Sunday, March 29, 2015

Rick Wershe Jr. and the 10th Precinct Conspiracy

When Richard “White Boy Rick” Wershe, Jr. truly was a boy he and a pal used to ride their bikes through their east side Detroit neighborhood noting which houses were dope houses and who operated them. That knowledge would eventually lead Wershe to become a teenaged confidential—secret—informant for the FBI. 

To understand how a kid could be an important FBI source it’s important to understand the Detroit of Rick Wershe Jr.’s world back then. The previous post provided a snapshot of the city’s mayor-monarch-emperor-dear leader of those days, Coleman A. Young and the culture of corruption among some in the police department. This post is about Detroit street life from the era when Rick Wershe Jr. was growing up.

Why, one might wonder, couldn’t the police see what little Ricky Wershe and his friend could see on their bike excursions through the neighborhood? Too often the police knew full well about the dope houses but allowed them to flourish. The dope houses kept operating because they were paying off the cops.

It’s time to say most Detroit police officers were and are hard-working and honest people doing a tough but interesting job in order to support their families and earn a decent pension. (Note to DPOA and LSA union members: don’t contact me to bust my chops about the term “decent pension.”)

But to use the description of Detroit’s illustrious former mayor, Coleman Young, some of the city’s criminals wore blue uniforms and silver badges.

The biggest Detroit police corruption case of Richard Wershe Jr.’s youth was the so-called 10th Precinct Case, also known as the Pingree Street Conspiracy. The 10th Precinct narcotics conspiracy indictment came down the year Coleman Young was elected mayor. There was police corruption before him. There was police corruption after him. Some things never change.

Before this case, the 10th Precinct was best known as the starting place of the 1967 Detroit riot. The riot began after a middle-of-the-night police raid on an illegal after-hours drinking and gambling joint known in Detroit as a blind pig. Black resentment of the mostly white police had been building. They were seen as an occupying force. Patrol units were backed up by precinct support cruisers known as The Big Foh (Four). Four burly, ready-to-rumble cops would cruise around in big black four-door sedans, each officer ready to bail out and kick ass if need be. They were armed with Thompson sub-machine guns and shotguns. On occasions, tracer rounds from the Tommy guns were fired in the air or at the ground ahead of a fleeing suspect to persuade him to stop. It worked.

One Big Foh officer had the nickname Rotation Slim. He wasn’t a particularly big guy but his street fighting skills were legendary. If he and his cruiser crew saw a group of black guys congregated on a corner and looking the least bit suspicious, Slim would jump out of the car and say, “I’m going to rotate around the block. If any of you are still here when I get back I’m going to beat the shit out of you.” The guys on the corner knew he meant it and knew he was quite capable of administering a severe thrashing. If you were black and male in Detroit, your civil rights any given day were whatever the Big Foh decided they were.

The police/community dynamic in the 10th Precinct didn’t change much after the riot. But the murder rate in the 10th was rising rapidly due to widespread dope dealing. There were growing citizen complaints that the drug trade was flourishing with the help of police corruption. A secret investigation was launched.

The investigation was a combined city/county task force effort led by George Bennett, a taciturn black lieutenant who deeply resented years of white racism in the Detroit Police department. Distrust of his fellow officers, especially the white ones, seemed to be Bennett’s default mind-set. There was a nagging suspicion Bennett’s superiors gave him the 10th Precinct investigation because they believed he would fail. They didn’t like Bennett’s complaints about racism in the department.

Bennett had a hand-picked team of investigators known as Detail 318 plucked from outside the ranks of the narcotics units. Most of Bennett’s investigators were black. To the surprise and perhaps dismay of many in the command ranks, Bennett and Detail 318 succeeded.

The “Pingree Street Conspiracy” was a massive prosecution. Each defendant was entitled to his own defense counsel who could challenge prospective jurors during the selection process. As a result, jury selection began in the large auditorium of the City/County building because there was no courtroom in the city large enough for the jury pool, defendants and defense counsel.

The defendants were narcs and major black drug dealers. It was a window in to the corrosive effect of illegal narcotics on the streets of Detroit. The list of defendants was long and included most of the members of the 10th Police Precinct narcotics unit led by Sgt. Rudy Davis. The accused officers were white and black. The color that mattered most was the color green, as in the cash that was lining their pockets. The beefy white sergeant and his crew were accused of taking bribes from some drug dealers in the precinct while ripping off their rivals in raids which amounted to plain police robbery. The civilian defendants included dope gangsters like Milton “Happy” Battle, George “Texas Slim” Dudley and Harold “Boo” Turner. Other characters in the case had names like Snitchin’ Bill and Alabama Red.

The 10th Precinct case was the result of a county grand jury indictment, which was based on the testimony of a number of witnesses who had been part of the scheme. They agreed to testify to get a deal on their own prosecution. That’s right. The 10th Precinct Conspiracy was a major case built mostly on the testimony of informants, of snitches.

This post will feature direct quotes from the prosecution’s court motion to bind the defendants over for trial. Quotes from the prosecution motion will be in italics.

The document provides a window in to drug dealing and police corruption in Detroit—two crimes Richard Wershe, Jr. helped the FBI pursue a few years later.

