Finalist for the 2015 National Magazine Award for Reporting
“Good evening, everybody,” WXYZ anchorman Bill Bonds said, leaning in toward the camera. “Tonight we’re going to show you something we don’t think you’ve ever seen before on television.”
It was the tail end of July 1987, the depths of a hot and humid summer in Detroit. Bonds had a toupee, a strong jaw, and a crisp voice. He was a product of the city’s white working class, with a habit of getting into bar fights, and his voice slipped easily into disdain. “Wait till you see the evidence of the arrogance that we’re talking about,” he said, “and the ha-ha-ha attitude.”
The viewers tuning in to WXYZ that night, from Detroit’s poor black urban core to its tony white suburbs, had grown accustomed to bad news. The city was the homicide capital of the United States for the third year running. Crack cocaine had invaded Detroit—a virus passed hand to hand, block to block, in plastic baggies—and sent an already declining city into a steeper dive.
The rising star on the local crime beat was Chris Hansen, an ambitious young reporter for WXYZ. (The rest of America would meet him years later on NBC’s Dateline and as the host of the series To Catch a Predator.) Hansen and his cameraman had been embedded with the No Crack Crew, the street unit of a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and Detroit Police Department joint task force that was trying to zero in on the city’s major suppliers. Hansen had spent more than a year on patrol with the unit, and the footage he brought back was the centerpiece of the five-night special report that Bonds was now presenting to his viewers.
Hansen appeared on screen, an incongruous figure on the barren street corner where he stood, with his well-kept head of sandy hair. “You are about to get closer to a drug gang than you probably want,” he said.
The producers cut to a camera peering out the window of one of the No Crack Crew’s unmarked cars as it navigated the forlorn landscape of Detroit’s East Side: houses charred by arson, sagging porches, front lawns turned to thickets of brown weeds. The East Side had lost roughly half its residents, and most of its white population, since the beginning of the 1960s—the most dramatic depopulation of any urban area in the United States. They had fled to escape crime and unemployment as auto jobs migrated elsewhere or disappeared entirely. Many white residents had left, undeniably, to avoid people from the other side of Detroit’s particularly fraught racial divide.
The No Crack Crew’s officers crashed through one door after another on the East Side in search of their targets. Hansen and his cameraman, wearing bulletproof vests, followed close behind. A montage of urban squalor played out on TV screens all across Detroit: Shirtless young men pinned to the floor and cuffed. Stacks of cash and a bowl of cocaine sitting on a table next to a giant boom box. Shotguns. Scales and money-counting machines. Baggies of crack rocks.
Hansen’s report was rich in detail on Detroit’s new crack barons. He focused on the Chambers brothers, the first traffickers to sell the drug in the city in large volume, who were then the No Crack Crew’s principal targets. The Chambers brothers were operating a sprawling network of crack houses and grossing, by the journalist William Adler’s estimate, better than $1 million per week—enough to eclipse any legitimate privately held business in Detroit. Hansen took viewers inside the Broadmoor, a once grand apartment building that the Chambers crew had turned into a well-guarded vice emporium, with crack rocks sold on each floor in ascending sizes. In one room, the camera panned across filthy mattresses where prostitutes worked.
In a home video shot by a member of the gang, a young man cavorted around in a house outfitted with 24-karat gold-plated faucets, hamming it up for the camera. “Money, money, money!” he shouted, showing off piles of dollar bills. “Should we throw away these ones since we got five hundred thousand dollars?”
The influence and decadence of the Chambers brothers was extraordinary, but as crime lords they played to the WXYZ viewers’ expectations: Young black newcomers from a dirt-poor little town in Arkansas who had moved swiftly into Detroit’s underworld, they embodied a local criminal archetype. But on the fifth and final night of the series, which drew enormous ratings, Hansen unveiled a twist in his story. As the investigators were tracking the Chambers crew, another big-time player in the East Side crack trade had come across their radar. He was dealing so much cocaine, they believed, that he was supplying the Chambers brothers. His mug shot appeared at the top tier of the crew’s hierarchy displayed on the TV screen.
