Sunday, March 27, 2016

Rick Wershe is serving life for a shaky and shady drug conviction - Pt. 1

Several past Informant America blog posts have suggested the case that sent Richard J. Wershe, Jr. to prison for life was questionable at best. He was arrested and charged with possession with intent to deliver over 650 grams of cocaine. The police case had gaping holes in it which were helped by Wershe’s own defense team, two lawyers loyal to Detroit Mayor Coleman Young and believed to be intent on ensuring Wershe went to prison for a long, long time. It is enlightening—and disturbing—to take a hard look at the evidence—or lack of it—behind Rick Wershe’s life prison term.


May 22, 1987 was a Friday. The top story in that morning’s paper reported massive weapons searches by the Detroit Police in Detroit’s public schools may be illegal. Even the chief of operations for the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office questioned the legality of the heavy-handed police tactic.

I Knew You Were Waiting for Me by Detroit’s own Aretha Franklin was one of the top tunes on the radio. As it turns out, the police were waiting for Richard Wershe, Jr.

Wershe had been recruited at age 14 by the FBI to become a paid informant against the Curry Brothers, a drug gang connected by marriage to Coleman Young, Detroit’s all-powerful mayor. Wershe dropped out of school to play junior G-man full time. Not only did Wershe inform on the Curry gang, he told the FBI about corrupt Detroit cops, too. Wershe’s undercover work was for a federal and local drug task force. There were Detroit cops assigned to the task force. It is reasonable to believe word got back to the Detroit Police narcotics section that Wershe was telling on cops on the take.

When a federal drug task force got what it needed from Wershe’s dangerous undercover work they kicked him to the curb to fend for himself. The teen informant turned to the only trade he knew; the one law enforcement taught him. He decided to become a cocaine wholesaler. In the spring of 1987 Rick Wershe, Jr. was on the police radar as a rising newcomer in Detroit’s drug underworld. By then the teenager’s social network mostly revolved around ruthless men in Detroit’s black drug trade, men for whom murder was just a cost of doing business. Wershe had no family support network to speak of. As he told the Michigan Parole Board in 2003: “I really didn’t have any parental supervision at the time. I was basically raising myself and I went down some wrong paths.” Richard J. Wershe, Jr. was 17 on that fateful night in May, 1987.

The weather was nice. It had been in the mid-80s during the day. As night fell the skies were mostly cloudy, as usual for Detroit.

About 8:00 p.m. that Friday night, Rick Wershe was a passenger in a car driven by his pal, Roy Grissom. They pulled up to Wershe’s family home on Hampshire on Detroit’s east side. 

A Detroit police patrol car was waiting for them. The police put on their lights and made a traffic stop. One of the cops was Rodney Grandison, an officer Wershe knew well. Wershe says he and Officer Grandison smoked pot together from time to time.

The flashing police lights quickly attracted neighborhood attention. As the police approached the car, Wershe tried to stash a shopping bag of cash under the front seat. The officers saw him do it and they tried to grab the bag of cash. But somehow Wershe’s sister Dawn, who, along with Richard Wershe, Sr., had run out of the house to see the commotion, managed to get the cash first. She ran back in the Wershe family home with the cash bag.

Other police cars waiting nearby quickly swarmed onto the narrow residential street, clogging it along with numerous residents who had come outside to see what was happening. The commotion and confusion escalated. In the chaos Rick Wershe slipped away—empty handed. None of the police officers stopped him.

Months later at his trial, Wershe remembers the police testified that a crowd quickly materialized and in the re-telling they said people were circling the block in Jeeps firing pistols in the air. Why, I asked, with so many police at the scene didn’t any of them arrest the people shooting guns? “It (the trial testimony) sounded like a movie, dude,” Wershe told me as he tried to describe the farcical nature of his jury trial. He also notes any streetwise young man knew not to carry a weapon in a Jeep because most police officers equated a Jeep in the ghetto with a drug dealer so traffic stops of Jeeps were commonplace.

What happened next depends on who is doing the talking—or testifying.

After a police traffic stop in front of his house turned chaotic Rick Wershe left the scene and allegedly walked between the houses between his street and the next street over. One witness said he was carrying a big box. Another said he was empty-handed. It's one of many inconsistencies in the case that sent him to prison for life. (Google Map)

A young woman who was Rick Wershe’s age named Patricia Story lived one block over on Camden. At Wershe’s preliminary exam she testified she saw him walking between the houses between Hampshire and Camden carrying a box. She testified she was sitting on the front porch and Wershe approached her.