The prosecution alleged Milton “Happy” Battle was at the top of the competitive dope-slinging pyramid in the 10th Police Precinct. Eventually Battle pleaded guilty and he became a prosecution witness—a snitch—who was taken in to protective custody. His life was in danger for testifying against crooked cops.

When he was rockin’ and rollin’ in the 10th Precinct dope market, Battle understood the retailing concept of making his product available through easy-access:

These four witnesses have testified to at least 21 locations where Milton Battle sold heroin or cocaine.

A certain national coffee shop chain would have been envious of Battle’s market penetration in the 10th Precinct. Milton Battle showed a willingness to learn from the experience of other dope dealers:

Roy McNeal testified that Harold “Rook” Davis advised him and Battle that they could be free from raids on their narcotics house if they would pay off Sergeant Rudy Davis. Battle took this advice.

McNeal, Milton Battle’s drug business partner, was no slouch at the retailing game, either. Amid stiff competition to supply the junkies of the 10th Precinct, McNeal, also known as Alabama Red, blatantly advertised:

McNeal posted signs on telephone poles saying, “Buy one cap, get a free dinner,” signed Alabama Red. When the consumer purchased the narcotics he was treated to barbecue spare ribs, potato salad, pork and beans and white bread, with a Sunday special of turkey and dressing.

Alabama Red also grasped the concept of “full service”:

Besides selling narcotics, they would sell and rent needles and droppers to the users, provide “hit men” to find the veins of those addicts who could not do it by themselves, and were prepared to give emergency medical treatment in case of an overdose.

As for Sgt. Davis, the head of the Precinct Narcotics Unit:

The testimony against Rudy Davis reveals a pattern of increasing involvement in the narcotics trade. Davis started out by taking money to prevent police raids on dope houses but later progressed to setting up raids of dope pads and splitting the money and narcotics confiscated with his cohorts. These raids were done with Roy McNeal’s cooperation and were aimed at people who were competitors of McNeal’s and Battle. Thus Davis killed two birds with one stone: He eliminated competition for his favored narcotics dealers and at the same time reaped a handsome profit for himself in the form of confiscated money and narcotics.

Drug trafficking is a rough and deadly business, as the 10th Precinct case amply demonstrated:

Wiley Reed testified…that (James) Moody came around whenever Battle called him. Moody’s function was to kill people for Battle.

During the summer of 1970, Moody, under Battle’s orders, killed a narcotics dealer named Charles Birney at the LaPlayer’s Lounge. Battle ordered Birney’s death because he (Birney) owed Battle heroin and money.

LaPlayers Lounge, fittingly located on Joy Road in Detroit was a favorite hangout for dopers and hitmen. Once, a pair of hitmen came in looking for a man they had been hired to kill. They found him, with a bodyguard. They asked the bodyguard to step aside. He refused. One of the hitmen shrugged and said, “Take two.” They shot both men dead.

Homicide detectives relished taking witness statements at LaPlayers Lounge murders. One investigator told me there could be 10-15 witnesses to a murder yet when the police arrived, all of them claimed they were in the men’s room when the shooting occurred. The LaPlayers Lounge men’s room had enough space for a toilet stall, a urinal and a sink. That’s it:

Larry McNeal also testified to yet another murder by Battle in furtherance of his narcotics business. He testified that Battle told him that he had James Moody kill Burma Turner at La Player’s Lounge.

James Moody may have been Milton Battle’s go-to hitman but someone had to clean up the mess:

A continuing occurance (sic) in a narcotic (sic) conspiracy of this magnitude is the murder of people for reasons connected with narcotics. A corollary need to murder is the necessity of disposing of the body, a chore that Moe Bivens undertook for Battle.

The drug underworld is a dangerous place, even for hitmen like James Moody. He and a dope-house-robber named Wiley Reed once kidnapped Milton Battle until he paid some money he owed Moody. Wiley Reed was a tall dark-skinned black man notable for the large pinkish bandage he wore over one side of his face to cover the spot where his jaw had been, before it had been shot off.

One of Milton Battle’s pals in the dope trade was an older, tough-as-nails guy named George “Texas Slim” Dudley.
Roy McNeal testified in the summer of 1971, after the kidnapping of Milton Battle, he went to George Dudley’s house to pick up some cocaine from Battle. There was a cocaine-sniffing party underway, attended by Battle, Wiley Reed, Kenneth Reeves and James Moody:

An argument started between Dudley and Moody over the kidnapping of Battle from Dudley’s house on an earlier date. Dudley subsequently shot and killed Moody during this argument. Reed and Reeves stripped Moody’s body took it to the bathroom and Dudley ran water in the tub. Dudley then forced Battle to mutilate the body and Dudley then wrapped a bare extension cord around the body. They placed the body in the tub and plugged the cord in the wall. They wrapped the body in a blanket and tied it. Reeves brought Moody’s car to the rear of Dudley’s house and Moody’s body was placed in the trunk of his own car, a green and white El Dorado. Dudley, Reeves and Reed then drove Moody’s car to the Metropolitan Airport and McNeal, Reeves, Reed and Dudley returned to Detroit in Dudley’s car.

