Sunday, March 26, 2017

White Boy Rick movie filming begins; Rick Wershe waits for Parole Board Decision

Rick Wershe still hasn’t heard from the Michigan Parole Board on whether they will consider a parole from his life sentence in a non-violent drug case. Meanwhile, the cameras are rolling on a film based on his story.

They didn’t have time to get to his case at their monthly meeting. That’s the story coming from the Michigan Parole Board, which was supposed to consider moving forward on the process of granting Richard J. Wershe, Jr. parole after 29 years in prison for a non-violent drug crime committed when he was a teenager.

They were supposed to consider the Wershe case at the March 10th meeting of the Michigan Parole Board. But gosh darn it all, they just ran out of time, they say. So, they’ll take it up next month at their monthly meeting on April 14th.

Telling it like it is, the Parole Board is under pending court pressure because Wershe has been treated differently than every other Michigan inmate charged with a non-violent drug crime as a juvenile. Every one of them has been given parole consideration—except Rick Wershe. That’s cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Richard J. Wershe, Jr. (Photo: Michigan Dept. of Corrections)

Wershe has several cases against the State of Michigan cooking in federal courts.

In addition, media interest in his case has been growing, aided in no small part by the fact Hollywood has discovered the Rick Wershe story and they are making a movie about it.

But appearances count in politics and public agencies and the Michigan Parole Board don't want to appear to be succumbing to pressure. So…Rick Wershe continues to wait to hear about a possible parole.


They love Rick Wershe in Cleveland. More specifically, the Greater Cleveland Film Commission and a growing community of film production professionals in Cleveland love Rick Wershe because the movie about him is being filmed there. Production is now underway. Why Cleveland? Why not Detroit, where the story occurred?

It's all about money. States vie for movie projects these days with tax incentives and financial rebates.The State of Ohio and the City of Cleveland are working to attract Hollywood feature productions through financial incentives for the filmmakers. 

The State of Michigan, in its wisdom, decided not to compete in the film production arena. 

In the summer of 2015, Gov. Rick Snyder signed a bill to end Michigan’s incentive program for film productions. The program was bringing in about $225 million annually in Michigan spending by movie companies. Apparently, that was chump change to Lansing. The state opted instead to give billions of dollars in tax incentives to the Big Three automakers to please, please, please build new factories in Michigan and, oh please, oh pretty please, don’t take the money, create temporary jobs and later replace the human workers with robots.

And there’s no point talking about the millions upon millions in tax incentives heaped on billionaire pro sports team owners to build yet another new stadium or arena where they can suck up even more millions from the entertainment-starved locals. But I digress.

The bottom line, to use an overworked phrase, is Cleveland and Ohio offered a 30% incentive to shoot the film there. Detroit and Michigan offered 2%. You don't have to be a math whiz to figure out where the movie people decided to take their business. 

Ivan Schwarz, president and CEO of the Greater Cleveland Film Commission, says Rick Wershe has, in a way, helped the economy of his city.

"Millions of dollars are going to be spent in our state, creating jobs and creating economic development for a city that really needs it,” Schwarz told me. “It’s sort of ironic that his War on Drugs story turns out to be an economic boon for the film industry in Ohio.”

Schwarz says Ohio, like several other states, is actively courting Hollywood to shoot movies in their cities and countryside and, he argues, giving the production companies tax and rebate packages pays dividends.

"(The White Boy Rick film has) a significant budget with significant talent that is shooting in this state and creating real jobs and putting real food on people’s tables," Schwarz says. "Really, that’s what it’s about. The trickle down is huge.”

Alas, political pooh-bahs of Michigan don’t see it that way, so the cameras are rolling in Cleveland.

Matthew McConaughey (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Matthew McConaughey has the starring role in the movie as Rick Wershe’s father, Richard Wershe, Sr.

Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie (Photos: Wikimedia Commons)

Veteran actor Bruce Dern will play the part of Rick Wershe’s grandfather and actress Piper Laurie has the role of his grandmother. Wershe’s father and grandparents are deceased.

Others in the cast include Rory Cochrane and Jennifer Jason Leigh as FBI agents.

Rory Cochrane and Jennifer Jason Leigh (Photos: Wikimedia Commons)

Cochrane was in Argo, Dazed and Confused and Black Mass. Jennifer Jason Leigh received an Oscar nomination for her role in The Hateful Eight. Early in her career she appeared in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Leigh is known to have been in contact recently with retired FBI agents who were assigned to Detroit during the time Rick Wershe was a paid teen informant. She’s made an effort to research the role, asking questions that will help her bring authenticity to the screen.