His name was Richard Wershe Jr., and the source of his novelty was immediately apparent in the picture. He was barely capable of growing a moustache, with baby fat still filling out his cheeks and bangs flopping down over his forehead. He had just turned 18. And, virtually alone among Detroit’s major known drug figures, he was white. On the street, Hansen said, they called him White Boy Rick.
Nearly three decades later, White Boy Rick remains an iconic figure in his hometown, an enduring symbol of the height of the cocaine era. Detroiters still tell stories about his ’80s heyday, and some of them are true. Rick Wershe really did drive a white jeep with the words THE SNOWMAN emblazoned on the rear, though he had no driver’s license. He wore tracksuits and chains, mink coats, a belt made of gold, a Rolex encircled with diamonds. When another drug kingpin landed in jail, Wershe swooped in and took up with the guy’s wife—a sought-after “ghetto princess,” as one federal agent put it. In 1987, when Wershe appeared in court on charges of possessing multiple kilos of cocaine, the judge remarked that he looked like the killer Baby Face Nelson—but “as far as this court is concerned,” she went on, “he’s worse than a mass murderer.” In “Back from the Dead,” Detroit native son Kid Rock rapped, One bad bitch, I smoke hash from a stick/Got more cash than fuckin’ White Boy Rick.
I first happened upon White Boy Rick’s story last year and quickly became fascinated enough to call some of the police officers and federal agents who had figured in it in one way or another. With some surprise, I discovered that while most of them remembered the story in detail, few of them had any idea what had happened to Wershe since the Reagan administration. It was as if the legend of White Boy Rick had swallowed the real person at its center.
Except he wasn’t gone. I had first learned this from a column about incarceration policy published last year on The Fix, a site covering drugs and addiction. The author reported that Wershe was, in fact, more or less where people had last seen him in the late 1980s: sitting in a prison cell somewhere in Michigan.
This made Wershe not only a local icon but also an anomaly, and something of a mystery, in the world of criminal justice. In May 1987, when he was 17, Wershe was charged with possession with intent to deliver eight kilos of cocaine, which police had found stashed near his house following a traffic stop. He had the misfortune of being convicted and sentenced under one of the harshest drug statutes ever conceived in the United States, Michigan’s so-called 650 Lifer law, a 1978 act that mandated an automatic prison term of life without parole for the possession of 650 grams or more of cocaine. (The average time served for murder in state prisons in the 1980s was less than 10 years.)
Sentencing juvenile offenders to life without parole for non-homicide crimes was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010, by which point such sentences were already exceedingly rare; the court was able to locate only 129 inmates serving them nationwide. Michigan eventually acknowledged the failures of the 650 Lifer statute—the governor who signed it into law, William G. Milliken, has called it the greatest mistake of his career—and rolled it back in 1998. Those already serving time became parole eligible and began to be released. Wershe is the only person sentenced under the old law who is still in prison for a crime committed as a juvenile. Prominent and violent kingpins and enforcers from Wershe’s day in Detroit have long since been freed. And yet Wershe has remained incarcerated, for more than 26 years.
The Fix column, written by a prison activist who is himself serving a lengthy sentence for drug trafficking, quoted some of Wershe’s own explanations for his fate. He had been an informant for the FBI, he claimed, and his handlers had pushed him into the drug trade to serve their own ends. He had later run afoul of the local police by helping the FBI expose corrupt cops. “The FBI and police lied about this for more than two decades,” Wershe said. “I just want the truth to finally come out.”
Wershe’s claims seemed implausible, if not fantastical. But one detail near the end of the article caught my eye: a quote from a retired FBI agent named Gregg Schwarz. “The events surrounding the incarceration of Richard Wershe,” Schwarz said, “are a classic example of abuse of power and political corruption.” A former federal agent was backing the cause of the notorious White Boy Rick.
