Sunday, June 21, 2015

An Innocent Man, an FBI Agent and a Toothbrush

A young Detroit boy is killed when someone shoots up his uncle’s house where he was watching television. The uncle tells the police a drug gang had threatened him that same morning. The police ignore the lead and focus, instead, on prosecuting an innocent man. The Detroit FBI knew the man was innocent. One of their paid confidential informants told them what really happened. An FBI agent nearly went to jail protecting the identity of the informant: Richard Wershe, Jr., also known as White Boy Rick.

The summer of 1985 was frustrating for FBI Special Agent Herman Groman. He knew who had killed a 13-year old Detroit boy named Damion Lucas. He was the innocent victim of a bullet in an automatic weapons fusillade by members of a drug gang angry at the boy’s uncle over money he owed them. The shooters riddled the front of the uncle’s house with bullets. One of them struck the 13-year old in the chest, killing him. He had been watching television at his uncle’s house when the gunfire erupted.

The killers were members of the Johnny Curry drug crew—a politically connected criminal enterprise on Detroit’s eastside. Johnny Curry was married to the niece of Detroit’s powerful mayor, Coleman Young. After the fatal shooting Curry was angry that his guys would do something so stupid—and he said so in a telephone conversation that was recorded by the FBI in a court-authorized wiretap. The FBI was leading a federal task force investigation of the Curry group.

The FBI knew the Curry gang was responsible for the murder, yet they had to watch helplessly as the Detroit Police persisted in pursuing an innocent man for the killing. FBI agent Groman and his fellow agents had to be careful how they handled what they knew about the Damion Lucas murder. If the wiretap information was mishandled it could blow the investigation.

The wiretap wasn’t the only source of information the FBI had about the killing of the little boy. They had a paid Confidential Informant (CI) who told them he was present for a meeting of the Curry gang where they discussed how to handle themselves if Detroit Police homicide detectives questioned them about the Damion Lucas murder. That informant was Richard J. Wershe, Jr.—White Boy Rick.

Groman, now retired, says since several Detroit police officers were working as part of the drug task force, it was decided they would discreetly pass the word through channels that the Curry gang was responsible for the fatal shooting.

The cops on the federal task force passed the info along but nothing happened. The Detroit Homicide Section never questioned the Curry gang about the Damion Lucas murder.

They focused instead on an innocent man. LaKeas Davis had had a noisy argument with the dead boy’s uncle a few days before the fatal shooting. But the uncle, Leon Lucas, told the police he and Davis had patched up their dispute. 
Furthermore, Leon Lucas told investigators two of the Curry gang had called him the morning of the shooting and warned him his house would be shot up because he owed the gang money. Yet, the police avoided interrogating Johnny Curry or any of his associates.

What’s more, the morning after the shooting, FBI automated telephone surveillance equipment recorded calls from Johnny Curry’s phone to two unlisted numbers for Detroit police officers. One call was to a sergeant on the mayor’s security detail and a second, longer call was to the private police headquarters line of Homicide Inspector Gil Hill.

Groman and his fellow agents put it all together and concluded someone inside the Detroit Police Department may be involved in obstruction of justice—a federal felony—in the handling of the Damion Lucas murder investigation. They focused on Gil Hill who was the boss of the Homicide Section.

The investigative possibilities were intriguing but none of this helped LaKeas Davis who had been charged with murdering Damion Lucas. The police insisted on prosecuting Davis even though they had strong leads indicating the Curry group was responsible.

“I firmly believed he didn’t do it,” Groman recalls. The FBI agent reached out to Elliott Margolis, the defense attorney for Davis. Groman gave Margolis what is known in court as exculpatory information. That means information that exonerates the defendant; information indicating Davis didn’t kill Damion Lucas.

“I’m all about justice,” Groman says. “An innocent man was being convicted of something he didn’t do. I wanted to make sure this was rectified.”

Margolis did what he had to do. He told the judge presiding over the Davis murder trial about the information from the FBI. Margolis wanted the case dismissed. The prosecution was having none of it. It didn’t take long for Groman to get a subpoena as a witness in the LaKeas Davis murder trial.

