's called herd journalism or pack journalism and it has damaged Rick Wershe badly over the years. 

Over the course of nearly 90 blog posts Informant America has shown over and over that routine media descriptions of “White Boy Rick” as a “drug lord” and “kingpin” are not supported by any facts. These false descriptions have had a corrosive effect on public opinion and that has deprived a man of his freedom for most of his adult life.




Richard J. Wershe, Jr. (Michigan Dept. of Corrections photo)


For his part, Rick Wershe tries to look on the positive side and tries to get along with a growing number of very competitive reporters who are interested in his story. 

When I sent Wershe an email telling him about the fact-challenged interview with Sgt. Simon, Wershe replied, "...either way it's another cop saying i (sic) was not what they made me out to be!!!"

True.

The Michigan Parole Board, on June 8th, is going to give Rick Wershe serious consideration for parole for the first time in nearly three decades. They've scheduled a public hearing in Jackson, Michigan. It’s about time reporters get the story straight.