         A:  “He asked me could he take the box and put it in the backyard.”
 Q:  “And what do you say to that?
 A:  “I told him no.”
 Q:  “All right. And when you tell him no, does he say anything else to you?”
 A:  “Well, he asked me again and I told him no.”
 Q:  “Is there any conversation about money?”
 A:  “Yeah.”
 Q:  “Tell me how that happened.”
 A:  “Well, after I told him no, he offered me $500. And I told him no again.”

Ms. Story testified Wershe proceeded to her back yard, anyway. She went in the house for a few minutes and didn’t see what he did with the box. She said the next time she saw Wershe he was across the street walking with a police officer between the houses toward his home on Hampshire. He didn’t have the box.

Patricia Story’s testimony sounds straightforward enough but there’s more to know about her. More on that later.

Story’s next door neighbor, David Golly, testified he was sitting on his front porch, next door to the Story home at the same time that Patricia Story was sitting on her porch.

Golly testified under questioning by the case prosecutor that Rick Wershe walked to his porch from the Story front porch after he spoke briefly with Patricia Story.

            Q:  “Has he got anything in his hands?”
     A:  “No.”
    Q:  “When he comes up to your porch, when he comes toward your porch, does he say anything to you?
    A:  “Yeah. He says just watch the backyard.”

Notice Golly contradicts his next door neighbor. Patricia Story testified Wershe had a box in his hands. Golly testified he didn’t. The only thing they agree on is Wershe’s apparent interest in the back yard. There’s more to know about Golly, too. More on that later.

Golly testified he went to the Story back yard with Patricia Story’s father. Together they started looking for a box. Golly says he found it beneath a porch. He told the court Mr. Story panicked and ran back in his house.

Golly says his uncle, known as Moosey Norris, was visiting with him at the time and Uncle Moosey picked up the box and brought it in the Story house at Mr. Story’s invitation. (The man known as Moosey later told a lawyer his real name was Walter Franklin. Whatever his name, Rick Wershe says he was eventually murdered after Rick had gone to prison.) The box was placed in a bedroom, Golly testified. Under cross-examination by defense attorney Bill Bufalino (now deceased) Golly was unequivocal about the box:

       Q:  “After you saw the box under the porch, did you see anybody open that box?
A:  “No.”
Q:  “When the box got put in the bedroom was it still sealed?”
A:  “Yes.”
Q:  “Did you ever see the box opened?”
A:  “No.”
Q:  “So it was closed tight?”
A:  “Yes.”
Q:  “You don’t know what was in it?”
A:  "No."

Hmm. The box is sealed shut, according to Golly’s sworn testimony. Several hours later the police show up at the Story house after a telephoned “anonymous tip.” A police officer takes the box. That officer was the third and final witness at Wershe’s preliminary exam; Detroit Police Officer Greg Woods, a member of the self-styled No Crack Crew of local and federal narcs. The No Crack Crew had been after Rick Wershe for several months.

Woods testified he arrived at the Story house about 10:00 p.m. that night. He said as he arrived the owner of the house was coming out of the house and toward the police officers with a box in his hands. Under prosecution examination Woods says he took possession of the box from Mr. Story.

       Q:  “When you take possession of the box, do you eventually open it or are you present when it is eventually opened?
A:  “It was partially opened at the time, yes. I finally did open the top, yes.”
Q:  “When you first see Mr. Story coming out of the house with that box opened—
A:  “Partially opened, yes.”
Q:  “—had there been policemen inside the house before you saw the box come out?”
A:  “No.”
Q:  “Are you present when the box is completely opened?”
A:  “Yes.

Officer Woods testified when he opened the box he saw what he knew to be wrapped kilos of cocaine. He said there were eight kilos in the box.

At the end of Rick Wershe’s preliminary exam on charges of possession with intent to distribute over 650 grams of cocaine, we are left with the following facts and questions:

  • Rick Wershe and a pal are stopped by the police on a pretext traffic stop.
  • Wershe had a shopping bag of cash but no drugs. His sister grabs the bag before the police can and she runs into her house with the cash.
  • A crowd spills into the street along with dozens of cops.
  • Rick Wershe walks away empty-handed.
  • A teenage neighbor claims she saw Wershe walking between houses toward her house carrying a large box.
  • The neighbor claims Wershe asked her to put the box behind her house. She said no.
  • A second neighbor, who lives next door to the teen witness said he saw Wershe at the same time as the teen, but he testified Wershe wasn’t carrying a box.
  • After Wershe leaves with the police the neighbors search the back yard for a box and they find one. The box is taken in to the teen girl’s house. A neighbor/witness said the box was taped shut.
  • About two hours later, acting on a mysterious anonymous phone tip, the police arrive and take the box. The officer who took possession of the box says it was partially open when he took control of the box.

