Voice quavering, Rick Wershe Jr., who as a teen in 1980s Detroit was painted as a murderous drug kingpin, dabbed his eyes as he recalled one of the last conversations he had with his father, who he’d always looked up to as a strong man.
Suffering from brain cancer, his dad often moaned in pain over the phone. During this 2014 call, Rick Wershe Sr. told his imprisoned son he was “scheduled to die” that day, which the younger Wershe told him wasn’t true. His mind “playing tricks,” the ailing father insisted, Wershe Jr. recalled.
“I lost it, and it’s hard for me to talk about,” he tearily told CNN. “I broke down that day, and I happened to be in my counselor’s office. … I had a lot of pride, and I remember the counselor, he gave me a hug and he wouldn’t let me leave his office and I just wanted to get back to my cell to be alone. He said, ‘Rick, just stay here,’ and I’ll never forget that.”
Rick Wershe Sr. died about two weeks later, on October 2, 2014. Wershe Jr. wasn’t allowed to attend the funeral.
It’s one of myriad milestones Wershe Jr. — who the media and Hollywood christened “White Boy Rick” — says he missed because the FBI and Detroit police groomed him to be a drug informant at age 14. They taught him the tricks of buying and selling narcotics, while providing him money, drugs and a fake ID — only to disavow him when he was arrested for cocaine, he says.
Now 52 and having served more than 32 years — all but a year of adulthood — in prison, Wershe filed a federal lawsuit July 20, the first anniversary of his prison release. He demands authorities acknowledge they indoctrinated him and broke promises to help him. Wershe served the longest sentence of any nonviolent minor in Michigan history, according to his lawyer, Nabih Ayad, because the information he provided helped take down crooked police.
Wershe wants $100 million for his trouble, a sum Ayad says amounts to about $3 million for each year of incarceration, during which Wershe has suffered anxiety, depression and abdominal pain from an assassination attempt that ripped his colon in half when he was 15.
Despite the ailments, Wershe is striving to forge a new reputation — an endeavor he began in prison organizing holiday food drives. In the last year, he’s worked to improve mental health resources and the foster care and criminal justice systems in Detroit.
Ayad is requesting an extension to the statute of limitations, which case law supports when someone fears retaliation from those imprisoning him, he told CNN. Wershe’s previous lawyers advised him not to seek redress until he was released, Ayad said.
“They were hoping he dies in jail. They were hoping someone kills him in jail. They were hoping their story will never get out, never, because they knew what they did was wrong — morally, ethically, principally,” the attorney said at a news conference.
Detroit’s city attorney did not respond to a request for comment. In an email signed by Mayor Mike Duggan and Police Chief James White, the city and its police department declined to comment, as did the FBI, through its Detroit field office.
The man, the myth
The story of White Boy Rick has long titillated audiences, whether it’s told in newspapers, magazines, documentaries, books or an eponymous feature film with Matthew McConaughey. Wershe Jr., unconvinced all his story’s tellers have fallen on the side of accuracy, has his own documentary in the works.
While the particulars shift from one account to the next (Wershe hasn’t seen the McConaughey movie but refutes the accuracy of certain scenes relayed to him), the narratives stick close to the lawsuit. It’s the story of a White teen operating among Black drug dealers in a corrupt and treacherous city during the crack epidemic.
His dad owned a gun store, through which he’d made acquaintance with FBI agents, Wershe Jr. said, explaining his father reached out when he learned his daughter was dating a drug dealer. An agent dropped by the house but told Wershe Sr. he couldn’t help him without some quid pro quo, his son said.
Wershe Sr. didn’t know much about the streets, according to his son. He later met the agent at a fast food joint and was shown images of people the agent wanted identified, the lawsuit says. Wershe Sr. couldn’t help, but his son knew some of the characters from the east side of Detroit and provided names, according to the lawsuit.
Realizing the son was the better source, the agent pulled up to the junior Wershe one day as he walked home from school, telling the 14-year-old, “Get in,” the lawsuit says. Another federal agent began asking him to “engage in extremely more dangerous criminal drug-related activity,” and the agents introduced him to Detroit Police Department officers on a drug task force targeting gangs and corrupt police, according to the lawsuit. Both would become fearsome enemies, Wershe Jr. said.