Dudley was driving a 1971 Cadillac Brougham, known in the ghetto as a Bro-Ham. It was cool to be seen cruising the ghetto in a new Cadillac customized with a diamond shape in the rear window while doing the “gangsta lean.” The driver would lean to his right and put his right arm on the armrest as opposed to sitting upright in the driver’s seat. For added style the driver might wear a so-called Big Apple hat which was cocked to the left so it would appear horizontal to the car while the driver leaned to the right. There was even a song about it.

Diamond in the back, sunroof top
Diggin' the scene
With a gangsta lean
Gangsta whitewalls
TV antennas in the back

—Be Thankful for What You've Got - William DeVaughn

In addition to his cool car Dudley apparently had a large firearms collection which he put to good use:

Dudley’s involvement in the conspiracy went beyond selling narcotics and being the host for cocaine-snorting get-togethers and murders…Reed also testified that he has observed many bullet holes in a bedroom wall at 1410 Atkinson. This was the result of Dudley standing people up along the wall and shooting at them.

Murder among dopers was no big deal to the narcotics cops of the 10th Precinct:

Roy McNeal also made active plans to kill Reed. He told Patrolman (Robert) Mitchell that he was going to kill Reed for robbing his narcotics operation. Patrolman Mitchell told him, "If you kill the son-of-a-bitch, take him out to (sic) the house and if I take you downtown, there won’t be nothing done about it."

Just like traffic cops who have a quota of tickets they must write each month, the narcs had raid stats to maintain. The prosecution’s bind-over motion noted an exchange between Roy “Alabama Red” McNeal and Patrolman Robert “Mustache” Mitchell. McNeal had been paying Mitchell but Mitchell’s assignment had changed, so he had an alternative idea:

"You know now I am with the Metro unit, and we have a lot of places we cannot get in. We need someone like you that can get us into these places." McNeal agreed and was to receive half of everything confiscated on the raids he set up.

Narcs-on-the-take liked the idea of sharing seized dope with their criminal friends:

Wiley Reed testified that he was with Brenda Terry when Officers (Robert) Mitchell and (William) Stackhouse offered to give her a portion of the dope seized if she would set up dope houses for raids.

Sometimes things happened to disrupt the flow of police bribes. The corrupt narcs were forced to innovate. That’s how the idea of cops renting dope pads to pushers came to be:

Roy McNeal testified that in May of 1972 after the boundary lines of the 10th Precinct were changed and he was now living in the 13th Precinct, Patrolman Willie Peeples and Patrolman Charlie Brown contacted him on Pingree and Linwood regarding moving into the 10th Precinct. Officers Peeples and Brown, who were receiving and taking money from his dope pad at 1974-76 Pingree, told him they would rent him a place to use as a narcotics pad in the 10th Precinct.

One 10th Precinct narc, a black officer named Richard Herold, gave a whole new meaning to the term “honkey” according to the testimony of a woman who was running one of the precinct dope houses:

Alice Bailey James testified that she placed $100 on Officer Herold’s clipboard when he pulled up to her house and honked.

The damage to the community from the drug scourge was captured in the charges against defendant Guido Iaconelli, a civilian shop owner from Farmington Hills, a Detroit suburb. Iaconelli sold stolen goods. He ran a fencing operation:

Iaconelli told Roy McNeal to buy everything he could because it was hot and Iaconelli could sell it.

The reasons (sic) that this activity is so felonious is at least two-fold. With the disposition of this property made convenient and easy, the narcotics dealers were able to accept goods instead of cash, thus opening their habituating business to a whole new segment of the community. 

Now those persons who did not have cash to support a habit but who could steal personal property from the community could also buy narcotics. Thus this barter system increased the volume of business for the narcotics trafficers (sic) while simultaneously increasing the number of victims—those who became addicted to narcotics.

The easy disposition of this stolen property also had a second major ramification. When narcotics dealers accept goods instead of cash this increases the attractiveness of burglary and larceny as a means of supporting a habit.

Most of the defendants in the 10th Precinct Conspiracy were convicted and served time. The prosecution was based almost entirely on informant testimony.

The old line that history repeats itself applies to police corruption, too.

In 1988, a few months after he had been sentenced to life in prison for selling drugs, Rick Wershe was back in the headlines for what he knew about police drug corruption. The city was rocked by the news that 125 police officers were under investigation by Detroit Police Internal Affairs for narcotics corruption and personal drug use.

Media reports said Wershe had told federal agents he had personally bribed a Narcotics Section sergeant, paying $10,000 to avoid raids on a specific address, but the sergeant wanted more money.

The story soon faded. Seemingly nothing happened. 

In fact, Assistant Wayne County Prosecutor Patrick Foley visited Wershe in jail and made him an offer: help us prosecute the corrupt sergeant and in exchange we will offer you—nothing.

Wershe tells me he told Foley that the prosecutor’s office would have to give him immunity and some kind of reduction on his life sentence. Wershe says Foley, now deceased, became very angry and threw a fit. Wershe says he—Wershe—walked out of the meeting and back to his jail cell.

