On June 8th, Richard Wershe, Jr. spent over four hours fighting for his life. He was tested by an Assistant Michigan Attorney General who ignored key elements in the Wershe story while grilling him at length about other parts. And for good measure, the media was chided for not finding a bombshell that turned out to be a dud.
Rick Wershe handled himself pretty well, all things considered, at his long-awaited hearing before the Michigan Parole Board. A lot of time was spent asking Wershe about his criminal activities before his conviction and imprisonment for life for a non-violent drug offense committed when he was a teen. Wershe is Michigan’s last remaining prison inmate doing life for a non-violent drug conviction. The Michigan Parole Board is facing two federal lawsuits over the question of why they are keeping Wershe in prison when all other inmates similarly charged have been released for time served.
|Richard J. Wershe, Jr. - hoping the Michigan Parole Board will end his life sentence. (MDOC photo)|
There were some tense moments at the hearing, which will be explored in this blog post.
In response to questions from Assistant Attorney General Scott Rothermel, Wershe explained his troubled childhood and how he came to be recruited by the FBI to become a paid informant against the Curry drug gang, which dominated the drug trade on Detroit’s east side in the mid-1980s. Wershe is believed to be the youngest informant ever recruited by the FBI for criminal investigations.
Over the course of the hearing it became clear that Rothermel was determined to highlight all of Wershe’s crimes and mistakes and bad choices. Rothermel was not interested in hearing about all of the help Wershe provided the FBI. Perhaps that’s because Wershe helped expose corruption in the so-called criminal justice system of Michigan. To elicit details about Wershe’s informant work on public corruption would mean Rothermel would have to shine the spotlight on the graft, corruption and injustice within the system of which he is a part. Can’t have that, now can we?
Wershe was required to be truthful about every crime and misdeed brought up in the questioning. He knew and understood that total honesty was vital to winning parole. That’s why he became agitated when Rothermel threw him a curve ball.
To understand the curve ball, it’s necessary to offer some background. After Rick Wershe was sentenced to life in prison in Detroit in 1988, he was approached in Marquette State Prison by FBI Special Agent Herman Groman, his “handler” when Wershe was working as an informant from the summer of 1984 until the spring of 1986.
Groman told him the government would get him transferred to the federal Witness Security program if he would help initiate an FBI undercover sting operation aimed at prosecuting drug corruption in the Detroit Police Department. The Witness Security program (WitSec) is a prisoner version of the Witness Protection program. Certain federal prisons have a special secure section for convicts who are informants and who have helped the government make important cases. It’s still prison, but life in the WitSec units is far better than in regular prison facilities.
Wershe agreed to help the FBI again, and Operation Backbone was a big success. Close to a dozen police officers were indicted and pled guilty or were convicted. Operation Backbone also ensnared Willie Clyde Volsan, the former brother-in-law of Detroit’s late Mayor Coleman Young.
Rick Wershe was transferred to a WitSec unit at federal prison in Phoenix, Arizona. His time there was unremarkable until he befriended Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano, the Mafia hitman turned informant who helped bring down John Gotti, the Godfather of Godfathers in the U.S. Mafia.
Gravano found out Rick Wershe’s father was a licensed gun dealer. Soon, Gravano asked Wershe to help him get some guns that could be used to murder John Gotti, Jr. for some feud he and Gravano had.
Wershe informed Herm Groman, his longtime FBI handler, about what Gravano was up to. Groman had to report it to Washington. This stirred up a hornet’s nest in Washington at the FBI and Justice Department. Here was one informant informing on a higher profile informant, the government’s prize witness against the Mafia.
The FBI/Justice Department investigation of Wershe’s claims about Gravano got muddled, perhaps deliberately, and the matter ended inconclusively. But Wershe, for his own safety, had to be transferred. They moved him to another WitSec unit in a federal prison in Florida.
While there, Wershe got wind of a used car sales scheme involving guys on the outside and a fellow WitSec inmate named Lorenzo “Fat Cat” Nichols.
Wershe saw an opportunity to buy used cars in Florida and ship them to Michigan to be re-sold at a higher price. He says he did it to help his mother and sister make some money. He also admitted he learned, at some point, that these were stolen cars.
Wershe was busted along with a number of others involved in the car scam. One of them was Antonio Ferrer, a car salesman on the outside. When Ferrer was arrested, he did what millions of criminals do: he told on the others in hopes of getting a break on his part of the case. It worked. Ferrer was charged, like Rick Wershe, with Racketeering and Conspiracy to Commit Racketeering. For singing a song about everyone else in the scheme, Ferrer was sentenced to probation on both counts. No time served. He did, however, have to pay a fine for his part in the car scheme.
The Miami-Dade police detective on the car case, Les Cravens, apparently loved the story Ferrer told him. Cravens wrote up what is called a probable cause affidavit, laying out all the claims Ferrer made about the others in the case, including Rick Wershe. Such affidavits routinely list all the crimes and possible crimes related to the investigation. It’s like throwing all the allegations against a wall and seeing which of them stick.