There are questions which remain unresolved to this day.

  • If Wershe didn’t have box with him when the police made the traffic stop, where did it come from?
  • Who opened the box?
  • Was anything removed from the box?
  • Did Wershe have a box or not? 

This installment of Informant America has just scratched the surface. The mysteries and conflicts surrounding the evidence and testimony used to send Rick Wershe, Jr. to prison for life go even deeper and raise more disturbing questions. More on that next week.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

What does Rick think?

Informant America is focused on the ordeal of Richard J. Wershe, Jr. who is serving a life prison term for a non-violent drug crime committed when he was 17. All others similarly charged in Michigan have been released. The only difference is, Wershe was a confidential informant for the FBI as a teenager and he told on corrupt Detroit cops and the brother-in-law of Coleman Young, the late mayor of the City of Detroit. Wershe appears to be the victim of a vendetta that is determined to keep him in prison until he dies for informing on politically-connected people. From time to time it’s useful and insightful to ask, ‘What does Rick think?’

I had a chat a few days ago by phone with Rick Wershe from Oaks Correctional Facility in Manistee where he spends his days in a cell just a bit larger than the typical residential bathroom. In fact, we had two conversations. He reached out to me the next day to add some additional comments for this blog post. I asked Rick to give me his thoughts about the obstacles and roadblocks he’s encountered trying to get a parole like everyone else who was charged and sent to prison in Michigan under similar circumstances.

After nearly three decades behind bars, Rick Wershe and his family got a ray of hope late last summer when Wershe’s attorney requested a re-sentencing based on appellate and U.S. Supreme Court decisions related to inmates imprisoned when they were juveniles. 

Wershe’s current case judge, Dana Hathaway of Wayne County Circuit Court agreed he should get a revised sentence, essentially to time served, but the Wayne County Prosecutor, Kym Worthy, vigorously opposed the re-sentencing, fighting it all the way to the Michigan Supreme Court where it now awaits a decision. What follows is a lightly edited question-and-answer discussion with Rick Wershe, Jr..

Rick Wershe, Jr. in Wayne County Circuit Court last September. His hopes of finally getting released from his life sentence were dashed when the Wayne County Prosecutor launched an aggressive battle to keep him behind bars. That battle is still being waged and is now before the Michigan Supreme Court for review. (Photo: Brian Kauffman, Detroit Free Press)

Q: How have events in the past year impacted you?

A: “Mostly it’s impacted my kids and grandkids because they got their hopes up and we finally got a judge who saw that the sentence is unjust and then we have someone like Kym Worthy who comes along and makes stuff up to keep me in here.”

Q: What is your reaction to Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy fighting the judge’s effort to reduce your sentence?

A: “I always knew someone down there had something personal against me and to be honest, that just solidified what me and many other people knew. They’re fighting to keep me in jail for a drug crime, for something you give other people five years for now.

“I don’t think she believes in the Constitution when the Constitution says a sentence is unjust and she fights to keep me serving a life sentence and you have our nation’s Supreme Court saying no one who was convicted as a juvenile should be in prison for life for a nonviolent crime.”

Q: Do you think Kym Worthy is continuing a vendetta against you?

A: “I think some of the law enforcement people the government had me cooperate against and something to do with the Damion Lucas murder has a lot to do with her vendetta against me. I think she was friends with someone or someone is telling her what to do. I don’t this woman. I never had any dealings with her, so why would she hate me so bad? She gives murderers, rapists and child molesters plea bargains but she’s fighting to keep me in jail when she says her office is strained for resources.”

Q: Do you think she has a vendetta against you?

A: “I would have to say the answer to that question would be yes. I think she has something against me. I don’t know what it is. I cooperated with her office, I cooperated with the government, what else can I do? Usually (in the criminal justice system) when you cooperate you get something in return. When I read the paper these people who cooperate with her, these murderers, get sentence reductions and this and that and I did it (cooperated) and I’m being punished for it.”

