Sunday, July 3, 2016

A new foul odor in the Rick Wershe Case

Just when it seemed all the stench surrounding the case of former FBI informant and current life prison-term inmate Richard J. Wershe, Jr. was out in the open, along comes the Detroit Police Department with a fresh pile of manure that stinks really bad. Read on but you may want to hold your nose.

Long, long ago, when I was a rookie reporter in Detroit, I sat down for an important background briefing and discussion with Neil J. Welch, now deceased, who was the head of the FBI for that city at the time. Welch was a veteran of J. Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation but he was forward-thinking and believed the FBI needed to expand its work beyond chasing bank robbers, fugitives and Communists.

For my part, I was hot to pursue organized crime cases, a crime category the FBI was revving up to pursue. The Godfather was a blockbuster movie in that era and I wanted Welch to help me develop news stories about the Mob. He agreed organized crime was a serious problem that needed media exposure, but Welch encouraged me to report on another category of crime, too.

“Vince,” Welch said in his slow, raspy voice, “Public corruption in Michigan is wall to wall. It’s everywhere. It needs to be exposed in the media and prosecuted in the federal courts.”

The late Neil J. Welch, FBI executive. Decades ago he said public corruption in Michigan is "wall to wall." (Associated Press photo)

In a bizarre twist of fate, Welch was promoted to Assistant FBI Director in charge of the New York City office just a few days before the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa. The new boss of the Detroit FBI had not arrived when Hoffa disappeared. For his part, Welch aggressively pursued public corruption as head of the New York office. The result of his effort was the famous Abscam case, which led to the convictions of six U.S. Representatives, one U.S. Senator, a New Jersey State Senator, several members of the Philadelphia City Council and the mayor of Camden, New Jersey, all for accepting bribes in an FBI sting operation.

The advice I received about wall to wall public corruption in Michigan way back when from Neil Welch came back to mind late this past week when I received a letter from the Corporation Counsel—the city attorney—for Detroit, responding to my Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for copies of everything the Detroit Police Department had in its files regarding Richard J. Wershe, Jr., the teen FBI informant they arrested and prosecuted as a Godfather-like dope lord, smearing him for life with the nickname White Boy Rick.

FOIA is a state law in Michigan and in theory it is supposed to compel units of government to be open about how they conduct their business. With some exceptions spelled out in the state law, the records of municipal and state agencies, including police departments, must be made available when sought under the FOIA statute. In practice, far too many units of government in Michigan turn over only those documents they feel like turning over. Michigan’s FOIA law has no teeth, and that’s by design. State lawmakers don’t want the seedy inner workings of some parts of government exposed.

I had asked for everything the Detroit Police had on Wershe; investigative documents and reports, witness statements, surveillance reports, photos— e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g. I told them Rick Wershe, Jr. was willing to sign a sworn, notarized affidavit waiving his right to privacy regarding my request, which was true. “Privacy considerations” is a major dodge used to avoid turning over documents sought through FOIA at the state and federal level. There’s a federal FOIA law, too. Like state government, federal agencies work hard to find ways to evade the federal Freedom of Information Act. There are workshops and seminars on how government agencies can legally resist the FOIA laws, but I digress.

The City of Detroit’s first response to my FOIA request was dumbfounding. With the exception of a single page—one document—they denied my request for their files on Wershe because “the case was handled by the Federal Government.”


City of Detroit response to a FOIA request for the Police Department's entire file on Richard J. Wershe, Jr.

A DEA agent, Richard Crock, had worked with Detroit Police narcs to make a case against Wershe as part of a federal drug task force where federal agents and local cops co-mingled to make important cases. But Wershe is in a state prison on a state conviction in a trial prosecuted by the Wayne County Prosecutor who is responsible for state prosecutions.

The lone Detroit Police document on Wershe, provided to me in response to my FOIA request was a sheet labeled Recorders Court Disposition. Recorder’s Court is what they used to call the criminal court for Detroit. It is now called the Third Judicial Circuit Court Criminal Division.

The sheet describes Wershe’s conviction under state law. There is no mention of federal law enforcement anywhere on the one document the Detroit Police Department claims to have in its file on Richard J. Wershe, Jr.

A portion of the one and only document the Detroit Police Department claims it has on Richard J. Wershe, Jr.

I happen to have a copy of the witness list from Wershe’s 1988 Recorder’s Court trial, obtained from the court’s own file. The prosecution’s law enforcement witnesses were:
  • Rodney Grandison, Detroit Police Officer
  • Gerard Biernacki, Detroit Police Officer
  • Gregory Woods, Detroit Police Officer
  • and a couple of evidence and lab technicians.

Special Agent Crock was not called as a witness. Not a single federal agent was called as a prosecution witness. Not one. The only law enforcement investigators to testify against Richard J. Wershe, Jr. at his trial where he was sentenced to life in prison were Detroit cops.

I appealed the city’s refusal to turn over the documents I sought under FOIA, citing the ludicrous denial based on the claim “the case was handled by the Federal Government.” The one Detroit Police document they turned over to me completely refuted their own claim.

I also know Richard J. Wershe, Jr. has never been a defendant in ANY federal court for anything. He’s never been charged as a co-conspirator in any drug case. His name never came up in any of the big drug cases in Detroit federal court in the late 80s or at any other time. His name won’t be found in any federal criminal prosecution. Period.

My appeal of the city’s FOIA denial was denied. The second denial letter, received a few days ago, acknowledges my assertion that it is ridiculous to claim the Detroit Police don't have any records on Wershe because Wershe’s case was handled by the federal government when he was prosecuted in Detroit’s criminal court—Recorder’s Court. When that line didn’t work, they said they have no records on Rick Wershe. None.