I decided to try to get in touch with Wershe. His attorney’s office helped set up a phone conversation, and Wershe soon called from a pay phone in a prison in a remote corner of Michigan. He was polite and well-spoken; his voice occasionally rose as he tried to get across his version of events, but he did not fixate on portraying himself as a victim. He mentioned that he’d recently read Mark Binelli’s Detroit City Is the Place to Be, an excellent account of the recent history of the city published two years ago. Wershe told me he found it “sad and enlightening.” It struck me that Wershe was learning about the downfall of his hometown from a book. Detroit still talks about him, but he has not walked the city’s streets since 1988.
Wershe and I have spoken dozens of times since. I have also talked to everyone I could find who knew something about Wershe’s case: Detroit police officers, investigators from several federal agencies, former Detroit drug kingpins who shared the streets with him, Wershe’s family and friends, lawyers, state and federal prosecutors, and parole-board members. Over time, claims that at first I deeply doubted proved to be true. Accounts that seemed reliable were convincingly contradicted. For months, the central mystery only deepened: Why was Wershe still in prison? By the time I thought I knew the answer, I had come to understand how much the reality of Rick Wershe deviated from the legend of White Boy Rick.
Rick Wershe’s father taught him how to handle a gun when he was eight years old. He gave his son a .22 rifle of his own so he could practice, and while Wershe’s father was off working odd jobs, young Rick and his close friend Dave Majkowski used it to shoot rats in alleyways. They were scrappy city kids who had the run of an East Side neighborhood that was emptying out fast. They would play with firecrackers. Rick had a good arm and would throw stones at frogs and birds. They would snatch wooden pallets from a disused warehouse and destroy them with power tools for fun.
Rick Wershe Sr. was a tall and wiry man who rustled up cash doing this and that. He sold sporting goods, surplus electronics, satellite-TV gear, equipment to pirate cable. “I was, I would say, a hustler,” he says. He always had a new scheme. People found him a little strange, a little suspect. With him, “the almighty buck” ranked high, Majkowski told me, holding his hand at forehead height, “and morals was maybe a little lower down.” Rick Jr.’s parents argued a lot when he and his elder sister, Dawn, were kids. His mother, Darlene, called the cops on her husband more than once; on one cold night, she told me, he locked her out of the house wearing nothing but a nightgown. The parents split when Wershe was around six and she left for the suburbs, eventually remarrying. Wershe stayed on the East Side with his father and sister.
The Wershes lived seven miles from downtown, on Hampshire Street at Dickerson Avenue, in a little brick house with white trim. Just a few blocks away, on the other side of Interstate 94, was a golf course. The neighborhood wasn’t the ghetto then, not quite. The workers who punched in at the auto factories during the postwar boom still had some foothold, tending lawns and gardens and keeping cars built on their own employers’ assembly lines parked in their driveways.
As Wershe approached his teens in the early ’80s, however, the area went into free fall. The auto manufacturers, which had lured so many to Detroit with union jobs that promised entry into the middle class, were now in rapid decline. From 1978 to 1988, the industry shed more than a third of its Detroit-area workforce. The East Side took on the look of a cold-weather version of the South Central L.A. of the period—spacious and even green but torn up inside. “All the white people left,” Wershe told me. “That was ’81, ’82.” But it wasn’t only the white people: Almost everyone who had the means to leave was taking the opportunity.
By the mid-’80s, crack had arrived in the neighborhood, and addicts could be seen walking the streets hollow-eyed at three or four in the morning. Residents lined up for boxes of food staples from a charity just down Hampshire, in a building that used to be a Chrysler dealership. In Devil’s Night, a book about Detroit published in 1990, Zev Chafets—a native—would write starkly, “The city is an impoverished island surrounded by prosperous suburbs, and almost nothing connects them. … The suburbs purr with the contented sounds of post-Reagan America while the city teeters on the brink of separatism and seethes with the resentments of postcolonial Africa.”
Majkowski’s family took the well-worn path to the suburbs, but Wershe’s had deeper roots in the neighborhood. His father’s parents lived across the street, in their own modest brick house. They were relics, in a sense, of the area’s past. Before retiring, they’d both worked for Chrysler for four decades, she as a secretary and he on the factory floor. Wershe went with them to Our Savior Lutheran Church every Sunday; you had to go if you wanted to stay on the church baseball team. He became something of a star pitcher. His father coached one of his son’s teams, and they were good, Rick Sr. told me proudly. They played at Tiger Stadium once.