The teen “was of a malleable and impressionable mindset and did what the FBI agent and DPD officers demanded he do, that is go into drug houses he did not know, in areas of the city he did not know, and ask to buy drugs from people he did not know,” the lawsuit says.
Gregarious and affable, qualities he still exudes today, Wershe Jr. was good at the work — the details of which he kept from his father. Shortly after turning 15, the lawsuit alleges, he was operating throughout greater Detroit, and his handlers let him keep some of the seized drugs to sell himself. But he’d begun to draw suspicion.
In November 1984, Wershe told CNN, he was called to a house. He declined to divulge who summoned him but said he was in the basement when an “associate” called him up. When he got upstairs, the associate shot him with a .357 Magnum, the bullet ripping through his large intestine, he told CNN.
“No words were said,” he recalled. “All I remember is waking up at the bottom of the stairs in this agonizing pain, and I was 15 years old. I thought I was going to die.”
The shooter’s girlfriend arrived within a minute, Wershe said. Panicked, she called 911. The shooter and his friend put Wershe in a car — whether to transport him to a hospital or a secluded place to die, he’s not sure — and as they pulled out, an ambulance blocked the car. Wershe remembers a paramedic telling his shooter, “Nuh-uh, we’re taking him.”
“Thank God his girlfriend showed up. Thank God she called 911, or I wouldn’t be talking to you today,” Wershe said.
‘We got to kill that White boy’
Here might have been a fine time for police to reflect on the pitfalls of employing a teenager as an informant. Instead, they came to the hospital and instructed Wershe to describe the shooting as an accident to boost his street cred, the lawsuit states.
Within six months, they thrust him back into the snitch game, providing him accommodations, money and a fake ID to continue his undercover work in Las Vegas, where several Detroit drug lords were attending a bout between Thomas Hearns — a favorite son of the Motor City, ironically nicknamed “The Hitman” — and Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Wershe and the lawsuit say.
The media took notice of the splashy Wershe, according to the lawsuit, and the sobriquet “White Boy Rick” began appearing in headlines, spinning the legend of a teen kingpin. Wershe was too naive to fathom the folly of being a familiar White face in a city where seven in 10 residents were African American and locals were demanding answers to the drug scourge, he says.
The feds and police cut off contact by the time he was 16, “likely to save themselves from legal action should they have been caught using a 14/15-year old as a drug dealer-informant,” the lawsuit says. Wershe had become a celebrity of the worst kind — known to reporters, gang members and police who had no idea he was an informant because officers had used his dad’s name on the paperwork, according to the lawsuit.
“If that’s not child endangerment of the highest level, I don’t know what you call it,” Wershe told CNN.
There were at least three more attempts on his life, including one in which bullets narrowly missed his father as he watched TV, the lawsuit says. In the 2017 documentary “White Boy,” contract killer Nate Boone Craft, who served only 17 years after turning informant himself, recounted his two attempts to kill Wershe.
The orders arrived from a now-deceased city official, the hitman alleged. Wershe had reportedly implicated the official in a coverup involving the drive-by murder of a 13-year-old.
“I was told to kill White Boy Rick. We heard that he was telling, so they said, ‘We got to kill that White boy,'” Craft told filmmakers. “We got to make sure that it don’t lead back to no one, and I said, ‘Well, you know me. All my hits don’t lead back to no one.'”
Wershe made a narrow escape from an intersection just north of Interstate 94, the lawsuit says. Craft pulled alongside the youngster’s vehicle, and his accomplice opened fire, but “the Mac jammed on us,” Craft said, referring to the brand of machine pistol. Craft later tried to kill Wershe using a scoped rifle before a court hearing, but the teen used an underground entrance into the courthouse, the killer said in the documentary.
“Hitmen should not have been Plaintiff’s only concern,” the lawsuit says. “Thanks to Defendants, Plaintiff had become a target for the drug gangs as well as a target for law enforcement.”