Wershe is keenly aware his one and only parole hearing in 2003 was rigged against him. The Wayne County Prosecutor's Office, then under Michael Duggan who is now Detroit's mayor, marshaled testimony against a parole for Wershe from high ranking police officers with impressive titles but admittedly no knowledge of him or his role in the drug underworld. Previous Informant America blogs have detailed how statements placed in the record against Wershe were false, misleading and in at least one case, coerced. 

Wershe also notes a recent Informant America blog post which explained how the head of the drug crimes unit of the prosecutor's office under Kym Worthy was convicted on charges she conspired with a judge to use perjured testimony to get drug convictions in a case in suburban Inkster. 

"That was 24 months after my parole hearing," Wershe says. "Is anyone going to take note of a pattern here?"  

As we discussed the battle by the criminal justice system to keep him in prison on unsupportable claims that he was a major drug dealer and menace to society, Wershe asked me to include this:

"I know you’ve brought it up before (in Informant America blog posts), but where’s the proof? Where’s the evidence? There is none."

 Wershe has a hard time reconciling his life sentence with the sentences handed down to the truly major cocaine wholesale importers who were above him in the supply chain. The late Art Derrick and an importer in Miami each spent six months in prison and were then released.

"How is it the people that were giving me the drugs on credit, they get six months in prison and they sold thousands of pounds of cocaine in the city of Detroit. They got six months in prison and I get a life sentence as a juvenile? How is that equal justice? Wershe asks in evident frustration. "Our nation’s Supreme Court, it says on the front 'Equal Justice Under law'. How is this equal justice? If this isn’t a vendetta, it’s damned sure not equal justice."

Former Detroit Police Homicide Inspector and later City Council President Gil Hill passed away recently due to illness. He was 84. Hill had been under FBI suspicion for years for obstruction of justice in the homicide investigation of the 1985 murder of 13-year old Damion Lucas who was killed by members of the Johnny Curry drug gang who were trying to intimidate the boy’s uncle who owed them money. They shot up the uncle’s house. The uncle wasn’t home but his nephews, including Damion Lucas, were in the house. The boy was hit in the chest by a machine gun bullet and died in his little brother’s arms.

Afterward, Wershe, who was working as a confidential informant for the FBI in an investigation of the Curry gang, was riding in a car with Johnny Curry when Gil Hill called. Curry put the call on speakerphone and Wershe heard Hill reassure Curry he didn’t have anything to worry about in the Damion Lucas murder investigation because he, Hill, would make sure the investigation didn’t focus on the Currys. Wershe told his FBI handler about the conversation between Curry and Hill. Johnny Curry was sent to prison and in a prison interview he told two FBI agents he paid Gil Hill a $10,000 bribe to keep the investigation away from the Curry drug organization. It worked. The Damion Lucas murder is now in the “cold case” file.

In the early 1990s Wershe helped the FBI—again, but this time from prison—in an undercover sting operation aimed at prosecuting drug-corrupt cops. The sting almost netted Gil Hill who was then a member of the Detroit City Council. The street-savvy Hill was suspicious of the sting operation and backed out, avoiding indictment.

Q: What do you think about Gil Hill’s role in your dilemma?

A: “I believe it was him and (former Detroit U.S. Attorney and Gil Hill associate) Jeffrey Collins who orchestrated that whole thing.”

The late Gil Hill - Longtime boss of the Detroit Police Homicide Section, later a member of the Detroit City Council. (Photo: Paul Sancya, Associated Press)

(This is a reference to Wershe’s 2003 parole hearing where police witnesses who knew nothing about Wershe testified against releasing him on parole and a DEA agent presented to the parole board misleading and questionable “evidence” that Wershe was a major drug dealer.)

“It’s clear he (Hill) knows that I was the one who told the government about the Damion Lucas thing (murder cover-up to protect the Johnny Curry drug gang) and it’s clear I am the one who helped them (FBI) ensnare all these cops in which he got away by the skin of his ass on the police corruption probe. He sat down with these people (undercover FBI agents posing as big-time drug dealers from Miami), he asked them for money and then he (Hill) got spooked and he walked away. It wasn’t like he was conducting an investigation or anything. He was a city councilman. (And) let’s be real; anyone who knows Detroit politics or anyone that knows the Detroit police department from years ago knows Gil Hill was corrupt.

“They can praise him (Hill) all they want, Vince.”

(Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, a former Wayne County Prosecutor who strongly opposed Wershe's parole in a 2003 letter to the parole board, issued a glowing statement about Hill following his death: "Gil Hill spent more than 40 years serving our city in the Detroit Police Department and as a member of the Detroit City Council. He never stopped believing in our city and dedicated his life to making our city a better place for all.")

“They can say he did all this for the city. You have a law enforcement officer saying he watched him take a $10,000 bribe from Johnny Curry. You have Johnny Curry saying he gave him a $10,000 bribe and you have me listening to a phone call (rhw speakerphone call cited above between Hill and Johnny Curry in which Hill reassures Curry he doesn’t need to worry about the homicide investigation of the Damion Lucas murder because he, Hill, will take care of it.). If anyone has any doubt that Gil Hill was corrupt, they’re biased; whether it be Kym Worthy or anyone in Detroit from the mayor on down. If they say Gil Hill wasn’t corrupt they are biased and have their reasons for doing so because Gil Hill was a corrupt cop.”

Q: Do you get bitter sometimes?

A: “Absolutely. Listen, I have good days and bad days. I’m not going to say that I don’t. I’ve been in here almost 29 years. You’ve taken my whole life from me for something that law enforcement got me involved in, and then lied about and wouldn’t stand up and say ‘this is partially our fault.’ Do I blame them totally? No. But I was a 17-year old kid. Did I know selling drugs was wrong? Absolutely. Did I think it would cost me the rest of my life? Absolutely not.”

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Documenting a great injustice - 1-year on

Last week’s Informant America piece on the late Gil Hill was the 52nd post on this blog; one year of writing about the plight of Michigan prison inmate Richard J. Wershe, Jr. What have we learned over the past year? A lot. And a lot of it isn’t pretty. Let’s review.

Disillusionment is one of the burdens of being an adult. We learn the truth about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the cleavage and cheekbones of most Hollywood starlets.

Another disillusionment is what we call justice. The na├»ve and clueless like to think it’s woven in to the fabric of our nation’s laws and rules and that it is the bedrock of our criminal “justice” system. Tain’t so. As a longtime federal judge once told me, “Injustices happen in court every day.”

As a character in one of the novels of British author Terry Pratchett famously said: “There's no justice. Just us.”

Anyone who thinks Richard J. Wershe, Jr. has received anything close to justice is certain to be disillusioned if they look at all the facts.

For those readers who get frustrated with my frequent repetition of the facts in Wershe’s, case, well, too bad. He’s sick of thinking about these facts all day every day year after year after year.

Rick Wershe, Jr. in court last September. (Photo: David Coates, Detroit News)

Wershe is now in the 28th year of a life prison sentence for a non-violent drug crime committed when he was 17. Wershe is not a “Innocence Project” case. He admits he did wrong. But he was a kid. A kid who had been inserted in the dirty dangerous drug underworld by federal agents. He committed a drug crime in the only trade he knew; the one law enforcement taught him. But he also helped law enforcement prosecute some of the people within the system who have enabled the deadly drug trade to flourish. Wershe provided tremendous help to “law and order.”

Every single Michigan prison “lifer” convicted under similar circumstances has been paroled. Multiple murderers and serial rapists and child molesters have gone to prison, done their time and have been paroled in the time Wershe has been behind bars.

The only difference is Wershe, who is white, was recruited by the FBI—at age 14—to help the U.S. Justice (?) Department prosecute a politically-wired black drug gang. Not only did Wershe help the feds nail the drug gang, he also told them about police drug corruption in the top ranks of the Detroit Police Department. And he helped the FBI prosecute and convict a dozen cops and the brother-in-law of Detroit’s then-mayor, Coleman Young in a major drug case. Wershe also told the feds about obstruction of justice by celebrity cop-turned-city-councilman Gil Hill in the murder of a little Detroit boy. For a $10,000 bribe Hill made sure the investigation didn’t touch several members of the Johnny Curry drug gang. Hill was also on the periphery of the FBI undercover sting that netted the dirty cops and the mayor’s brother-in-law. He escaped indictment because of a lack of courage at the federal level. The little boy's murderers have never been brought to justice

There's no justice. Just us.

All of the above is the basis for saying Wershe made enemies in the Detroit Black Caucus. He pissed off the black political power establishment of Detroit by helping the FBI successfully prosecute some of their own. It is the basis for a vendetta against Wershe that has continued to infect the Detroit/Wayne County criminal justice system to this day. No one—white or black—in the criminal justice system wants to cross the Black Caucus. If you think whites have all the power in Michigan, just ask Rick Wershe. As Ralph Musilli, Wershe’s attorney puts it, “he told on the wrong people.”