By the time Wershe was 12, however, he wanted out of Detroit. More than once he left school and walked out past the city boundary at 8 Mile—beyond the reach of the truancy officers—and called his mother from a pay phone, pleading with her to pick him up until she agreed, telling her he didn’t want to go home to the house on Hampshire. When he was 13, his parents agreed that he would stay with his mother for a while. His father told him that if he thought life would be so much better with his mother, then fine, go ahead and pack some bags. So he did.
Wershe’s mother lived in Clinton Township, a comfortable suburb northeast of the city, near Lake St. Clair. “It was culture shock, dude, like moving from hell to heaven,” Wershe told me. He couldn’t believe a high school could have a swimming pool and perfectly groomed baseball fields. An inner-city kid had novelty appeal in Clinton Township. Wershe had a romance with the daughter of a well-to-do couple who owned a big Ford dealership, who were less than thrilled that their daughter was seeing a boy whose mother lived in subsidized housing on the other side of town.
Darlene’s new husband and Wershe butted heads, he says. After less than a year, Wershe’s father reentered his life and lured him back to the East Side. “He was always good when I had him,” Darlene told me when I met her recently. But Rick Sr., she said, would go out of town to do business and leave the kids alone when Wershe was 12. “That was his dad—money, money.”
In 1981, Wershe’s grandparents took him down to the Miami area for a vacation. He had a cousin who lived in Coral Gables, in a rich neighborhood where drug dealers were prevalent. Hanging out with the local kids, Wershe saw what wealth could bring: backyard pools, mopeds, a Ferrari or a Porsche in the driveway. Like his dad, “Ricky liked nice things,” Majkowski says.
Back in Detroit, Dawn was getting into crack and dating a small-time crook named Terrence Bell. Bell and Wershe began to spend time together, and the man showed him the ropes of petty crime, Wershe says. “I was breaking into houses,” he told me. “I probably broke into 20 of them.”
Wershe’s father says now that he should have moved his parents and his family out of the neighborhood. “But, you know, you get so busy,” he told me. “I was a single parent. My wife left. I don’t know, you get lost. At that time, the only thing that mattered to me was money.
“Why we didn’t move, I don’t know,” he went on. “But no excuses. My fault. I made a big, big, big mistake, OK?”
One way Rick Wershe Sr. made money was by dealing firearms. He was good at it, well connected. He would buy out a sporting goods store that was liquidating and then move the product to another dealer, or he would sell it himself. When his son was eight or nine, he started bringing the boy along to the gun shows at the Light Guard Armory on 8 Mile. Wershe was a quick study and would walk around learning tidbits from other vendors.
His father also started managing a gun store downtown, but in the Wershes’ neighborhood word spread that you could just visit their house on Hampshire if you wanted a weapon. Young Rick would be humping a black gun case up the steps from the car and someone would call to him: “Your dad could sell me some guns like that?” Wershe could show you a few himself right now, as a matter of fact. He would sell customers the model they were looking for, then show them another they might like.
Around this time, law enforcement officials estimated that there were more guns in Detroit then there were people. The Wershes had Glocks, MAC-10’s, MAC-11’s. Firearms and the drug trade went hand in hand, and Wershe’s father did not ask what his customers did for a living. (I learned what kind of guns the Wershes sold from a former lieutenant for one of the East Side’s principal cocaine distributors of the era.)
With the influx of high-margin narcotics beginning in the late ’70s, gang life in the city had changed. What were once mostly outlets for juvenile male posturing and misbehavior turned into bigger and more sophisticated operations with the rise of heroin, then powder cocaine, then crack. Those who rose to the top had sharp business minds. They instilled rigid discipline within their organizations, secure in the knowledge that for their employees, this was by far the best job around.