Bust puts Wershe away for life
Wershe’s drug-dealing days ended May 22, 1987. The 17-year-old and a friend were pulled over and Wershe ran. Officers caught him, beat him badly enough to go to the hospital and later informed him they’d received a tip leading them to 18 pounds of cocaine they said he’d stashed in his neighbor’s yard, the lawsuit and local news reports say.
Wershe is candid about his drug dealing. When he was pulled over, he was carrying a knot of drug proceeds, he concedes. He believed he was still under police protection, he said, but the box of cocaine — which contained far more than 650 grams, enough to put a drug dealer away for life — was a setup, Wershe insists. When the court ordered him to provide fingerprints, he told the judge no order was needed because he hadn’t touched the box, he said.
“I was selling drugs. I had money on me,” he told CNN. “Still to this day, I’m out of prison, and I’ll say the same thing: I never touched that f**king cocaine. I’m adamant about it. I’ll tell you, I sold drugs. That box is a goddamned lie, pardon my language.”
Prosecutors cast Wershe as one of Detroit’s most dangerous dealers, a story many reporters were all too happy to take to editors. The jury declared itself deadlocked for a spell, according to reports, but ultimately found him guilty. Under Michigan’s 650-Lifer Law, Wershe was sent to prison forever. No parole.
One of his FBI handlers visited him in 1991 with a federal prosecutor who needed help with a sting targeting dirty policemen and politicians, and he promised to fight for Wershe’s release, the lawsuit says. The 20-year-old reluctantly obliged. Operation Backbone was a success, nailing 13 Detroit police officers and public officials, according to the lawsuit.
Wershe wasn’t released. He was sent to Florida to serve his time in witness protection, largely cutting him off from his family for 15 years, the lawsuit says.
Another federal prosecutor visited the following year, promising to advocate for a commutation if the young man testified against a drug gang, the lawsuit says. Again, Wershe delivered, with an assurance his grand jury testimony would never be turned against him, according to the lawsuit.
In 1998, Michigan revised its 650-Lifer Law. Wershe could seek parole beginning in 2002. Before a 2003 hearing, the lawsuit says, he called in his chips but was informed the federal prosecutors who promised to help were barred from doing so.
“Plaintiff’s nightmare turned surreal as Detroit Police Officers that he had never met before testified at his hearing, quoting directly from Plaintiff’s sealed grand jury testimony,” linking him to the drug gang he helped take down, the suit says.
The testimony “absolutely materially was the dispositive factor in the Board’s decision to not allow Plaintiff parole,” the lawsuit says, demanding prosecutors acknowledge they violated his Fifth Amendment rights.
Wershe’s attorney at the time told him that, for his safety, he shouldn’t level accusations over the grand jury testimony until he got out, the lawsuit says. He felt helpless, it says, and a “deep depression” set in.
Gina Balaya, spokeswoman for the US Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Michigan, did not return a message seeking comment.
“The legend … is just not true’
While serving time in Florida, Wershe was implicated in a stolen car ring, the details of which he disputes. He pleaded guilty to racketeering, he says, after prosecutors threatened to arrest his mother and sister.
Wershe — a father of three 30-something children, all born in the three years before he went to prison — was in solitary confinement in Florida in 2005 when a jailer told him his oldest daughter had delivered his first grandchild, a boy, he said.
“I said, ‘Oh, you must have misunderstood. My daughter was having a girl,’ and she said, ‘No, you had a grandson.’ She said sometimes those things are wrong, and today he’s a 16-and-a-half-year-old kid, an honor roll student and going to graduate school a year early and get a jump on college,” the proud grandfather said.
Wershe would miss the births of all six of his grandchildren, one of whom he will meet for the first time on a road trip to Indiana next month. The youngest is 7.
He was sent back to Michigan after his racketeering plea. Upon winning parole, he walked out of prison in August 2017 — and into the transport van of US Marshals, who took him back to Florida, where he would serve three more years.
Pivotal to his release was the testimony of two ex-FBI agents, one of whom is named in Wershe’s lawsuit. The other is Gregg Schwarz, who confirmed in a 2012 letter to Michigan’s parole board that Wershe had worked undercover and assisted with investigations into the 13-year-old’s murder, the Detroit drug gang and Operation Backbone.