Is it possible White Boy Rick could have opened the door on a new police corruption case like the 10th Precinct Pingree Street Conspiracy? We’ll never know. The prosecutor at the time—a stuffed shirt named John O’Hair—wasn’t about to dilute his trophy prosecution and the accompanying life prison sentence imposed just a few months earlier on the media crime sensation known as White Boy Rick.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

White Boy Rick: a Child of Coleman Young's Detroit

It’s hard to summarize the story of Richard “Rick” Wershe, Jr., also known as “White Boy Rick”, because there is so much to tell. He has spent his entire adult life behind bars, yet he’s been involved in more adventures—or misadventures—than just about anyone that comes to mind. So I’ll recount his early journey into controversy in several posts. The controversy he lives in now will be fodder for who knows how many future blog posts.
                                          Richard Wershe, Jr. aka White Boy Rick
                                                                       MDOC Photo

Truth be told most Detroiters don’t remember Richard Wershe, Jr. Those who do probably recall him as a brief crime sensation, a white kid wheeling and dealing in Detroit’s mostly black underworld of crack cocaine.

But that’s only half the story. The other half involves what appears to be an organized effort—a vendetta—to keep him in prison until he dies because he snitched on politically powerful crooked cops and politically connected dopers.

To understand the story of Richard Wershe, Jr. now it is important to understand what happened to the City of Detroit in the past.

Ironies abound. Read on and I’ll share a few of them.

Rick Wershe grew up on the east side of Detroit in the 70s—a time of major social and economic upheaval in the Motor City, which once was the nation’s fifth-largest urban center. The deadly Detroit riots of 1967 changed things—forever. Nearly 50 years have passed and Detroit still hasn’t recovered despite all the cheer leading and wishful thinking. Detroit boosters bristle when outsiders suggest it’s a great place to see modern urban ruins. Sadly, it’s true.

In 1973 there was a seismic upheaval in Detroit’s politics. It was like the earth beneath Detroit moved. The tectonic plates of governance shifted.

In a bitterly fought race for mayor a black politician named Coleman A. Young defeated former Detroit Police Commissioner John Nichols, the crew-cut, Patton-like white law-and-order candidate who had been a no-bullshit Detroit Police Commissioner. Young was elected Detroit’s first black mayor. There was dancing in the streets—literally.

Rick Wershe, Jr. was a preschooler at the time.

Here’s the first irony: Coleman A. Young was involved in crime when he was a young man.  He was a black organized crime numbers figure in his youth. Before I talk about the numbers racket I should talk about black versus white organized crime, Detroit-style. Segregation was a factor in crime in those days, too.

For years before Young was elected, the Detroit Police Department had a real Organized Crime Section staffed by good investigators who saw racketeering by social segments. Detroit organized crime investigations were divided into roughly two segments; the mostly Sicilian Mafia and black organized crime. The godfather of the Sicilian segment was Joe Zerilli. The godfather of the black segment was arguably Eddie Wingate. The two organized crime empires co-existed in mostly separate worlds—one white, one black.

Now to the numbers racket and Coleman Young; for those who don’t know, the numbers were and are an illegal ghetto version of the modern lottery. Runners collect bets and cash and bring them to what might be called numbers banks. The nation’s states put the numbers racket out of business to a large degree by organizing their own numbers racket called lotteries. Some argue the same thing would happen to illegal marijuana sales if governments sanctioned it, regulated it and taxed it. But that’s another story.

Way back when, one of Detroit’s few black police officers was working surveillance in plainclothes in the Organized Crime Section’s rackets squad. He was taking note of the operators in the numbers racket. One of the numbers men he was watching was described in his surveillance notes as a “Negro male” (that’s how long ago this happened) identified as Coleman A. Young. The black police officer making the notes was young, quiet, rather nondescript and very good at blending in, at not drawing attention.

Here’s the next irony; the black patrolman working surveillance would move up through the ranks until he became Detroit’s Chief of Police—under Coleman A. Young. The surveillance cop who knew about Coleman Young’s life as a numbers racketeer was William Hart.

Hart’s surveillance notes about Young were in a confidential Detroit Police vice squad folder that came to be known as File 88. That number was undoubtedly part of a longer identifier, but that’s how the file came to be described by those who didn’t want its existence known. It was just File 88.

Fast forward to Coleman Young’s election as Mayor of the City of Detroit; political power in Detroit was now in black hands. Coleman Young’s attitude toward public corruption and organized crime seemed to be ‘it’s our turn.’

Young looked the other way when confronted with city government corruption.  If the crooks were loyal to him, that’s all the mattered. Color was secondary. So was the crime.

One civilian deputy police chief caused grief for Young by embezzling over a million dollars from the Police Department. Among other misdeeds, Kenneth Weiner, a now-convicted con man of the first order, had bought South African gold kruggerands on Young’s behalf. South Africa’s apartheid government at the time was the world symbol of racial oppression. The kruggerand scandal might have destroyed another black politician. Not Coleman Young. Like Young, Detroit’s black voters looked the other way.

White cops saw the handwriting on the wall. They were sure things were going to change in the Police Department. They were right. One of Coleman Young’s early priorities as Mayor was to “reform” the Police Department and gut the Organized Crime Section. Years of hard work, valuable criminal history and sensitive police investigative files went away.