One dealer, Milton “Butch” Jones, built the sprawling crew Young Boys Inc. into an outfit that resembled an unusually violent Fortune 500 company. YBI also pioneered the use of underage foot soldiers, who were trickier to prosecute, and generally laid out the template that other gangs adapted as the trade diversified into new neighborhoods and new drugs. Crack represented a particularly lucrative opportunity, because even poor people could afford a hit. Now a kilo of powder could be “rocked up” and sold off in $5 or $10 packets right from a front porch.
The major players grew bolder and more vindictive. After being injured in a daytime gun battle, the infamous dealer Richard “Maserati Rick” Carter was shot dead in his bed at Mount Carmel Mercy Hospital in 1988. At a memorial service covered on the local news, Carter was laid to rest in a five-figure custom casket made to resemble a luxury Mercedes, with a hood ornament, fat tires, and gleaming rims. The kingpin Demetrius Holloway, who once told Wershe he had $10 million stashed away in case of trouble, was shot twice in the back of the head in 1990 in the Broadway, a downtown clothing store two blocks from police headquarters. The hit man allegedly whistled “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” during the job. Robert DeFauw, former head of the DEA’s Detroit office, told the journalist Scott Burnstein, “I served in Vietnam in the 1960s, and that experience was the only thing I can equate to my experience working the narcotics trade in Detroit in the 1980s.”
The reigning drug lords of the Wershes’ East Side neighborhood were twin brothers Leo “Big Man” and Johnny “Little Man” Curry. Johnny, whom the Detroit Free Press dubbed “the cocaine king of the East Side,” was tall, slim, and athletic, with a neat mustache. He took care with his appearance and even chose his wife’s clothes. Leo was flashy and loud, but Johnny was a sober-minded businessman who kept a close eye on the finances and strategized to avoid significant arrests. “He was like a master chess player,” Wershe says.
The Curry brothers had an atypically long run for the Detroit drug trade, about a decade. They started out selling marijuana in the late 1970s, at an impressive volume—50 or 100 pounds “wasn’t nothing to them,” B.J. Chambers of the Chambers brothers told me—and then diversified into heroin and cocaine in the ’80s. Johnny Curry lived in a large house just on the other side of I-94 from the Wershes. He avoided being in the same room with the drugs, which he did not use, and he never carried too much money. The brothers had a network of dope houses, but they took precautions with the cash that would accumulate at each one. Runners would regularly bring the money to an auto garage, Hill’s Marathon Station, at Warren and Lemay, which was unlikely to draw a raid.
The Curry crew was well known on the East Side, where Wershe met Johnny and Leo’s younger brother, Rudell “Boo” Curry. Boo was nine years older than Wershe, who was only 14 at the time, but they both spoke the language of cars and motorcycles. They would drive around looking for young women to take to a cheap hotel or one of Johnny’s houses, hoping the girls would be as impressed as Wershe was with Boo’s blue Ford Bronco with the Eddie Bauer leather interior. Boo was really just a sidekick to his elder brothers, each of whom had the same Eddie Bauer Bronco in burgundy, but Wershe was flattered by his attention anyway.
In the evenings, the Currys would take over a section of Royal Skateland, a roller rink just off Warren that doubled as a nightspot, with strobe lights, mirror balls, and a DJ playing Grandmaster Flash. Wershe would join Boo there when he was relaxing with the rest of the crew, including Johnny and Leo themselves. Wershe was just a hanger-on at first. He played it cool, didn’t let on how awestruck he was to be in their presence. But he hungered for the things they had, the clothes they wore. Now he was up close to the brands he used to see only in the copies of Robb Report that his dad had around the house: Rolex, Gucci, Mercedes.
Dave Majkowski went back to the East Side occasionally to visit his old friend. Wershe had changed, he thought, had become more macho. Tough-looking guys gathered on his porch.
Wershe’s transformation became all the more clear on the night of March 24, 1984, when he was 14. He and his sister, Dawn, had pulled up to a gas station just around the corner from their house; Dawn was driving one car and Wershe was driving another, which belonged to their grandmother. He left the keys in the ignition while he went inside to buy a soda. Suddenly, Dawn blared her horn; a man was getting into Wershe’s car with a gun in his hand. Wershe jumped into the passenger seat of Dawn’s car and they gave chase, heading west toward downtown on I-94. As their car pulled within range of the thief on the highway, Wershe grabbed a .22 revolver Dawn had in her purse and fired at the other car. It was a cheap gun and it jammed, but he got off two shots. An off-duty policeman happened to be next to them in traffic, and he pulled over Dawn and arrested Wershe. But the cop never showed up for trial, and the case was dismissed.
