Sunday, October 25, 2015

Rick Wershe and the Police Culture of Lying

Police officers lying in court to support criminal cases is a long-standing scandal of nationwide proportions. Prosecutors and judges know it but there’s little they can do to stop it because it’s become so ingrained in our “law and order” criminal justice system. It certainly is a factor in the life sentence of Richard J. Wershe, Jr. In fact, his reputation as a “drug lord” and drug “kingpin” is built on police lies as Informant America has demonstrated week after week.

In America’s police departments narcotics enforcement is a volume business. Buy and bust. That’s because there’s money to be made in focusing on the bottom of the drug dealing pyramid. Police departments get federal grants for the number of arrests they make and the amount of property they seize in the long-running fiasco we call the War on Drugs. 

There’s financial incentive for the local police to make lots of low-level cases. It does nothing to stop the flow of drugs, but no one cares. Police chiefs know as well as we do the War on Drugs was lost before it was ever started. But if there’s federal grant money to be had for doing buy-bust drug enforcement, what’s a police chief to do?

The pressure to crank out case after case prompts cops to lie and game the system in order to make their target arrest stats for drug enforcement.

The Truth, Whole Truth and Whatever I Make Up

Police perjury on the witness stand is so pervasive and widespread in the United States the cops themselves have come up with a name for it. Testilying. Not testifying—testilying.

In a 2011 piece in the San Francisco Chronicle, former San Francisco Police Commissioner Peter Keane wrote:

“Police officer perjury in court to justify illegal dope searches is commonplace. One of the dirty little not-so-secret secrets of the criminal justice system is undercover narcotics officers intentionally lying under oath. It is a perversion of the American justice system that strikes directly at the rule of law. Yet it is the routine way of doing business in courtrooms everywhere in America.”

Some years ago I was talking with a veteran cop who had served for a time as a suburban police chief. He was talking about the importance of police departments having clear, well-established policies and procedures as opposed to the MUS method of policing.

What is MUS? I asked.
“Make Up Shit,” he replied.

He could have been talking about police testimony in criminal cases.

Was there law enforcement lying in the Rick Wershe, Jr. case? Oh hell yes. We’ve already explored that a bit in previous Informant America blog posts. [See Did a DEA Agent Mislead the Parole Board about White Boy Rick? (8-16-15) Also, Key ‘Witness’ against Wershe Denies DEA ‘Lies’ (10-11-15)]

But it isn’t fair to let the DEA take all the criticism.This blog post will focus on the truth—or lack of it—in the testimony of police officers in general and in particular in the case of Richard J. Wershe, Jr., the Michigan prison inmate known in the media as White Boy Rick.

As citizens, our expectation is the police will tell the truth in court. Usually, that’s true. But far too often, especially in narcotics cases, the “good guys” are so determined to get the “bad guys” that they see nothing wrong with lying under oath. After all, this guy, whoever it may be, deserves to be in jail, right?

These officers ignore the fact that in some cases the only things separating them from the bad guys are the law, the facts and the truth. It never occurs to them if they lie, if they plant drugs or otherwise cheat and manipulate the system to nail a suspect, they are no better than the person they send to jail. They have thumbed their nose at our nation’s bedrock belief in truth and justice, of law and order. But that’s alright because in the prevailing cop culture the brainwashed mentality is it’s us-against-them. For too many the popular police department motto, ‘To Protect and Serve’ means only each other.

In Detroit and cities all across America, many of the “finest” frequently get blotto in cop bars and tell each other that their violations of the law and criminal legal procedure and their blatant lies under oath are justified because they’re making the city, county, state, country—whatever—safe from the criminals. And if it weren’t for those damned “liberal” requirements in the laws, more slime balls would be locked up. 

So what if lying on the witness stand makes them felons, too? They are good felons don’tcha know. The public just doesn’t understand their frustration and what they go through in trying to keep the ungrateful citizenry safe. When you’re up to your ass in alligators it’s hard to remember your objective was to drain the swamp, blah, blah, blah. “Bartender! Another drink!”

In the good old days a cop could stop and frisk a street mope and if he found drugs, hey, it was a good collar. So what if he didn’t have probable cause to believe the mope had dope on him? So what if he had no indication the mope had committed a crime? Probable cause? What’s that? 

Then, in 1961, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Mapp v. Ohio that evidence obtained illegally without probable cause was inadmissible because the police had violated the Constitutional right against unreasonable search and seizure. Another damned liberal court ruling!

Soon, police officers were testifying about probable cause information from unnamed reliable informants who started sprouting up like dandelions in springtime. Or, they claimed the defendant dropped the drugs, the gun, the jewels, whatever, on the ground in front of them as they approached. 

It became known as “dropsy” testimony. Did the defendant really drop the goods on the ground in front of the cop? Probably not, but the dropsy story sidesteps the problems of stop-and-frisk in the Mapp v. Ohio ruling, so it is used a lot in police testimony. “Yes, the defendant dropped a grocery bag on the sidewalk containing what was later identified as 20 pounds of cocaine when he saw me approaching him, your Honor.”

In the drug case that sent Rick Wershe, Jr. to prison for life, the cops didn’t even say they ever saw him with the 17 pounds of cocaine he was accused of possessing. 

The police produced several neighborhood witnesses who claim they saw Wershe put a box under a porch in his neighborhood during a chaotic police bust. 

One of those witnesses later said the police coerced his testimony, kidnapping him, taking him to a downtown hotel where they pressured him and hit him in the head at least once to let him know that “Rick is going down” and this guy better testify the way the police wanted him to.

At trial the police and prosecution never produced any evidence of Rick Wershe’s fingerprints on the box of cocaine or any of the packages inside it. He was sent to prison for life, anyway.