There's no justice. Just us.

Federal law enforcement is complicit in this for what they didn’t do, for failure to do their duty. That continues to this day, too. A retired FBI agent who was the longtime legal adviser to the FBI’s Detroit office has said, “Wershe was arguably the most productive informant the Detroit division ever had.” Yet, successive FBI special-agents-in-charge of the Detroit office and successive United States attorneys for the Eastern District of Michigan have cravenly refused to step up and push for parole for Richard Wershe, Jr. If they did they’d have to admit the federal government recruited a 14-year old kid to fight in the War on Drugs and when things went awry, they abandoned him, they left him to rot in prison for the rest of his life rather than admit what they did.

There's no justice. Just us.

Over the past year of blog posts, we’ve seen the Michigan Parole Board, which consists of ex-prosecutors, police chiefs and career employees of the Department of Corrections, is accountable to no one. There is no one looking over their shoulder when they decide who to parole and who to keep in prison. If the board says “no interest” in an inmate’s case, that’s the end of it. If there’s new evidence, new circumstances impacting a prisoner’s status, it doesn’t matter. “No interest.” There’s no process in the parole system that allows for the consideration of new information. These 10 people decide, without any outside oversight or review, how millions of taxpayer dollars are spent in terms of keeping people in prison or releasing them. The governor, whoever it may be at any time, is nominally in charge of the parole board but if you look at the governor’s list of priorities, the parole and pardon process is certain to be at the very bottom.

There's no justice. Just us.

In the past year Informant America has shown through law enforcement’s own paper trail that there is no basis—none—for keeping Rick Wershe in prison as a “menace to society.” The Wayne County Prosecutor’s office admits—in writing—“the records do not exist” for claims by that office to the parole board that Rick Wershe was a major drug dealer who led a murderous gang and is a man who deserves to spend the rest of his life in prison. Yet, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy—who is black—continues to spend county tax dollars fighting to keep Wershe—who is white—in prison until he dies, even after her office admitted the records “do not exist” to support that position. Worthy owes her political position to the Detroit Black Caucus which hates Wershe because he helped the FBI try to prosecute two of its most powerful members.

Kym Worthy, Wayne County Prosecutor (Photo: Al Goldis-AP)

There's no justice. Just us.

These blog posts have also shown the willingness to break the law by the people sworn to uphold the law. Perjury—lying under oath on the witness stand—is a felony that is not only acceptable but committed with abandon and impunity by cops and even prosecutors, on occasion. Gerard “Mick” Biernacki, one of the cops who busted Rick Wershe, was known among other cops as Pinocchio for his tendency to lie on the witness stand. He was never prosecuted for perjury.

The late Gerard "Mick" Biernacki, Detroit Police Officer

Yet the criminal justice system proclaims itself to be on the side of the angels. The good guys. The white hats. The heroes. In Rick Wershe’s case, we’ve seen that some Detroit Police narcs routinely commit the felony of perjury while telling themselves the defendant “deserves it.” We’ve seen that a DEA agent submitted bogus “intelligence” information about Rick Wershe to the Michigan parole board to ensure this FBI informant remains behind bars. Who will listen to evidence this agent misled the Michigan Parole Board? Who will do anything about this decades-long injustice?

There's no justice. Just us.
There's no justice. Just us.
There's no justice. Just us.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

A corrupt and vindictive cop passes from the scene

One of Rick Wershe’s tormentors has passed from the scene. Gil Hill pulled a lot of strings to keep Wershe in prison. It worked. He’s still in prison 28 years after his conviction. Hill got even in a devastating way because Wershe helped the FBI investigate corruption in the Detroit Police Department. Hill was among the targets based on Wershe’s information. Not only did he get even—he got away with it.

They buried Gil Hill yesterday. He died early last week from pneumonia brought on by COPD—Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. He was 84.

The newspaper obituaries recalled his high-profile police career, including his stint as the head of the Detroit Police Homicide Section. They noted his minor movie star status from supporting roles as actor Eddie Murphy’s police boss in the Beverly Hills Cop movies. The newspapers wrote about his second career in politics; how he won election to the Detroit City Council, going on to become Council President. They described him as a friend of the city. The obits cited his failed campaign to become mayor. He lost to Kwame Kilpatrick, who was convicted while in office, twice, and who is still serving time in a federal prison.

