Sunday, April 26, 2015

I was a Teenaged FBI Snitch

One of the staples of Hollywood B-movies in years past was to take themes from horror or monster films with adult casts and apply them to movies with teenaged casts; I Was a Teenage Werewolf, I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, I Was a Teenage Zombie, etc.

A Michigan teen named Richard Wershe, Jr. had his own real-life horror story—and he’s still living it decades later. I Was a Teenage FBI Snitch might be the title of this bad nightmare movie.

Briefly, Richard “Rick” Wershe Jr. was recruited at age 14 to help a federal drug task force catch the members of major family-controlled illegal drug operation on Detroit’s east side. It was a family with political connections in city hall. Rick was good at it; too good, perhaps. The Justice Department has prosecuted, with Rick Wershe’s help since the mid-1980s, politically-connected drug traffickers and politically-connected corrupt cops. But let’s be clear: Rick Wershe is not innocent. From the time he was old enough to have pimples Rick Wershe was running with the “wrong” crowd. The key issue is that Wershe’s prison term is way out of line with the crime he committed compared to how the State of Michigan has treated others. The Michigan Supreme Court threw out the drug law that Wershe was convicted under as unconstitutional. He’s been eligible for parole for a long time. 

Yet the Michigan Parole Board refuses to consider parole for Wershe while everyone else convicted under that draconian law has been set free. His continued imprisonment appears to be the result of a Detroit law enforcement vendetta for snitching on politically-connected members of the law enforcement establishment in Detroit. The Parole Board, which has no oversight and is responsible to no one except the Governor, refuses to parole Wershe and refuses to explain why.

As Wershe was growing up, the people he hung out with were a function of where he lived. Wershe’s neighborhood on Detroit’s east side was racially mixed. His ‘hood became increasingly black as he entered adolescence.

By his early teens Richard Wershe, Jr. was a master of urban slang. He sounded like he was a ghetto black kid. Retired FBI agent John Anthony, who was the legal adviser for the Detroit FBI office, told me his first contact with Rick Wershe was a telephone call. Anthony says he knew Rick Wershe was white from talking with the agents who were his handlers, but Anthony said when he talked to Rick Wershe on the phone he would’ve sworn he was talking to an inner city black kid. In the black drug underworld Rick Wershe walked the walk and talked the talk. He somehow fit in even though he was white. To put it in street terms, his homies back in da day be brothers from da ‘hood.

Rick Wershe’s recruitment as an FBI confidential informant is perhaps the touchiest aspect of his life story. We know his informant work began under now-retired FBI Special Agent James Dixon. But other FBI agents worked with Rick, too. Retired Special Agent Herman Groman almost went to jail protecting Rick Wershe’s identity as an FBI confidential informant in a dramatic courtroom showdown. That episode will be covered in another blog post.

FBI agents who were involved with Rick Wershe back then can’t agree on the details of how he came to be one of the best informants in the history of the Detroit FBI. It isn’t a case of dodging or shading the truth. They honestly don’t remember. Some retired agents remember part of the White Boy Rick story but can’t remember other parts. Age and fading memory affect all of us. Richard Wershe, Jr. was recruited as an informant over 30 years ago. Since there is no consensus on the “truth” of Wershe’s recruitment I contacted all of the FBI agents who dealt with him as a teenaged informant and I spoke at length with Rick Wershe himself in a series of phone calls from prison. A full picture emerges but some details remain fuzzy.

Previous blog posts have described how Ricky’s father, the late Richard J. Wershe Senior was “opened” as an on-the-books FBI informant in the early 80s because he was frequently on the edge of the law in his business wheeling and dealing. A team of FBI agents was visiting the Wershe home one day in 1984, talking with Rick Wershe’s father. They produced surveillance photos of some neighborhood drug figures the FBI wanted to investigate. Wershe Senior didn’t know them but called his son Richard J. Wershe Junior over to the table and asked him to look at the photos. Young Wershe was immediately able to identify the men in the photos. They were the Curry Brothers; Johnny, Leo and Rudell. Sam Mack Curry, the patriarch of the family, was also involved and seemed to have mentored his sons in the ways of slinging dope. As the teenager easily identified the faces in the photos the FBI agents realized they had a potential informant on their hands.