A white cop who knew what was in the locked files in the Organized Crime Section’s vice squad made a point of copying File 88. He arranged to get the surveillance notes portion of the file to me. It was on the slick coated paper that used to be used in photocopy machines. File 88, at least the part given to me, consisted of surveillance notes, not a complete illegal gambling case file. There was a handwritten note on the top of the first page of File 88. It was hard to read on the aging copy paper. I thought it said “Lt. Giebic’s Case.” I didn’t know who Lt. Giebic was. I didn’t know much about File 88. It was given to me years ago and I lost track of it. But it’s easy to remember what was in it because there were so few pages. The key fact was Coleman Young had been under surveillance as part of a vice squad investigation of the illegal numbers racket.

Recently I called a treasured old friend to tell her about starting this blog. Her name is Kalliope Resh. Everyone calls her Kae. Full disclosure: Kae was one of my mentors on all things court-related. We’ve been friends for years. She’s a delightful Greek lady who might be five feet tall if she could stand up. Her tiny frail body is failing her and she’s confined to a wheelchair. She’s 91 years old but she remains a living encyclopedia of the criminal courts and much of the criminal history of Detroit It’s a shame no one has mined this living treasure trove of criminal history. She used to be the misdemeanors clerk at Detroit’s old Recorders Court—the criminal court—but her work involved constant interaction with felony cases, too. I mentioned File 88 to Kae and I told her of my struggle to find out more about “Lt. Giebic” whose name was scrawled in handwriting across the top of File 88. Kae thought about it for, oh, maybe a minute.

“Oh, you mean Lt. Giesig,” she said. “Eugene Giesig. He was a lieutenant in the vice squad years ago. I remember he got promoted to Inspector.”

I told Kae about the surveillance notes in File 88. “That file goes back to the late 40s, 1947 or 1948,” she said. “I was a rookie at the court in those days.”

These days Kae doesn’t get around much. She’s imprisoned by that wheelchair. Her memory has faded some, but she has a better recollection of the history of crime in Detroit than many people half her age. Untold numbers of police officers, assistant prosecutors, judges and defense attorneys used to confide in Kae because they knew she was honest. Some people hid things from her for that same reason.

Dialing back her considerable memory, Kae went on: “I know about that case. I handled it when it came to Recorder’s Court,” she said. “I remember one day a young black officer came in to get warrants after a raid on a gambling joint on Livernois Ave. in the 10th Precinct. It was Bill Hart.”

Kae Resh’s duties in those days included assigning a court case number, typing up warrants and related paperwork for the court file. The police officer would take the paperwork to a judge who would sign it, and it was returned to Kae to be filed. The warrant against Coleman Young featured the usual law enforcement designation for illegal gambling houses: engaging in an illegal occupation.

“I remember I asked Bill how he managed to do extensive foot surveillance in this case without being discovered,” she said. “He told me he was so skinny he could stand behind a telephone pole and not be seen. We both laughed.”

Ever the court professional, Kae Resh noted: “What I’m telling you is not hearsay. It’s a conversation I had personally with Bill Hart.”

Years later when he was the Police Chief I asked Bill Hart about File 88 and his investigation of his boss, Coleman Young. His brief answer was that File 88 was years ago, in a different era. He was right. Back then, the numbers racket was the prevailing vice in black neighborhoods. After the 1967 riot, dope replaced numbers as the dominant street crime in the ghetto.

Obviously Coleman Young had another career after his foray in the numbers rackets. Young’s history included a stint as a union organizer, a state legislator and as a perennial investigation target of the FBI and the federal government. During the Red Scare days of the early 50s and the era of witch-hunting McCarthyism, Coleman Young was defiant when called as a witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Coleman Young was not paranoid in his distrust of the FBI. They WERE out to get him—for decades. Early on Young had become a target of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. They thought they almost had him for kickbacks on a city sludge hauling contract in the 80s but the FBI just couldn’t accumulate enough evidence to be sure a jury would agree. With a black political hero like Coleman Young, the Justice Department attitude was; don’t indict unless you’re absolutely sure you’re going to convict.

Young was a black militant long before it became fashionable, long before afro hairdos and colorful dashiki tunic shirts were popular. When he was elected mayor, he famously gave a speech that accelerated white flight from the city. Young said: "I issue a warning to all those pushers, to all rip-off artists, to all muggers: It’s time to leave Detroit; hit Eight Mile Road!” Young went on: “And I don’t give a damn if they are black or white, or if they wear Superfly suits or blue uniforms with silver badges. Hit the road!" Eight Mile Rd. is the dividing line between Detroit and suburbia.

Many of Detroit’s white citizens interpreted that as a warning that Detroit’s white population should get out of town. And they did, by the thousands. A fact that has been under-reported over the years is that thousands of Detroit’s middle class blacks hit the road for the suburbs, too. Like their white neighbors, many decent, working-class blacks saw what was coming. They put Detroit in their rear view mirrors, too.

But the muggers, rip-off artists, drug dealers, murderers and crooks with blue uniforms and silver badges didn’t hit the road. They stayed.