The late Gil Hill (AP Photo-Paul Sancya)

The Detroit papers—the Free Press and the News—did NOT mention in their obits that Hill had been under FBI suspicion for potential criminal prosecution for official corruption in drug trafficking investigations—twice.

The first case involved possible charges of obstructing justice in the murder of 13-year old Damion Lucas in 1985. The young Detroit boy had been killed by mistake by associates of large-scale drug dealer Johnny Curry. Curry’s cronies shot up the home where the young boy was living as a message to the boy’s uncle who owed the Curry gang for drugs they had fronted to him. The drugs had been confiscated in a police raid and the uncle, Leon Lucas, was on the hook to the Currys for the cost of the drugs. He said he didn’t have the money to pay the Currys. Three members of the Curry gang shot up the Lucas house as a warning. Leon Lucas wasn’t home but his nephews were. The oldest, Damion Lucas, caught a machine gun slug in the chest and died in the arms of his terrified younger brother, Frankie.

Rick Wershe, Jr., who was working secretly as an FBI informant in the Curry investigation, told agent Herman Groman, now retired, that he, Wershe, was present when Johnny Curry had a speakerphone conversation with Gil Hill who assured Curry he didn’t have to worry about the homicide investigation. Wershe says he heard Gil Hill assure Curry that he, Hill, would take care of it. Indeed, he did.

Homicide investigators working under Gil Hill never interrogated Johnny Curry or any of his associates even though the dead boy's uncle told them he believed the Currys were responsible. Instead the homicide detectives who worked for Gil Hill pursued an innocent man for the murder of Damion Lucas. Those charges were eventually dropped. The Currys were never investigated. No one has ever been prosecuted for the Damion Lucas murder.

After Johnny Curry went to prison for drug trafficking he told two FBI agents he paid Gil Hill $10,000 to keep the investigation away from him and his drug organization. Curry said the bribe was paid in Hill’s fifth-floor office in the Homicide section of the Detroit Police Department. Hill denied it to reporters. 

Readers who saw Gil Hill's obit articles in Detroit's two major newspapers last week were not told that he was investigated twice by the FBI for suspected drug-related corruption payoffs. There was no mention of articles like this in 1992. Newcomers to Detroit were not told about the other side of Gil Hill.

The FBI did not accumulate enough evidence to charge Hill for obstructing the investigation of the murder of Damion Lucas.

But the case stuck in the craw of FBI agent Groman. When he was transferred from the Detroit FBI’s drug squad to the public corruption squad, the suspected criminality of Gil Hill was prominent on his radar screen.

In time Groman, along with agents Marty Torgler, Michael Castro and their squad mates devised a plan for an undercover sting operation to find which Detroit police officers might be susceptible to accepting bribes to protect what the cops thought were dope and drug cash shipments transiting through the city.

By now Rick Wershe was in prison, serving a life sentence for a questionable conviction for possession of 17 pounds of cocaine. The Detroit FBI and the Detroit U.S. Attorney, to their enduring shame, did not lift a finger to help Wershe by stepping forward to say Wershe got in the dope business in the first place after helping the FBI as an undercover operative. To do so would require that they publicly admit they had recruited a 14-year old to help them wage the so-called War on Drugs. In a bout of group cowardice, federal law enforcement in Detroit failed to stand up for one of their best confidential informants and allowed him to be doomed to a life in prison.

To their credit several FBI agents who worked with Wershe back then have since expressed willingness to testify in his behalf regarding parole. Over the years and to this day the leadership of the Detroit FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office has been steadfast in a craven refusal to help a man who helped them score major prosecution victories.

In the early 1990s when the Detroit FBI was planning their undercover sting operation to snag cops willing to be corrupted by drug cash, they approached Rick Wershe—in prison—and asked him to help set up the undercover sting operation by vouching for an undercover FBI agent as one of his former Miami “connects” in the dope trade. Wershe was asked to contact Cathy Volsan Curry, the mayor’s niece, to help the undercover agent make the necessary contacts. Wershe and Volsan Curry had had a brief, torrid fling and Wershe knew she had “contacts.”He agreed to help.

Wershe reached out to Volsan Curry and it worked. She consulted with her father, Willie Volsan, a longtime black gangster and dope dealer in Detroit. Before long, a dozen or so police officers were in on the scheme to provide police protection for supposed drugs and cash being flown in to Detroit’s City Airport. The private plane was piloted by FBI agents.

