Sunday, January 15, 2017

Rick Wershe, Jr. is Waiting—and Hoping—for Freedom

Next month will mark the 29th year that Richard J. Wershe, Jr., known in the media as White Boy Rick, has been in prison for a non-violent drug offense. The Michigan Parole Board, at long last, seems interested in granting him parole.

Rick Wershe, Jr., about age 12 in this snapshot, had no way of knowing that a few years later he would be a paid secret informant for the FBI in an adventure that would put him in prison the rest of his life. (Photo courtesy of Dave Majkowski.)

The waiting must be hard. The not knowing must be harder. After years of waiting, after years of disappointment, things are moving. Rick Wershe’s life prison sentence may be coming to an end. Next month he has a critical, formal interview with a member of the Michigan Parole Board. 

If that goes well, if Rick appears ready to return to society, the Parole board member will report to the full board, which will then vote whether to consider Rick Wershe for parole. A public hearing is mandatory, but the Parole Board could decide no testimony is necessary, that they’ve decided to finally grant Wershe parole. A 29-year ordeal could be over in a matter of minutes.

Between now and the middle of February, Rick Wershe is left to sit in a cell the size of an oversized home bathroom or walk around in the prison exercise yard or watch TV and try to keep his mind off the clock and the calendar. The waiting must be hard. The not knowing must be harder.

I spoke with Rick over the Christmas holidays. Frankly, I think he’s afraid to hope. Wershe is not the kind of guy to be afraid of much of anything or anybody, but this is different. He’s been disappointed so many times. He’s afraid to get his hopes up. Wershe has developed a bit of a protective emotional shell over the years. He secretly hopes for the best but his public face says he’s prepared for the worst, which is more of the same. It’s the only way to keep his sanity. It’s the only way to avoid sinking in to the depths of despair. He’s good at bracing himself for bad news. Life in prison has done that to him. Still. This time, things seem different.

For those new to the Rick Wershe saga, here’s the semi-succinct back story:

Wershe was a 14-year old Detroit white kid living in a racially mixed neighborhood when the FBI came calling, wanting him to become a paid informant against some guys he knew; a black family named Curry. They were rising stars in Detroit’s cocaine scene. And they had political connections. Leader Johnnie Curry was married to Cathy Volsan, the niece of Detroit Mayor Coleman Young. That automatically gave Johnnie Curry real juice, which included receiving police narcotics intelligence reports from politically ambitious cops. Wershe knew the Currys through the youngest Curry brother, Rudell "Boo" Curry. The Currys trusted him.

Rick Wershe, by all accounts, did a good job for a joint federal/local narcotics task force. He also found out about corruption in the top ranks of the police department. He told the FBI about that, too. He learned Johnnie Curry had paid Gil Hill, the head of Detroit Police Homicide, to make a murder investigation go away. the victim was an innocent 13-year old boy, shot to death accidentally by members of the Curry gang.

When the FBI got the evidence they needed to indict and convict the Curry gang, the feds abandoned Wershe, their confidential informant, cold. A school dropout with no family to turn to, young Rick Wershe decided he, too, would become a dope dealer, a wholesaler. It was, of course, a bad decision. 

The Detroit police found out quickly and busted him. Gullible reporters who depend on leaks and tips from the cops for their news stories, had a field day smearing Rick Wershe as White Boy Rick, the white teen boss of Detroit’s cocaine underworld. They never stopped to ask how a white kid, arrested before he was 18, a kid who couldn’t grow a decent moustache, could give orders to prison-hardened, sometimes murderous, adult black dope dealers. Under a harsh Michigan law that has since been repealed, Rick Wershe was sentenced at age 18 to life in prison for a non-violent drug crime. He’s been there to this day.

Along the way, he continued helping the FBI—from prison. He disrupted two murder plots but he also helped set up an undercover sting of corrupt cops, including Gil Hill who by this time was a politically powerful city council member. Nearly a dozen cops were indicted but Hill escaped arrest, narrowly. He now knew, however, that Rick Wershe had been telling on him for years. Hill didn’t get mad. He got even.

When Wershe finally came up for a parole hearing, Hill and his cronies stacked the deck with police witnesses, some of whom misled the board, and some presented false and misleading “confidential” informant reports. Yet three FBI agents testified in favor of Wershe’s release.

The Parole Board, apparently mindful of Wershe’s media reputation as White Boy Rick, the drug kingpin and drug lord and menace to society, turned him down for parole. Gill Hill the apparent organizer of a law enforcement vendetta against Rick Wershe, died last year.

Now the Parole Board is back and considering parole for Rick Wershe. This time may be different.

Over the years Wershe’s attorneys have been battling for his release on the basis of civil rights violations. It is Constitutionally prohibited cruel and unusual punishment to treat one prisoner differently from all other prisoners incarcerated for the same offense.

Michigan has granted reduced sentences and paroles to well over a hundred inmates who, like Wershe, were sentenced to long prison terms as juveniles for non-violent drug crimes. Everyone fitting this case description has had a second chance. Everyone except Rick Wershe.

This is an aerial photo of Oaks Correctional Facility in Manistee, Michigan where Rick Wershe is housed as Inmate # 193024. (Photo: InmateAid)

In December, Wershe’s attorneys filed a motion for a writ of habeas corpus in Detroit federal court. They already have a civil rights lawsuit for Wershe in play in Grand Rapids federal court, but it's moving slowly. The December legal move compels the State of Michigan, through the Attorney General’s office, to show the court why Wershe should remain in prison while the state is releasing a long list of others who were jailed on similar charges. They have until June to respond formally and in detail.

It appears to be one court battle too many for the State of Michigan. Less than a week after the habeas corpus filing, the Parole Board announced they were moving up Wershe’s next scheduled consideration for parole from next December to this spring. If they grant him parole in, say, April, the habeas corpus case goes away. The civil rights lawsuit goes away. The increasing media questions about why they are treating Wershe differently than every other drug lifer will go away. Those are good reasons to think this time may be different. Rick Wershe sure hopes so.

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