The appeal denial by the City of Detroit legal department states:

“Please be advised that, in accordance with Section 10(2)(b) of the Act, MCL 15,240(2)(b), the disclosure denial regarding your request is upheld pursuant to Section 5(4)(b) of the Act, MCL 15.235(4)(b), for the reason that, based upon information provided by DPD personnel, it is our understanding that the department does not possess any record that corresponds to the description in your request. Specifically, a search was conducted for the file, but the file could not be located.”

“…a search was conducted for the file, but the file could not be located.”

Gosh darn. Imagine that. The file on a man the Detroit Police and Wayne County Prosecutor labeled a “drug kingpin” and drug “lord”, a white kid who supposedly ruled the roost of Detroit’s murderous, mostly-black crack cocaine underworld Godfather-style in the 1980s, “could not be located.” Poof. It vanished. Just like that. A man they sent to prison for life as a teenager now has no file in the Detroit Police Department. First they tried to claim everything about him was handled by federal agents. When that lie was exposed for what it is, they now claim the Wershe file cannot be located. They have nothing in their files about him.

Does this sound plausible to you? More to the point, how does this smell to you?

Oh, and don’t forget. Last year the Wayne County Prosecutor sent me the same kind of denial in response to my FOIA request to that office.

“After a diligent search for the requested records, we have determined and certify the records do not exist.”

That’s the FOIA response last year from Prosecutor Kym Worthy, who has fought aggressively and tenaciously through the Michigan appeals courts to keep Rick Wershe in prison at all costs.

Does this sound plausible to you? More to the point, how does this smell to you?

Let’s go over the facts again. Rick Wershe was recruited at age 14 by the FBI to inform on the Curry Brothers drug gang because he knew them. The FBI was interested in the Currys because Johnny Curry was married to Cathy Volsan, the niece of the late Detroit Mayor Coleman Young. Wershe did a good job for the FBI. Too good. He also told on crooked cops. He told his FBI handler about Johnny Curry’s close relationship with Detroit Police Homicide Inspector Gil Hill who thwarted the investigation of the murder of a 13-year old boy to protect the Curry gang. The Curry group had inadvertently killed the kid. After he went to prison Curry told FBI agents he paid Hill $10,000 to make the homicide investigation take a wrong turn. It did. Hill went on to a second career on the Detroit city council where he eventually became council president and ran unsuccessfully for mayor.

When the FBI had no further use of Wershe, they dropped him cold. A school dropout from a dysfunctional family, Wershe turned to the only trade he knew, the one law enforcement had taught him. He tried to become a cocaine wholesaler and got busted by the Detroit Police. The FBI did not come to his aid. Wershe was sent to prison for life. Even so, he continued helping the FBI—from prison. He helped them nail a dozen or so corrupt cops in a drug sting operation that also netted Willie Volsan, Cathy Volsan’s father and the brother-in-law of Mayor Young. After that there was no doubt Rick Wershe was the source of a lot of trouble for important people. As his attorney, Ralph Musilli says, "he cost some important people a lot of money."

In the process, Wershe made powerful enemies; Coleman Young and Gil Hill. Together they had enormous influence over Detroit’s black political power structure. Barbara Sampson, a member of that black power structure and a member of the Michigan Parole Board once astounded other members of the Parole Board by claiming Richard J. Wershe, Jr.—White Boy Rick—was singlehandedly responsible for the destruction of the City of Detroit. That’s a ridiculous claim, of course, but it’s instructive about the view of Rick Wershe that has pervaded Detroit’s black political clique for years. That same clique is responsible for the political career of current Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, who is fighting to keep Wershe in prison even after admitting her office doesn’t have any documentation to support opposition to parole for Wershe.

As has been noted numerous times, Rick Wershe is no angel. He admits that. He was wrong to try to become a mogul in the dope trade. But he didn’t make it. Guys who slung far more dope than Rick Wershe ever saw in his life, guys like Johnny and Leo Curry, have been to prison and are out again while Wershe remains behind bars. His biggest mistake was in telling on politically-connected criminals. He’s white and they are black. That’s an inescapable factor. 28 years is far more time than even convicted hitmen do.

With the exception of Wayne County Circuit Court judge Dana Hathaway, who has indicated she thinks Wershe should be re-sentenced under current Michigan law and State Supreme Court rulings, the courts in Michigan have been perfectly willing to let a great injustice go unchallenged in order to avoid riling Detroit’s black power structure.

Wershe and attorney Ralph Musilli have fought all the way to the Michigan Supreme Court trying to get him treated the same as over a hundred other Michigan prison inmates who have had their cases sent back for reconsideration by the trial court because they were sentenced when they were juveniles.

On June 22nd, in one of the most craven rulings on record, the Michigan Supreme Court refused to send Wershe’s case back to the trial court as they have done with dozens and dozens of other defendants. The Wershe ruling is craven—cowardly—because the Michigan Supreme Court offered no explanation, no case law—and no signatures from any of the Justices. It was an unsigned order, which is allowed, but it is spineless. The order says an anonymous “we” are “not persuaded” Wershe’s case should be reviewed. There’s no explanation but here’s a good bet as to what is behind their Wershe decision: what the Michigan Supreme Court is saying is “we” don’t want to incur the wrath of the black political power structure, so we’re willing to turn our backs on injustice. After all, Michigan Supreme Court justices are elected.

Key words in the Michigan Supreme Court's recent refusal to review the life sentence for Richard J. Wershe, Jr.

As Neil Welch of the FBI told me long ago, “Vince, public corruption in Michigan is wall to wall." But not all corruption involves bribes. Some corruption is moral. It involves the failure to do what’s right. It involves the failure to uphold justice—as the Michigan Supreme Court has done in the case of Richard J. Wershe, Jr.

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