Volsan, as the mayor’s brother-in-law, was well-connected to the upper ranks of the Detroit Police Department. Among his pals was Gil Hill.

Gil Hill, left, meeting with Willie Volsan (back to camera) and Sgt. James Harris. Volsan and Harris were indicted and convicted in an FBI undercover sting operation. (FBI surveillance photo)

At this point, Hill had retired from the police department and he was now a member of the Detroit City Council. Detroit is always starved for heroes and Hill’s status as a former “movie star” aided his rising political popularity.

Always the savvy street cop, Hill was suspicious of the sting operation even as he was intrigued by the payoff money to be made. In a manner of speaking Hill circled the scheme like a vulture, evaluating whether it was a set up.

There was a meeting at the Detroit FBI office on how to proceed. The evidence against the targeted cops was solid. The debate was over what to do about Gil Hill. it was a toss-up as to whether there was enough evidence to win his conviction from a jury.

The case agents argued in favor of indicting Hill. U.S. Attorney Stephen Markman, now a Michigan Supreme Court Justice weighing Wershe’s pending appeal to lower his sentence, also was reportedly in favor of going forward against Hill. 

The lone dissenter was Hal Helterhoff, the Special Agent in Charge of the Detroit FBI office. Helterhoff was the on-site manager for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He had to sign off on the prosecution of any case investigated by the FBI. Helterhoff was thoroughly indoctrinated in the headquarters culture which is essentially summed up by the aphorism, ‘Big case, big problems. Small case, small problems. No case, no problems.’

Helterhoff hailed from northern Wisconsin and he relished running the Detroit office which allowed him to drive through northern Michigan to upper Wisconsin on many weekends to visit and hang out with his family. He didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize his perch in the Detroit office. A transfer to another field office in another state is the last thing he wanted. If Hill was indicted but acquitted, a transfer for Helterhoff was a distinct possibility. 

At the meeting Helterhoff insisted the Hill portion of the case needed more evidence. That was the effective end of the Hill portion of the investigation. The agents knew the street-savvy Hill would smell the sting operation and back out. For the second time in 10 years Gil Hill escaped federal indictment for corruption.

There’s another element in all of this that no one wants to talk about. Gil Hill was black. Gil Hill was a hero to many in the black community who didn’t know the dark side of his career. To many he was a legendary homicide detective and movie-star. Far fewer knew he was corrupt and only too willing to be bribed to break the law. Even fewer knew how frightened the mighty U.S. Justice Department is when it comes to prosecuting black heroes. It takes an extraordinary set of circumstances for the Hal Helterhoffs of the Justice Department to risk asking a jury to convict a black hero. Federal law enforcement is all too aware of what happened in the O.J. Simpson murder trial. While some “leaders” of the black community complain loudly about FBI persecution of high profile blacks, what isn’t discussed is how often corrupt black politicians facing substantial evidence of criminality escape prosecution because of their iconic public status.

Some say Gil Hill blamed Rick Wershe for thwarting his bid to become mayor of the city of Detroit. If it weren't for Wershe's informant tips, the FBI wouldn't have been after Hill and there wouldn't be those pesky headlines associating him with drug corruption. 

There is significant evidence that Gil Hill played a lead role in a collaborative scheme to mislead the Michigan Parole Board in 2003 to ensure that Rick Wershe, Jr. remained in prison. The parole board was given false and misleading "evidence" that Wershe was/is a menace to society. That so-called evidence has been spelled out in past blog posts on Informant America.

This story was not mentioned in the newspaper obits last week for Gil Hill.

In one FBI court-authorized surveillance recording in 1991 Volsan and Hill were in a meeting with undercover agents and the discussion turned to Hill’s political future. He said he wasn’t sure if he should run for re-election to the city council or make a run for mayor. Volsan asked him which office he would run for. Hill expressed concern about subjecting himself to a high profile political campaign.

“I got skeletons in my closet,” Hill told Volsan.

One of those skeletons belongs to murder victim Damion Lucas who has never had justice. Another skeleton in Hill’s closet is still alive. He’s spending his life in prison for helping the FBI try to root out corrupt cops like Gil Hill. Detroit’s black political machine has worked for years to nurture and sustain a vendetta to keep his living skeleton behind bars, and it has succeeded.  His name is Richard J. Wershe, Jr.