What might be called Superfly crime and police corruption escalated significantly during Coleman Young’s 20-year reign as the sovereign ruler of Detroit.

Despite all his swagger and street-guy posturing, Coleman Young was just as powerless as any white politician in bringing street crime under control. It was on Coleman Young’s watch that the Motor City came to be known as the Murder City.

Rick Wershe grew up against this backdrop of rampant crime on the streets of Coleman Young’s Detroit.

When Richard Wershe Jr. was in grade school, heroin—often pronounced hair-oh-wahn in Detroit—was the narcotic of choice in the inner city. In the Detroit of the early 70s murders were as plentiful as burned-out neighborhoods as a new class of business entrepreneurs fought, literally, for market share among the growing ranks of junkies. They left hundreds of dead bodies in their wake.

In the early 80s the consumer crime commodity of Detroit changed suddenly from heroin to cocaine. I will explore that in another post.

Looking back at the Coleman Young era here’s more irony: the FBI eventually investigated and prosecuted Police Chief Bill Hart for embezzling vast sums of money from Coleman Young’s police department, just as Kenneth Weiner had done. It was money intended for the War on Drugs. Hart was convicted.

If you’re keeping track of the ironies, here’s more. Several years after he was convicted, Hart helped the FBI prosecute one of his former sergeants in yet another FBI police corruption investigation.

Sgt. James Harris and about a dozen other officers went to trial for providing police escort protection for what they believed to be drug and cash shipments to Detroit. In truth it was an FBI undercover sting operation. It had been set up—a drum roll and another helping of irony please—with the vital assistance of a state prison inmate with the nickname White Boy Rick, aka Richard Wershe Jr.

At the FBI’s request, Wershe then in Marquette State Prison, contacted his onetime lover, Cathy Volsan Curry, Mayor Young’s niece. Wershe told her an old Miami pal from his drug-dealing days, Mike Diaz, needed some police protection help. Mike Diaz was really undercover FBI Special Agent Mike Castro. Cathy Volsan Curry, who has a long history of association with major dope dealers, agreed to help Mike Diaz. She reached out to her father, Willie Volsan.

Irony again; Willie Volsan (now deceased), who was Coleman Young’s brother-in-law, was an illegal numbers racketeer from way back. In later years he kept up with the times and shifted his life of crime from numbers to dope.

Still more irony: Willie Volsan was once an FBI informant but not at the time of this case. As noted in the first blog post, most criminals turn rat at one time or another, usually to get a break on a case.

Willie Volsan recruited Detroit Police Sgt. James Harris for the job and eventually both got busted.

At the trial the Harris defense was going to be that the veteran sergeant knew right away this was an FBI sting; that he knew the FBI was trying to get Coleman Young through his relatives. Harris’ story was that he contacted Police Chief Hart and told him about the FBI sting. Harris claimed Hart was incensed and told him to conduct his own investigation of the sting operation. When FBI agents later asked Harris for copies of his investigative files of the sting, he said his desk had been broken into so Chief Hart told him to report verbally to him in meetings in the garage at Detroit Police headquarters at 1300 Beaubien Street.

In one break in the prosecution presentation at the trial, with the judge and jury out of the courtroom, Harris loudly told his attorney that FBI Agent Herman Groman, who had developed the case with the secret help of White Boy Rick Wershe, would crawl under the prosecution desk when the jury heard the Harris defense story.

After federal prosecutors rested their case they knew they would have to rebut the Harris story of a secret counter-investigation. But how? The trial was in recess for a long weekend. At a Saturday brainstorming session, it was suggested that ex-Chief Hart could easily knock down the Harris defense. But would he do it? The case agents thought it was worth a try.

On a Sunday morning, Detroit FBI Agent Martin “Marty” Torgler caught a plane to San Francisco to meet with ex-Chief Hart who was serving his prison term at a federal “country club” corrections facility known as FCI Dublin in San Francisco. At the Detroit airport as he waited to board his flight Torgler spotted a newspaper with a splashy story about the anticipated Harris defense. Torgler figured the newspaper article might help in his meeting with Bill Hart.

When Torgler, now retired, met Hart in the prison he showed him that day’s newspaper story in one of the Detroit papers. “He’s a bald-faced liar,” Torgler remembers Hart saying after he read the story about the Harris defense planning to say Harris was doing a secret counter-investigation on orders from the Chief.

Torgler knew Hart hated having his family dragged into the spotlight of his own misdeeds. The agent says he told Hart if Harris gets away with using this defense, every Detroit cop arrested for corruption in the future would use the same defense, causing more pain for Hart’s family.

Hart immediately agreed to testify for the prosecution. There was still some honest cop left in him. “If I was still in Detroit I would like to be able to go out with you and put the handcuffs on him,” Hart told Torgler. The agent felt sorry for Bill Hart. “He was a broken man,” Torgler said.

When the trial resumed Agent Torgler brought ex-Chief Hart into the courtroom. “You could see the wind come out of his (Harris) sails,” Torgler remembers. Agent Groman mischievously said: “Is this the part where I’m supposed to crawl under the desk?” Agent Groman, also retired, verifies this incident happened.

Torgler says of Hart’s testimony: “It was a spear through the heart of the Harris defense.”

