Sunday, April 17, 2016

Rick Wershe is serving life for a shaky and shady drug conviction - Pt. 4

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.


The previous three blog posts on Informant America have recounted the discrepancies and police misconduct that surrounded Richard J. Wershe Jr.’s arrest on a drug charge that has kept him in prison for 28 years—all of his adult life.

Richard J. Wershe, Jr. in court, September, 2015 (David Coates, Detroit News via AP)

Here, one more time, is a recap of Wershe’s arrest the night of May 22, 1987:

  • Rick Wershe and a pal are stopped by the police on a pretext traffic stop near his home.
  • 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 curious 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, an adult male 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.
  • Wershe is found by the police and taken in to custody. As the police walk him back to the scene of the traffic stop Officer Rodney Grandison suddenly pistol whips Wershe, shattering his eye socket. He is thrown to the ground, then Grandison and another officer handcuff him and lift him by a gold chain around his neck. Next they throw him by the neck and chain, while handcuffed, over a fence gate. Other officers arrive and beat and stomp Wershe while he’s on the ground. The beating was so severe Wershe was taken to a hospital instead of jail that night.
  • Afterward the neighbors search the back yard for a box and they find one under a porch. 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.

When the case came up for preliminary exam—a procedure where a judge listens to enough testimony and considers enough evidence to decide whether the case should go to a jury—one of the first things Bill Bufalino, Wershe’s defense attorney, did was file a motion to suppress the evidence, the evidence being the box containing eight kilos of cocaine. This is something any good defense attorney would do, especially in a case like this.

In a previous blog post Rick Wershe said he did receive a cocaine shipment that day but he never saw it or touched it. His friends had it. Wershe said the shipment contained ten kilos of cocaine, not eight. Yet when the police took custody of the box that night, it had been opened by someone and they reported only eight kilos were inside. The neighbors said when they retrieved the box it was taped shut. Either the neighbor-witnesses are lying and one of them stole two kilos of cocaine, or the police opened the box, helped themselves to two kilos of cocaine, and turned in as evidence a box with eight kilos.

The prosecution didn't exactly have a slam-dunk case. A conviction was less than assured. But Rick Wershe made a fateful mistake between the preliminary exam and his trial several months later.

He listened to the advice of Cathy Volsan Curry, the niece of Detroit mayor Coleman Young. Wershe had been sleeping with Cathy Volsan Curry whose husband was in prison for a drug conviction brought about as a result of Wershe’s undercover work as an FBI informant. Wershe says she initiated the affair.

Cathy Volsan Curry (FBI Surveillance photo)

After his arrest, Wershe says Ms. Volsan Curry urged him to replace Bufalino as his defense attorney with a black defense team; attorneys Ed Bell and Sam Gardner. She told Wershe her “family” said it would be the smart thing to do.

Bell and Gardner were former county judges with plenty of experience with criminal legal procedure, both were major figures in Black politics in Detroit and both were closely allied with Coleman Young. Mayor Young, now deceased, was almost certainly embarrassed to have the husband of his favorite niece doing time in prison for being a cocaine kingpin in his city. Mayor Young was almost certainly embarrassed in equal measure to have his favorite niece sleeping with a young white guy charged with possessing a large quantity of cocaine.

What we don’t know is exactly when Coleman Young found out Richard Wershe, Jr. was a paid FBI confidential informant, a “stool pigeon” in the mayor’s vocabulary. That, most assuredly, would put hizzoner over the edge. The FBI had been trying to make a criminal case against Coleman Young dating back to the Red Scare Days of the early 50s when Young was suspected of being a Communist sympathizer. The animosity between Coleman Young and the FBI was mutual. As one FBI agent put it, “We considered him a target and he considered us the enemy.”

Rick Wershe listened to Cathy Volsan Curry and hired Bell and Gardner to take charge of his defense. Bufalino was still on the team but he was now playing second string to the two black attorneys.

The late William Bufalino II

Bufalino believed the mysterious box of cocaine was evidence that could be successfully challenged in court. “’Well if Rick had a box that was taped shut, this couldn’t be the same box,’” Wershe remembers Bufalino saying. Bufalino knew the police and the prosecutor didn’t have a good answer for that. And therein was hope for an acquittal or a strong issue for appeal.

Greg Woods, the police narc who took custody of the box from the neighbors some two hours after Wershe was arrested, testified the box was definitely open when he took custody of it.

Clearly, the box of cocaine was a matter of dispute, which is something any defense attorney would consider ammunition for acquittal or appeal.

The late Ed Bell

Yet, the first thing Bell did when he took over Wershe’s defense was to withdraw Bufalino’s motion to suppress the evidence in the case.

"I remember him (Bufalino) and Bell got in to a big thing about that,” Wershe told me in a recent phone interview from prison. "Bill didn’t understand why he (Bell) withdrew the motion to suppress. Bill explained it to me like, ‘Rick, why withdraw a motion that can’t hurt us no matter what? If we win, they have no evidence, (if not) we’re right in the same place that we are.’"

Q: What was Bell’s argument?
A: “That he had things going on behind the scenes. 'Don’t worry about nothin’. He told both of us that.”

Bell had things going on behind the scenes, alright. But it wasn’t with the trial judge. More likely it was a get-even scheme cooked up with Coleman Young to get rid of Wershe, the FBI informant, forever, without resorting to murder. Both men knew Wershe was facing mandatory life in prison without parole.

"That’s when Bill told me, he said, ‘Rick, I think he sold you out,'" Wershe recalls Bufalino telling him. "'There’s no rational reason to pull this motion. None. If we win, we party. If we lose we’re right in the same situation.’ He said, ‘So tell me, why would we pull it?’"

Rick Wershe lost. A jury convicted him. He was sentenced to prison for life. He’s still there. Eventually the Michigan Supreme Court and the legislature changed Michigan’s “650” law which said anyone convicted of possession of more than 650 grams of cocaine must serve a mandatory life without parole sentence.

After years in prison Wershe got a parole hearing. Once. In 2003. At that hearing, attorney Bufalino testified under oath before the Michigan Parole Board. He didn’t mince words.

"It was Bell and Gardner,” Bufalino testified. “They guaranteed him (Wershe) that he would walk. They pulled a motion, a dispositive motion on a search and seizure issue regarding this case. They pulled the motion. They hung this boy out to dry."

Bufalino also testified the Mayor of the City of Detroit, Coleman Young, thought the Rick Wershe case was important enough to stick his nose in it, a most unusual thing for a mayor to do; meddle in a criminal case.

"I was personally told by Coleman Young that this...'stay out of this'," Bufalino said Young warned him. "This is bigger than you think it is."

Any fair-minded person considering a man for parole would sit up and take notice of this accusation from a veteran defense attorney. Bufalino testified to the parole board that Detroit Mayor Coleman Young had interfered in a most sinister and unusual way in a pending criminal case that involved his personal family through Cathy Volsan Curry.

No one on the Michigan Parole Board followed up. No one asked Bufalino, now deceased, to elaborate and explain about this interference in the case that had Rick Wershe before them.

Rick Wershe trusted Cathy Volsan Curry and it was, perhaps, the third-biggest mistake of his life. The second-biggest was his decision to try to become a drug wholesaler after the federal drug task force dropped him as a paid informant and left him to fend for himself as a school dropout with nowhere to turn. His first-biggest mistake had to be his decision to work as a 14-year old confidential informant for the FBI.

“Cathy said her family said I should hire them (Bell and Gardner) because they were the ones that could help me the most,” Wershe remembers her saying.

They helped him alright. They helped him right in to the clothes he would wear the rest of his life: prison jumpsuits.

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