One of Ferrer’s allegations was that Rick Wershe proposed hiding drugs in the door panels of cars being shipped out of Florida as a means of smuggling narcotics.
The Florida prosecutor never pursued this allegation against Rick Wershe. He pled guilty to racketeering and racketeering conspiracy. But there was nothing—nothing—in the charges against him or in his court paperwork for the plea agreement that mentioned drugs.
Thus, Rick Wershe was stunned at his June 8th parole hearing when Assistant Attorney General Rothermel brought it up and asked him about it. Wershe, getting agitated said, “I never saw that document.”
Rothermel proceeded to quiz Wershe, over and over and over about Ferrer’s “admission” that he, Wershe, suggested shipping cocaine in the door panels of cars.
Wershe raised his voice and said, “I never dealt with drugs in prison.” Rothermel told him to calm down.
The Detroit Free Press, always willing in past years to smear Rick Wershe as a “drug lord” and “kingpin” without any evidence to support that libel, had a screaming headline on its Web site after the hearing that Wershe had a “meltdown”! They got over their own hyperventilating "meltdown" and calmed down later, posting a more professional headline.
Wershe did not have a meltdown. He didn’t “lose it.” No one had to restrain him in his seat. Not even close. He did become agitated and verbally combative about a serious charge he had never heard before. This was serious stuff. This was his one shot. His parole hearing. And a lawyer for the state was bringing up something that blindsided Wershe.
The reason he hadn’t heard about it was simple. It was a document of unsubstantiated allegations from a co-defendant who was angling for the best deal he could get. And he got a good one. Probation. No jail time. In the end, the Florida prosecutor apparently concluded there wasn’t enough evidence to bother with this allegation. That’s why Wershe had never heard it before. It was an unsupported allegation in a cop’s affidavit to get criminal charges in a case.
Rothermel showed his real motive, I believe, when he kept stating, repeatedly, “I found this document in the Florida court file. I don’t know why no one else did.” Before long, it became evident his repeated harangue about the document was less about Rick Wershe and more about tweaking the noses of those of us in the media who have lambasted the Attorney General’s Office for sloppiness and negligence in the Wershe case. It was Rothermel’s chance—or so he thought—to get back at the media. “I-I-I” found this, why didn’t anyone else?”
Well, others, myself included, did find it, but disregarded it as an unsupported allegation from a guy looking to get a good plea deal. It happens all the time in law enforcement.
Here’s an excerpt from the probable cause affidavit that Scott Rothermel mistakenly assumed no one else found but him:
|Excerpt with highlights from a Florida "Probable Cause" affidavit in Rick Wershe's case in that state.|
If the Parole Board reviews the affidavit and the official record in Rick Wershe’s Florida case, they will discover that Mr. Rothermel made an ass of himself over a document with unsupported, unsubstantiated allegations by a criminal looking to get a good deal.
Since Rothermel made such a big deal about “finding” documentation in the Wershe case, it’s time to point out the sloppiness and negligence of his office in a federal lawsuit Wershe has pending against the Michigan Parole Board for violating his civil rights by refusing to grant him parole.
The Attorney General of Michigan is the “lawyer” for the Michigan Parole Board, so the AG’s office is litigating Wershe’s civil rights case.
In a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, the Michigan Attorney General’s office claimed—falsely—that Rick Wershe, the plaintiff, had been convicted in federal court for possession of gun silencers. They got it wrong, plain and simple.
If the Attorney General’s Office had done what lawyers call due diligence they would have discovered that case involved Rick Wershe’s father—Richard Wershe, SR—and not Richard Wershe, JR. There IS a federal case about gun silencers against a defendant named Richard Wershe, but the Michigan Attorney General got it wrong. They cited the wrong person. The wrong defendant. There is no evidence they have done anything to correct their mistake. Apparently they have a hard time admitting mistakes.
Note to Scott Rothermel: I found this, why didn’t your office? “I-I-I” found this. Why was the Attorney General’s office so sloppy and negligent that you couldn’t find it?
The difference between Rothermel’s big show at the Parole Hearing over the unsubstantiated Probable Cause affidavit that HE found in Florida and what I just pointed out is substantial. Did I mention HE found it? He told us that over and over at the parole hearing. Another note to Scott Rothermel: Good for you! Way to go! Attaboy! Give yourself a gold star.
The error by the Attorney General’s Office in the Wershe civil suit is real, it is factual, it is in the court record. The co-defendant’s claim in Florida about Wershe conspiring to smuggle drugs in the door panels of cars, is not.
Rick Wershe can only hope the Michigan Parole Board can distinguish between Scott Rothermel’s showboating about an irrelevant document—and fact.
The next step in the Wershe parole process is for a stenographer to type up the entire four hours of his parole hearing. Copies of the transcript will be given to the full 10-member Parole Board and they will vote, in July or August, on whether to grant him parole. Six of the 10 members must vote to grant parole.