Groman’s tip to the defense attorney focused on the FBI’s informant information. Groman treaded lightly regarding the wiretap. The existence of the active tap on Johnny Curry’s phone had to be protected. The focus on the exculpatory information was centered on revelations from an FBI confidential informant. Therefore the defense demanded that Groman reveal the informant’s identity in court so he or she could be called as a witness. After all, LaKeas Davis was on trial for murder.

“It was kind of a tightrope I had to walk and, of course, I didn’t want to give up the identity of the informant,” Groman said.

It's true the FBI works to keep the identities of its Confidential Informants confidential. But there was another factor in this case. The Confidential Informant in the Curry investigation - a paid Confidential Informant - was a juvenile. Rick Wershe Jr. was a teenager.

Even though Ken Walton, the retired former Special Agent in Charge (SAC) of the Detroit FBI says there were no Bureau rules or regs about the use of juvenile informants at that time, Rick Wershe notes pointedly and with some bitterness the agents knew it wasn't right to use a kid to infiltrate a drug gang. That's why, Wershe argues today, they covered his work by putting it in his Dad's FBI informant file, since they had the same names differentiated only by Sr. and Jr., and that's why they had him use his Dad's code name - Gem - to receive periodic payments for his work on the Curry gang. In Rick Wershe's view there was, and to this day still is, some serious ass-covering going on at the Detroit FBI.

When Groman appeared in court the judge directed him to answer the questions about who the informant was. Groman refused to answer. The judge threatened to send him to jail for contempt of court. A showdown was brewing.

Groman was going to need his own lawyer to navigate this sticky scenario. The local U.S. attorney’s office assigned an Assistant United States Attorney (AUSA) to represent Groman and the FBI in the local murder trial.

The morning Groman was due back in court he and a fellow agent stopped at the federal courthouse to pick up the Assistant United States Attorney assigned to represent Groman and the FBI in the local court case.

When the attorney got in the FBI car Groman tried to sound cheery and optimistic. “I said, ‘Well, how ya doing? Are you all set? Are you ready to defend me vigorously?’”

Groman remembers the federal attorney’s reply.

“’Well,’ she said, ‘I was thinking about that when I was getting ready and so I brought you a present.’” She pulled out a new toothbrush and handed it to Groman. “’I think you might need this,’” she said. The implication was that Groman was going to jail.

When they got to court the judge again ordered Groman to answer the questions about the informant’s identity and any other exculpatory evidence the FBI had about LaKeas Davis.

Groman again refused to answer but before he was sent to jail it was agreed there would be a confidential—in camera—hearing in the judge’s chambers. Away from the public courtroom Groman explained to the judge and the attorneys the information the FBI had and the fact their informant had been present for a Curry gang meeting on how to handle the murder investigation. He also revealed the wiretap and the need to keep it secret for the sake of the drug investigation which was being presented to a federal grand jury.

It was agreed that prosecutors in the LaKeas Davis case would be allowed to question the FBI’s informant—by telephone from the FBI Detroit office where, ironically, they could be sure the phones weren’t tapped. The prosecutors would not be told the informant’s identity.

Rick Wershe doesn’t remember a lot about what happened next. He recalls being driven one day to FBI headquarters in downtown Detroit and taken to an office where he was put on a telephone and told to answers questions about what he knew about the Damion Lucas case. The local case prosecutors were on the other end of the line, in another office at the Detroit FBI’s offices. Wershe’s identity was not revealed. At that time Wershe’s normal manner of speech made it sound like he was a young black man even though he was white.

The charges against LaKeas Davis were dismissed. An innocent man had spent several months in jail fighting for his life while someone in authority in the Detroit Police Department kept the investigation away from the real killers. The Damion Lucas murder never came back to court. The police and prosecutors never pursued the tips that the Curry gang was responsible for the murder.

“That case stuck in my craw because I knew we had something going on here and it involved corruption within the police department,” Groman says.

As the Curry drug investigation neared the point of a federal grand jury indictment Groman was reassigned from the Detroit FBI drug squad to the public corruption squad.

The unsolved Damion Lucas murder was always in the back of his mind and several years later it was the catalyst for one of the biggest public corruption cases the Detroit FBI ever had. It was a case that hinged on the work of a Confidential Informant. That informant was Rick Wershe. More, a lot more, about that case will be explored in a future blog post.  

No comments:

Post a Comment