R.J. Cyler (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

R.J. Cyler, the Blue Power Ranger in the Power Rangers movie, recently signed to play the role of Rudell "Boo" Curry, the youngest brother of the family drug gang Rick Wershe infiltrated and informed on for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Rick Wershe was recruited by the FBI to become a secret informant because he was known and trusted by the Curry Brothers, a cocaine gang with political connection that had attracted the attention of federal investigators.

Wershe had a most unusual visitor recently. Matthew McConaughey, the actor, spent close to five hours visiting with Wershe at the Oaks Correctional Facility in Manistee, where he is serving his prison term.

McConaughey was accompanied by Scott Franklin, the movie’s producer and Yann Demange, the director.

Wershe says it was a get-acquainted visit. They talked and laughed and shared personal stories. They are about the same age but they are, as Wershe observes, from two different worlds. He was impressed with McConaughey’s interest in playing the role and he marveled that the Hollywood star was “super down to earth.”

“It made me feel great about him playing my father,” Wershe told me. “Funny thing is, me and my Dad always loved him as an actor. I only wish I could tell him that Matthew is playing him, but who knows? Maybe he’s looking down from up there.”

What about the other inmates? How did they feel about a movie star visiting Oaks prison?

“There was a buzz, but nothing big,” Wershe says. “They just thought it was cool that he took the time to come see me.”

Wershe appreciated the response of the prison staff, too. He says everyone behaved professionally and no one pestered McConaughey for autographs or posed pictures.

He doesn’t say so, but you can tell Rick Wershe is impressed and moved by all of this high-wattage attention. But the most important attention of all will come from the Parole Board, presumably next month.


Full disclosure: I was hired early in the movie production process by Studio 8, the outfit making the White Boy Rick film, to advise one of the script writers about factual matters regarding Detroit, the Detroit Police Department, city politics and the like. I did not get involved in any of the script writing. My brief role was what might be called an historical adviser.

Currently I am hard at work on a non-fiction book about the Rick Wershe saga and how it fit in to the War on Drugs in the 1980s. There were national and international forces and events that had an effect on what happened to Rick Wershe. I intend to tell that tale.


Sunday, March 12, 2017

For Rick Wershe, the Waiting Has to be Hard

For Rick Wershe, these have to be hard days. There is genuine cause for optimism that his lifelong prison nightmare may have an end in sight. But to the “corrections” system he is still nothing more than No. 192034. He is reminded of it every day.

The Michigan Parole Board met Friday and considered the possibility of parole for some state prison inmates. One of them was Richard, J. Wershe, Jr., known in countless media reports over the years as White Boy Rick. We think they made a decision, but it hasn’t been announced. The Parole Board observes bureaucratic protocols and notifies each of the inmates who was up for parole consideration at this month’s board meeting, and apparently, it’s going to be up to Wershe to let his lawyer, family, friends and many supporters know what the Parole Board decided. Rick was told last week that they would tell him when they feel like it. We don’t know if that’s the Parole Board’s attitude or the interpretation of some hard-ass prison guard. All we know is the waiting game continues.

If the Parole Board votes to consider Wershe for parole, the next step will be a notice of a public hearing where witnesses get to testify whether he should or shouldn't be granted parole. A spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections has stated this is likely to occur in early June, which happens to be just days before an important court date in Wershe's battle for parole.

Rick Wershe with some of the art work he has done while in prison.

After 29 years in prison for a non-violent drug offense, Rick Wershe’s case is suddenly on the fast track, at least in state prison terms.

His lawyers have been fighting the State of Michigan in a lawsuit in federal court, claiming Michigan has violated his civil rights by treating him differently than every other prisoner similarly charged, convicted and incarcerated. That battle has been dragging on for several years and it was due on the radar again on March 16th in Cincinnati, Ohio before the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. But that court appearance has been postponed.

Wershe’s lawyer, Ralph Musilli, and a lawyer from the Michigan Attorney General’s Office, representing the Michigan Parole Board, were to appear before a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals and participate in what are known as oral arguments. It’s more about questions-and-answers than arguments. Both sides have submitted detailed written arguments about prevailing case law and if this now-postponed session goes forward the judges will ask a lot of questions.The Court of Appeals took note of the Parole Board's movement on Wershe's possible parole and contacted the lawyers and asked if it makes sense to "hold in abeyance" the oral arguments. All parties agreed that makes sense.

The case started in federal court in Grand Rapids because Wershe is in prison on the western side of the state and the Grand Rapids federal court covers that territory.

The rights lawsuit argues it is a violation of the Eight Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment to make every prisoner charged with a nonviolent drug crime as a juvenile eligible for parole except Richard Wershe. That’s treating him differently than everyone else and that is unusual punishment.

