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.

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