When the weather was nice, the Curry crew would go for a drive en masse, 20 people easy, and cross the MacArthur Bridge to Belle Isle, the island park in the middle of the Detroit River. Wershe went along for the ride sometimes. They would cruise the shoreline with their radios up and their convertible tops down.
The Currys always had women around them. Johnny was involved with a young woman named Cathy Volsan, whom he would later marry. Wershe was impressed. She was beautiful and dressed expensively, not provocatively. She had poise and a bit of sass. When she shopped at Lane Bryant, she’d sign her name as Janet Jackson on the credit card receipt. She had once been romantically linked to Vinnie “The Microwave” Johnson of the Detroit Pistons; before that she dated a leader of Young Boys Inc. She also happened to be the niece of the longtime mayor of Detroit, Coleman Young.
At the time, Wershe was seeing a girl who was close to his age, almost a decade younger than Johnny Curry, but she’d previously dated Johnny. He would give Wershe a hard time about it, but Wershe was earning a kind of respect. The kid seemed to have money—even if nobody knew exactly where it came from—and he was starting to fit in with the crew. He wore expensive Fila sneakers and Adidas tracksuits. Johnny was taking a liking to him, and people noticed: It wasn’t every day you saw Johnny Curry in his BMW with a white kid riding shotgun. Johnny even took Wershe to Tigers games.
Soon enough, when a bouncer stepped in to stop Wershe—barely out of junior high—at the door to a club, one of Johnny’s people would say, “He’s with us.” Often the club was the Lady, on Jefferson and Van Dyke, or Stoke’s, on Chene Street, an underground after-hours spot where topless waitresses moved among card games and strippers. At both places, men wearing six figures’ worth of jewelry would throw down knots of cash on the tables just to show that they could. All the major names in the game would show up: Big Ed Hanserd, Maserati Rick, Demetrius Holloway. These were black clubs, but it was getting less strange by the month that Wershe was white. “You didn’t look at him and see white,” a black Detroit police officer who worked the gang squad at the time told me. “Rick was a straight-up hood rat.”
Wershe’s credibility on the street was cemented one day when he was 15, when an acquaintance, another guy under the Currys’ wing, shot him in the stomach with a .357. The guy swore it was an accident, but Wershe wasn’t so sure, and neither was the neighborhood rumor mill. Wershe spent days in the hospital and was released with an embarrassing colostomy bag. What did not prove embarrassing, however, was being shot.
Wershe says now that although he hung out with the Currys, he did not work for them. He did buy their cocaine on occasion, though not to use it. He snorted cocaine once, he says, and put it in a joint a few times, but there were plenty of junkies around, and he didn’t want to be one of them. He wanted to make money.
So he and a couple of friends started dealing. With a limited bankroll, they started small—a gram or an eight ball (an eighth of an ounce), or a few rocks of crack—so Johnny Curry had no real reason to mind. But Wershe was always a natural salesman, his father says, even back in the days when he sold firecrackers and BB guns.
By the spring of 1985, Wershe had dropped out of school and was close enough to the Currys that they invited him out to Las Vegas for the Tommy Hearns–Marvin Hagler fight at Caesar’s Palace. Hearns was raised in Detroit and had come up through the city’s ratty gyms; people called him the Motor City Cobra or the Hitman. When Hearns had a big bout somewhere, the joke was that you couldn’t find a quality drug dealer in all of Detroit—they’d all gone to see Tommy’s three-ton right hand. Now Wershe was out there in Vegas with the rest of them, walking the Strip and being seen.