Sgt. James Harris was convicted along with other officers and Willie Volsan, Cathy Volsan Curry’s father and the brother-in-law of Mayor Coleman Young.

After he went to prison, Harris made a sincere effort to redeem himself. He was the star of an FBI training film for police officers. He told cadets and future officers not to make the mistakes he made. The tape proved popular in police training academies. Harris received a Presidential pardon in 2008.

FBI Special Agent Groman, the one Harris taunted in court, had a knack for big cases. He would play a pivotal role in many of the investigations where Richard Wershe, Jr. was the confidential informant. He is one of Rick Wershe Jr.’s defenders and among those who wonder why Wershe is still in prison. Groman will be featured in more blog posts going forward.

The Harris/Volsan case, known as Operation Backbone, appears to be a key piece of the puzzle of why Rick Wershe is still in prison after all these years. The case had a real but not-so-obvious impact on Detroit politics and for that, Wershe has been made to pay, year after year.

The FBI and to a lesser degree the U.S. Attorney’s office may have welcomed Wershe’s help, but some powerful, politically-wired members of the Detroit/Wayne County Criminal Justice system, did not. It appears there was, and still is, a conspiracy to keep Richard Wershe, Jr. in prison until he dies as payback for helping the FBI investigate and prosecute public corruption. It is an issue this blog will explore again and again.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Injustices of Justice

This is a blog about informants and the key role they play in what passes for our criminal justice system.

Fair warning: these blogs won’t be a “quick read.” In a world accustomed to 140-character tweets and 160-character text messages many, perhaps most, of these blogs will exceed a thousand words, sometimes a lot more. Thanks to the exponential growth of mass media, 24/7 news coverage and the endless short-burst chatter on the Internet we’ve become a society with the attention span of a gnat on amphetamines. If that describes you, this blog isn’t for you.

This started out as an expose about the injustice that has been inflicted on one law enforcement informant and Michigan prison inmate named Richard “Rick” Wershe, Jr. Some people know him by a Detroit media-concocted nickname: White Boy Rick. That name will be explored in another blog post.

As of the writing of this, Rick Wershe is 45 years old. He has spent his entire adult life in prison. Wershe is doing a life sentence for dealing drugs under an old law that was long ago tossed out by the Michigan Supreme Court.  He never killed anyone. He never had anyone killed. He was never involved in the violence of the drug trade. He never had a drug posse or gang. He never operated crack houses.

But White Boy Rick was a teenaged confidential FBI informant. One retired Detroit FBI agent says Richard Wershe, Jr. is arguably the most productive informant the Bureau’s Detroit office ever had. He helped the federal government prosecute and jail politically-connected dope dealers and corrupt Detroit cops. And THAT may be the basis for what appears to be a decades-long vendetta by some members of the Detroit/Wayne County criminal “justice” system.

Over time this blog will focus on the travails of “White Boy Rick” in deep detail, but to fully understand his story it’s useful to look at others like him. Taken together these stories of Informant America offer a peek into the dark corners of what we call law and order. Some blog postings will tell you the sweet deals a few informants get while others, like Rick Wershe, get the shaft. Informant America is not a world of equality—or justice.

In investigative reporting one of the fundamentals is known as compare and contrast. It’s often illuminating to take the facts of what you are investigating and compare them to similar situations. If there’s a striking contrast between the norm and the facts of the story you are investigating, chances are you are on to something that needs to be exposed in a news story or series of them.

When it comes to comparisons and contrasts, the shadowy world of police informants is a mother lode.

Most informants are criminals who trade information about their associates to get a better deal on their prison sentence. Sometimes they snitch out of a drive for revenge. Sometimes they snitch for the money. Sometimes they snitch to save their hides. The FBI calls this “first in—first out.” That means if you are the first to roll over and give up your partners in crime, your co-conspirators, chances are you will be the first one out of prison, if you do any time at all.

In the case of Rick Wershe, we have a guy who was recruited—as a teenager—by the FBI and Detroit Police to become an informant against a major drug trafficking organization. Wershe wasn’t working off a beef, as they say on the streets. He was a 14 year old white kid who happened to grow up around a group of young blacks who were on the rise in the cocaine trade. He was running with the wrong crowd, no doubt about it. Despite the media nickname White Boy Rick, the guys in the ‘hood knew him simply as Ricky.

Rick Wershe Jr. was successful as an FBI informant. He came to know many dopers—and many corrupt cops. He shared what he learned with the FBI. Most citizens would be lauded and praised for taking risks to help the federal government wage the War on Drugs. Rick Wershe’s reward has been a lifetime in prison, even though he continued to help the FBI and Justice Department after he was behind bars. 

Seth Ferranti, an inmate in the federal prison system who knows the Wershe story and posts a blog called Gorilla Convict, has written: "White Boy Rick is a poster child for what is wrong with the War on Drugs." As I dug deep into the Rick Wershe saga I realized Ferranti is right.

Most Americans have no idea of the critical role played by informants in our criminal justice system, especially in drug prosecutions. Despite all the procedural cop shows on TV, it can be argued most Americans still have no idea of how the criminal justice system really works.