“At the time, his age was a factor and would have been an embarrassment to the federal government,” Schwarz wrote. “Several agencies promised intervention but it never occurred. Richard continued to cooperate.”
In the “White Boy” documentary, Schwarz joined other sources, including a gang leader and convicted drug trafficker, in telling filmmakers Wershe had no henchmen, no territory. Tales of him being a ruthless kingpin are overblown, they said.
“I’m sorry to tell you that the legend of White Boy Rick is just not true,” Schwarz said.
Released on July 20, 2020, Wershe has been working to cement that message. His Instagram feed contains no glorification of his days as a baller. Rather, it shows him golfing, fishing and hanging out with fiancée Michelle MacDonald. The two met in middle school and cultivated a romantic relationship about five years ago.
They’ve adopted two feral cats — Bonnie and Clyde, he says, smirking, sipping from a water bottle — and a pair of rescue Shih Tzu-Pomeranians, Sophie and Rosie, who are heavily featured in his timeline. Alongside the pups are images of Wershe chumming about with business owners and celebrities, including “Hitman” Hearns and Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders, another of Detroit’s favorite sons, although adopted.
“The circle that I’m around is amazing,” Wershe said. “The love and support that I’m getting is amazing.”
It hasn’t been all celebration. In an affidavit, MacDonald said her fiancé suffers trauma stemming from his experiences with Detroit’s underground and the broken promises from authorities.
“Rick frequently wakes us both up from sleep by having nightmares, which jar him awake and which he has told me are about his being shot when he was 15, and then later his being left in prison,” she wrote.
Wershe gets anxious passing prisons, remembering the horrors he’s seen, including inmates stabbed in the neck and sliced from mouth to ear, he said. One of his neighbors hanged himself in his cell, he said.
After his release, he was pulled over for speeding, and “I truly felt like I was going to have a heart attack because of the fear,” he said, growing emotional again. The officer gave him a warning and told him to slow down.
‘He’s a connector’
Detroit school board member and former state lawmaker Sherry Gay-Dagnogo met Wershe in January. At last week’s news conference, she lauded the work he’s done to improve the criminal justice and foster care systems, while feeding and clothing the less fortunate and helping build a ramp for a paraplegic friend.
“He’s trying to find a way to make his life — the pain and suffering that he endured — a pathway and a light to guide those so they will never ever have to deal with situations like that,” she said.
Speaking to CNN, she praised his involvement with the Team Wellness Center, a local mental health services provider, and said so much of Wershe’s work is aimed at combating inequity and creating alternatives for those headed toward incarceration. He also speaks with ex-convicts who “don’t understand the path forward,” she said.
“Rick has continued to mushroom in this space, growing in this space of being a voice, being an advocate, giving back,” she said. “He’s a connector.”
Wershe enjoys helping others, but he prefers being a role model, he said: “If I set an example and get other people to follow me, I think I’m doing more than just feeding somebody for a day.”
Gay-Dagnogo doesn’t believe he has revenge in his heart, she said. He vacillated for months on whether to file his lawsuit, ultimately deciding he wanted his story on the record to ensure no more youngsters faced his travails, she said.
The White Boy Rick persona wasn’t Wershe’s idea, he told reporters this month, addressing many of them by name. But if he can use it as a platform to draw attention to important initiatives, he’s fine with the moniker.
Asked where he finds inspiration after 32 years and seven months in a cage, Wershe said he read loads of books in prison, but he brought only one home: Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning,” sent to him by screenwriter Scott Silver of “Joker” and “8 Mile” fame. The book chronicles Frankl’s and fellow prisoners’ experiences in Nazi concentration camps.
“When I read it, it just gave me meaning. It showed me that what I was going through is nothing compared to what this man went through, so it made me stronger, and I needed that push at the end (of my time in prison),” he said.
He can’t let anger consume him, he said. It will eat away at him. It won’t touch another soul, he said.
“People say, ‘It’s amazing to me you’re not bitter,'” he said. “I’m not bitter because if I’m bitter, they’re still winning.”
™ & © 2021 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.