In his corner of the ghetto, Wershe was becoming something of a celebrity. “Oh man, he had a large crew that loved staying around him,” B.J. Chambers told me recently. Chambers is one of the brothers who built the cocaine empire that Chris Hansen exposed on WXYZ. The brothers were later mentioned in Bill Clinton’s speech at the 1988 Democratic Convention—as fellow Arkansas natives whose turn to drugs reflected the hopelessness of rural poverty and the failure of Just Say No—and they inspired elements of the movie New Jack City; like Wershe, they remain mythic figures in Detroit. Chambers told me that when his lieutenants went to the Somerset Mall, a high-end place in the suburb of Troy, “I would get reports: ‘Man, we seen White Boy Rick. He had 15 niggas around him.’ Just exactly like that. ‘Had him surrounded. You could barely see him.’”
Wershe would be out buying Gucci luggage, jewelry, whichever jeans cost the most—usually Calvin Klein or Guess. “My daughter became sick on doing drugs,” Wershe’s father says. “My son became sick on power, the excitement, the prestige, the money, and the glamour of selling. OK? He became sick.”
Although he wasn’t old enough to drive, Wershe had to have a car, a status symbol with special weight in Detroit. In fact, by the time he was 18, Wershe had owned eight of them. Having no license presented no trouble; he knew auto dealers who would help fudge the paperwork as long as the money was real. He was partial to seat-rattling sound systems, so he could blast Run–DMC, maybe the Beastie Boys’ License to Ill. He bought an Eddie Bauer Ford Bronco to match the Currys’, in green and tan, though he later lost it in a bet over a pool game. He and Boo also bought twin motorcycles, 750cc Honda Interceptors, the kind of flashy, high-powered bikes they called crotch rockets.
Eventually, Wershe figured that speeding wasn’t worth the risk of getting caught, but early on, when he had a Camaro Z28, it was different. Tom McClain, a former DEA agent who worked on the No Crack Crew, recalls that his unit was once tailing the Camaro in the middle of the night when Wershe took off at around 100 miles per hour on one of the freeways that cut through downtown Detroit. McClain had a Mustang and his partner had his own Camaro, but the cops working with them had police-issued sedans and “they couldn’t keep up with him!” McClain told me, laughing. The officers backed off the pursuit.
Wershe would still go with his father to the gun shows. Regulation was lax; an AK-47 went for $200, and “you could just walk off with it,” Wershe says. “No receipt, no ID, nothing.” Wershe met some Ohio state troopers at one show and started to make deals. He would drive down to Toledo to pick up guns from them to resell under the table in Detroit at a markup, sometimes cutting his father out of the transactions.
Rick Sr. knew that his son was making serious money from drugs, too. Wershe had said once that he just wanted to save $50,000 and open a Foot Locker store. That’s what he’d heard it cost to own a franchise. But one day, his father found an Adidas shoebox under his bed filled with more than $50,000, and he took it away. They really had it out then. “Look, eventually everybody gets caught,” Rick Sr. told him.
“Oh no,” Wershe replied. “Look at Johnny—how long they been doing it. They’re still out there. No way I’m stopping now.”
He accused his father of stealing, then left and moved in around the corner with his girlfriend. A couple of days later his father rang the doorbell and threw the box of cash on the doorstep.
Johnny Curry was a careful man, but you couldn’t run a criminal organization as large as his and not get noticed. By 1984, a joint task force of the FBI and Detroit police had opened an investigation into the Currys’ operation. Agents were arresting addicts and low-level dealers and squeezing them for information about the crew. Others in the trade talked in hopes of cultivating a friend in the FBI in case of future trouble—“dry-cleaning” themselves, agents called it—or just for an easy hundred dollars. Soon the task force moved on to making controlled buys from the Currys’ drug houses, assembling evidence to take to a judge for a warrant. Eventually, agents broke into Johnny Curry’s home and basement office undetected and bugged his phone.
In 1987, a federal grand jury returned an indictment against Johnny and Leo, along with Boo Curry and 18 others, on an array of charges, including operating a continuing criminal enterprise. A couple of weeks after Johnny Curry went to jail to await trial, his wife, Cathy Volsan, came and knocked on the door at the Wershe house.