Confidential informants, cooperating individuals, snitches, rats or whatever we may call them are absolutely vital to the prosecution of drug “lords” and “kingpins.” Some informants victimize innocent people and game the system while others, like Rick Wershe, are victims themselves.

An important fact that escapes notice is this: most criminals become informants at one time or another because it is a surefire way of getting a prison sentence reduced or an arrest tossed. Criminals in prison claim they hate rats, which is ironic since most of them eventually become rats themselves. All informants are not created equal. The way informants are treated by the police and prosecutors and prison administrators varies widely and wildly. Some are treated like dirt. Others are treated like royalty.

Journalists who write about justice issues sometimes refer to the criminal underworld. This blog will show you there’s another underworld lower than that one. It’s the informant underworld. The tale of Richard Wershe Jr. provides a window into the world of informants; one of the darkest, least reported elements of crime and punishment in America.

You’re probably wondering who I am and why you should read what I write about Informant America. Fair enough.

My name is Vince Wade. I live in sunny, mild Southern California—home to roughly 23 million people and a city (Los Angeles) that sprawls across 503 square miles. In LA almost anywhere you want to go is about an hour away from wherever you are.

From the 70s through the 90s I was a television crime and mayhem reporter in Detroit—one of America’s toughest, crime-infested cities. Nowadays I think of that part of my career as my time as an urban war correspondent. Along the way I managed to receive three Emmy awards and the 1st place award for Best TV News documentary at the New York International Film Festival and a batch of others.

In 1975 I beat competing stations to the air with news that former Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa was missing. I got the scoop from a veteran organized crime cop who gave me only one story tip in all the time I knew him. But boy, what a tip.

I’ve taken cover more than once on the streets of Detroit as the police shot it out with various bad guys. I’ve been at the scene of hundreds of homicides. I’ve seen corpses murdered just about every way known to man. I saw more murder victims in one year than most police officers see in their entire careers.

From morgue wagon attendants I learned to carry a small jar of mentholated ointment to homicide assignments. If the stench of the corpse is nauseating you pack your nostrils with the mentholated ointment. This forces you to breathe through your mouth but you avoid inhaling the fumes of death that can make you wretch.

My reporting irritated Detroit’s drug dealers and criminals enough that my life has been threatened several times by people who meant it. 

In an incident in the halls of Recorder’s Court—Detroit’s Criminal Court—one doper with a nasty reputation who was decked out in a Big Apple hat and fur maxi coat (this was the early 70s) asked me if I wanted to join “the pool.”
What pool is that? I asked.
His reply: “The pool on when you’re going to get hit motherf**ker!” I used asterisks for the two or three readers who might be offended by that overused term.

A hit man named Chester Campbell helped my career immensely by including my name in a batch of notebooks he filled with counter-intelligence information about narcs and their families, prosecutors and their families and a long list of players in Detroit’s drug scene. Some of the names from the drug underworld were accompanied by crude profile drawings of a bird with an “X” where the eye should be. The birds with X’d out eyes were next to the names of people who had been murdered, execution-style.

Chester Campbell, now deceased, was arrested on a fluke when he sideswiped a suburban police car late one night while driving drunk. He was stopped. Multiple police cars showed up. When the cops found the counter-surveillance notebooks and various guns and surveillance equipment in the trunk of Campbell’s car, they hurriedly got an actual search warrant and they took Campbell into custody. When they looked through the surveillance notebooks they found one entry which read: “Vince Wade, TV 7, case conspiracy.” My station, Detroit’s Channel 7, played the story for all it was worth. The Chester Campbell case caused a local front-page media sensation over several days. For years afterward people would stop me in stores and ask, “Aren’t you the guy who was in the hit man’s notebook?”

This is a long first blog but I should note one other career episode relevant to informant reporting and commentary.

In the late summer of 1989 a law enforcement executive called and asked me to come to his office at the end of the business day. He strongly encouraged me to bring a large, empty gym bag to our meeting. When I got to his office he had a batch of surveillance photos spread on his desk. The photos were of several charming street thugs.

“We have reliable informant information that these mopes have been hired to kill you and/or Lou Palombella of DEA, whichever they can find first,” he said. Lou Palombella, an energetic DEA agent assigned to the agency’s Detroit division, was a member of a squad that had been hot on the heels of an emerging Detroit drug gang that had watched too many re-runs of Al Pacino’s Scarface. Throwing lighted sticks of dynamite at the fronts of the homes of rivals was one of their tactics. I had been reporting frequently on the violent crimes of this gang.

After showing me the surveillance photos and giving me several sets of them to share with my employers and my local police department, the law enforcement boss reached behind his desk and gave me a hefty police raid vest to put in the gym bag. 

“We’d like you to wear this to and from work for a while until we can suppress the threat,” he said. After a few days the hired gunslingers were arrested and locked up. In the interim my TV station management hired some very experienced and very pricey bodyguards to shadow me everywhere until the would-be hit men were rounded up. I returned the raid vest which never saw any action with me, thank goodness.

It wasn’t lost on me that this heads-up and the raid vest that was provided to me were the result of “reliable informant information.” This blog will be written from the perspective of someone whose life may have once been saved—by an informant.