So what if the evidence was shaky? The use of crack cocaine was at epidemic levels and somebody had to do something. Sending a guy known in the media as White Boy Rick to prison for the rest of his life would send a strong message, right? A Detroit jury convicted Rick Wershe of possession with intent to distribute over 650 grams of cocaine. He hasn't spent a day out of jail since.

Wershe had hired two politically-connected attorneys, Ed Bell and Sam Gardner to defend him in the case. He did so at the urging of Cathy Volsan-Curry, his bedmate of the moment who was the niece of the late Coleman Young, Detroit’s powerful black mayor. At Wershe’s 2003 parole hearing William Bufalino II, the veteran defense lawyer he pushed aside to hire Bell and Gardner, testified Bell “hung him (Rick Wershe) out to dry.” Like Young, Bufalino is now deceased.

One of the narcs who pursued Rick Wershe relentlessly in 1986-87 was Detroit Police Officer Gerard “Mick” Biernacki, now deceased. Biernacki was part of the self-styled No Crack Crew of local police and DEA narcs working as a local/federal team.

Detroit Police Officer Gerard "Mick" Biernacki and Pinocchio, his role model for testifying. (Detroit Police Photo/Walt Disney Co. image)

Biernacki was known among his fellow cops and federal narcs as “Pinocchio.” It was a reference to a wooden puppet character in a children’s story whose nose grows whenever he tells a lie.

Mick Biernacki never let the truth get in the way of obtaining a search warrant to kick in some door at a house or apartment the narcs wanted to toss, nor did he let truth clutter jurors’ minds when he testified at trial.

In his book Land of Opportunity, author William Adler profiled the Chambers Brothers who arguably operated the biggest cocaine organization in Detroit in the 1980s. They were pursued by Biernacki and the No Crack Crew. In Adler’s book he recounted how Officer Greg Woods explained the probable cause used to get a court-ordered search warrant for a certain raid on a suspected Chambers Brothers drug pad.

“Officer Mick Biernacki had a very different and most likely false story he told to obtain the search warrant, invoking an informant who ‘had just been inside’…”, Adler wrote.
Real informants certainly exist. Rick Wershe was one of them. But if you’re Mick Biernacki, why bother when you can make one up?

There is a Biernacki tale that is something of a legend among the local and federal narcs of that era. The story involves Biernacki’s testimony in a drug trial. On the witness stand he recounted the timeline and sequence of events in a drug raid that was part of the case against the defendant.

Biernacki said an unnamed “informant” went in to the location, made a drug buy, then came out. Biernacki testified he typed up a search warrant, took it to a judge who signed it, and then Biernacki and crew kicked in the door and executed the search warrant.

A savvy defense attorney listened to all of this and reviewed Biernacki’s claim of the elapsed time. Something didn’t add up. How, the defense attorney asked, did Biernacki and his team have time to go to a police station or headquarters, type up the search warrant for the judge and accomplish that task in the time between the informant’s buy and kicking in the door? Biernacki’s prior testimony about the timeline didn’t allow time for going somewhere to type up a search warrant.

“I typed it in the car on the way downtown,” Biernacki testified. Laptop or notebook computers hadn't been invented yet so we must imagine Officer Biernacki using a manual typewriter on his lap while his partner sped to the courthouse.

Witnesses in criminal cases are typically sequestered. That means they wait outside the courtroom so they can’t shade their testimony to match what the jury has heard from previous witnesses.

On the way out of court in this case, Biernacki leaned over to one of his fellow narcs, waiting to testify. “I typed it in the car,” Biernacki whispered as he walked past.

Officer Biernacki was one of the witnesses, by the way, in Rick Wershe’s drug trial, the one that put him in prison for life. There’s more to tell about Officer Biernacki and Rick Wershe and it will be featured in a future blog post.

While Mick “Pinocchio” Biernacki was a cop of questionable integrity he was far from a police aberration in the Detroit battle front in the War on Drugs.

Retired FBI Special Agent Herman Groman, who was Rick Wershe’s primary “handler” when Wershe was working as an FBI confidential informant, was on the drug squad of the Detroit FBI when the crack cocaine epidemic swept the city beginning in 1984. Federal and local narcs suddenly had to work together. The locals needed the FBI’s money and the FBI needed the locals’ knowledge of the local drug trade.

Groman told me that during that era he once attended a farewell party for a Detroit Police narc who was being transferred to other duty. The party was on Detroit’s Belle Isle in the middle of the Detroit River. The Detroit narc was known as Popeye. He was known for pocketing dope dealer cash during drug raids. That is, when the police would raid a place, Popeye would find the money stash and grab a generous wad of bills for himself, stuff the cash in his pockets and turn in the rest as seized assets.

Groman admits he joined in the raucous laughter of the assembled narcs when Popeye opened his farewell present. It was a shirt with lots of extra pockets sewn all over it.

In the winter of 1989, a year after Rick Wershe was sent to prison for life for a non-violent drug crime the Detroit News published the results of the paper’s investigation of police misconduct. The report said in the year 1987, the year Rick Wershe was arrested in his life-sentence cocaine case, Detroit ranked first among the nation’s top ten cities for police officers accused of committing crimes. 

The News investigation found Detroit police officers had been accused of rape, hiring an arsonist to set fire to an occupied building, auto theft, insurance fraud, personal possession of cocaine and heroin, selling gun permits, concealing stolen property, armed robbery and hiring a contract killer.

Are there other examples of police lies and misdeeds involving Richard “White Boy Rick” Wershe, Jr., the teen they alleged was a drug kingpin? Absolutely. They will be explored in another blog post.


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