The judge on the case has balked at hearing Wershe’s case from day one. Many judges dislike hearing prisoner rights cases, and Grand Rapids U.S. District Judge Gordon Quist is apparently one of them. If the appellate court decides the Wershe argument has merit, they can turn the heat up on the Grand Rapids case.

In December, however, Wershe’s lawyers added fuel to the legal fire. Attorney Paul Louisell, one of Musilli’s partners, filed a motion for a writ of habeas corpus with the federal court in Detroit. U.S. District Judge George Steeh agreed to consider the case, a remarkable decision in light of U.S. Supreme Court decisions that make it difficult to prevail in a habeas corpus (Latin for “you have the body) action. This motion is scheduled to be discussed in court in mid-June.

Ralph Musilli and Paul Louisell, Rick Wershe's attorneys

The onus is now on the State of Michigan to explain why Wershe hasn’t been afforded a meaningful opportunity for parole. His only real parole consideration was in 2003 and that was a kangaroo court sham hearing that appeared rigged to ensure Wershe remained in prison. False and conflicting testimony was not questioned or challenged by the Michigan Parole Board in 2003. Wershe has been up for parole consideration roughly every five years but they keep “flopping” him with a terse “no interest” response to the issue of releasing Wershe. As Musilli puts it, they’ve been extending Wershe’s life sentence five years at a time.

Less than a week after the filing of the habeas corpus motion in mid-December, the Parole Board announced it was moving up Wershe’s next scheduled parole review up by nearly a year.

Regardless of what the Parole Board does, the habeas corpus action will likely move forward for an important reason for Wershe. If the Detroit federal judge agrees with Wershe's lawyers, he could order that Wershe be re-sentenced as Michigan has done for hundreds of other inmates in light of various court rulings about sentencing juveniles to long prison terms for non-violent offenses. Wershe was 17 when he was arrested, 18 when he was sentenced to life in prison.
If he is re-sentenced, and his trial judge, Dana Hathaway of Wayne County Circuit Court has indicated a belief that he should be re-sentenced, that will mean, in effect, he's over-served time behind bars and he won't be subject to several years of probation and supervision. That would be a big burden off Wershe's shoulders. So the habeas corpus battle has some important stakes for Wershe regardless of what the Parole Board does with his case.

Some hooray-for-me self-promoters in the media like to think their coverage of the Wershe story is responsible for the sudden change in his parole status. The truth is more diffuse and doesn't lend itself to such self-congratulation. 

The increased media interest in the White Boy Rick story; including this blog, including a Hollywood movie based loosely on his story, the continued interest of Wershe’s many citizen supporters and the relentless efforts of his lifelong friend, Dave Majkowski, who manages the Free Rick Wershe Facebook page; all of these things have added to keeping the spotlight on this case of a man who is a political prisoner.

For those who haven’t read the Informant America blog posts over the past two years, the evidence is pretty clear that Wershe IS a political prisoner. His real sin is that he told on the wrong people. As a teen, Wershe was a paid FBI informant. He told the FBI about payoffs and criminal influence over powerful people in the corrupt Detroit/Wayne County political machine. The shady politicians, including the late Gil Hill, ex-Homicide top cop and later City Council President, took a lot of heat from the FBI as a result of Wershe’s informant work. They got even by working long and hard to keep Wershe in prison for life. At long last, that may be changing.

Speaking of the Informant America blog, regular readers might be interested to know this coming week marks two years’ worth of regular blog posts on the amazing story of Richard J. Wershe, Jr.—White Boy Rick. The Informant America blog has been viewed over 223,000 times by people interested in the Wershe story. Not bad for a single-subject Internet blog site. The interest of readers like you has played a tangible part in keeping the heat on a state and local criminal “justice” system that is rotten to the core.

Informant America has revealed a lot, but not all, about the Rick Wershe saga. There are things I haven’t reported or made public, yet.

As an offshoot of this blog I’ve been writing a non-fiction book about how Rick’s story typifies many of the things that are horribly, horribly wrong with this nation’s so-called War on Drugs. I’ve battled for months using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to obtain the true story of Richard J. Wershe from the files of the federal, state and local governments. It’s a convoluted, sordid and disgraceful tale with no heroes. And the federal government is fighting the release of certain file information related to Wershe that must be, um, uh, unpleasant - for the government. There are some cans of worms they would rather not have opened. People are shocked to learn a 14-year old was recruited to do dangerous undercover work in the War on Drugs. But there are other dirty secrets about the Wershe story the government is fighting to keep under wraps. 

The book will expose the truth about the trillion-dollar national fiasco we call the War on Drugs and White Boy Rick’s part in it. No, there isn't a publication date yet. Stay tuned.