In the summer of 1984, at the age of 14, Richard J. Wershe, Jr. became a confidential informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation—but not officially. The agents were apprehensive about using a juvenile informant. If things went bad the consequences would be severe. But through a stroke of luck, the father and son had the same name. A decision was made to use both of the Wershes as informants but to file the son’s information in the father’s FBI file. Before long, the younger Wershe was getting most of the FBI payments credited to “Gem”, the code name assigned to his father. Rick was told to sign for the money as Gem.

The paper trail from the FBI’s files about “Richard Wershe” shows the informant relationship began in earnest in late June of 1984. FBI reports routinely protect identities by using terms like "Subject" and "Source." Subject refers to individuals in information from the informant, or Source.

A teletype from the Detroit FBI office to headquarters discusses the suitability of “opening” Richard Wershe Sr. as an FBI informant, to be code-named Gem. The teletype was by Special Agent James Dixon.

Excerpt from an FBI teletype regarding "opening" Richard Wershe Sr. as an informant.

About a month later, a request is made to provide the source an initial payment of $300.00. The money was paid.

The elder Wershe had knowledge of “pill” cases, among other crimes like gun trafficking, while the younger Wershe was familiar with the neighborhood players in the rapidly growing crack cocaine trade. Initially at least, it was a father-and-son snitching arrangement. One agent remembers the senior Wershe would sometimes call for a meeting and both father and son would show up for the meet. The paper trail from these years never indicates whether the "Source" information was coming from Richard Wershe Senior or Richard Wershe Junior. The FBI paperwork merely refers to "Source" information from Richard Wershe.

FBI files show the elder Wershe was providing information about illegal prescription drug sales while his son was providing information about cocaine trafficking.
When Richard Wershe, Jr. was all of 15 years old he was providing reliable information about drug trafficking to the FBI; information solid enough to be used as the basis for going to a federal judge and asking for authorization to initiate wiretaps. In this case it involved the Curry Brothers drug organization. In addition, the teen snitch provided intelligence good enough to obtain search warrants for drug raids.

“I was told to get in as deep as I could,” Wershe remembers. “I was told to get as much intel as I could.”

A file note agent Dixon wrote on December 12, 1984 about information from his teen snitch apparently set off alarm bells.

“I wrote a 302 on a meeting with Rick,” Dixon said recently. A 302 is an FBI investigative report form. What he was referring to was actually a so-called “insert” he wrote, not a 302. Inserts are the FBI term for notes about intelligence received from informants. We must realize Dixon was talking from memory about something he wrote over 30 years ago.  “He gave us some really good information about people who worked downtown,” Dixon said. I asked if he meant Detroit political figures. He said yes. “That (insert) became very important to a political corruption investigation.”

Dixon’s informant insert, which was redacted or edited before it was released by the FBI, contains the following:

“Source advised a close friend was told by an individual known as [blacked out] that Mayor YOUNG received drugs from [blacked out] is allegedly in jail on a murder charge. Source advised Mayor YOUNG is alleged to make frequent stops at this residence. Source also stated an individual known as [blacked out] has information regarding Mayor YOUNG’S involvement.”

The source, Dixon says was Richard Wershe, Jr. The Detroit media later nicknamed him White Boy Rick.

FBI files often contain unsubstantiated informant intelligence. Under ordinary circumstances informant file information is not made public.
It is important to understand this is raw intelligence from an informant. It was not corroborated or verified. It contains a statement that would never hold up in court. A close friend of the source was told by someone “known as” that Detroit’s mayor received drugs from an individual in jail at the time this was written. Yet this is how criminal investigations often begin. Someone tells someone about someone who may know something about someone who is politically important. Regarding the late Coleman Young, there was never a criminal case related to his involvement with drugs.

But Rick Wershe, Jr. was providing the FBI with a lot of good intelligence, direct knowledge gained from his undercover work, about the burgeoning cocaine trade on Detroit’s east side. About six months after his recruitment, he reported the Curry drug organization wanted him to fly to Miami to transport cocaine to Detroit.

This late 1984 FBI file shows Rick Wershe progressed quickly within the Curry drug organization.

Using the FBI’s informant money, Rick Wershe, Jr., not yet 16, became a jet-setting drug gang insider.  More on that in the next post.

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