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.

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