The street was in disbelief when Wershe—just 17 to Volsan’s 24—started stepping out with Volsan on his arm. “Messing with a kid like that…,” one Curry lieutenant told me. Wershe, he said, was “just not her caliber.” Wershe knew Johnny would be irate. But “by then,” he says, “my head was so big, I didn’t care.” The relationship proved tempestuous. Once, when Volsan suspected Wershe of cheating, she drove a butcher knife into the bathroom door while he stood on the other side, he claims. (Volsan has not spoken to journalists in years, and I was unable to reach her.) But on a better day, two months into the affair, she bought Wershe a five-karat diamond ring for his birthday.
Wershe had used Johnny Curry’s connections in other ways, too. In 1986, through the Currys, he met a man named Art Derrick, who truly played in the cocaine big leagues. Derrick and his partner were the leading volume dealers in the city. In an interview with William Adler—whose Land of Opportunity is the definitive account of the Chambers brothers’ rise and fall—Derrick estimated that he and his partner cleared $100,000 a day in profit for more than two and a half years. They supplied the boldface names of the city’s drug trade, guys like Maserati Rick and Demetrius Holloway.
At the time, Derrick—who died in 2005—was in his mid-thirties, a slovenly man with a pockmarked face and a droopy mustache. He was the only other white guy in Wershe’s orbit, a big talker who lived large. “Art Derrick kept a private jet in the ghetto, dude,” Wershe told me. Derrick had four planes, actually, one of them formerly owned by the Rolling Stones. His house, just beyond the city limits in Harper Woods, was surrounded by a seven-foot white brick wall topped with electric fencing. His basement had white marble floors and mirrored walls and ceilings. He had a speedboat and a swimming pool with his initials inlaid in the tile.
Derrick took a liking to Wershe, who also knew his son, a preppy kid who sold drugs to friends in Grosse Pointe. Derrick brought Wershe on trips to Miami, renting out half a floor at the airport Hilton. Wershe bought a jet ski. They would go to a Cuban steakhouse and Joe’s Stone Crab. They’d get call girls. Derrick would bring Wershe with him to Vegas, too, where the kid—still not yet 18—would stay in Derrick’s condo at the Jockey Club. “He was almost like a son to me,” Derrick told Adler.
Derrick was flying in the cocaine from suppliers in Miami, where the price was much lower than in Detroit, allowing for a serious markup. Soon Wershe was bypassing Derrick and getting his product, he says, directly from a major Miami dealer. At the height of Wershe’s career, his connection would send him and his associates shipments as large as 50 kilos, which at the time would sell in Detroit at around $17,000 per kilo. The local retail price was dropping fast. With crack at its peak, opportunists were flooding the market, trying to get in on the boom. In Wershe’s neighborhood, he recalls, a man who worked on the line at General Motors was moonlighting as a dealer. So was an assistant principal at an elementary school. Supply was outstripping demand.
By now, Wershe did not generally deal to users, or even have underlings do it for him. He was not a retailer or a gang leader but a so-called weight man: He sold in quantities of a kilo or more, usually, to other dealers. If his buyers turned the cocaine into crack and sold it in small-dollar amounts, the street value of those original 50 kilos could run into the millions. “He rose all the way through the ranks,” B.J. Chambers says. “He did it just as big as me, the Curry brothers, Maserati Rick—whoever you want to name.”
Wershe was now prominent enough to be a target. One day in the spring of 1987, he was riding in the passenger seat of a convertible with a friend. When they pulled up at a stoplight, Wershe noticed a van pulling alongside them, its side door sliding open. Wershe shouted at his friend to run the red light, then reached his foot over and hit the accelerator himself, ducking the hail of bullets as the convertible peeled out across the intersection. Nate “Boone” Craft, an enforcer from the notoriously violent Best Friends gang, later admitted to pulling the trigger.
While rivals threatened Wershe from one side, the law was closing in from the other. In Detroit and nationwide, all eyes were now on the crack epidemic. Politicians were vying to show how tough they could be on drugs, and law enforcement in Detroit was under pressure to produce.
The No Crack Crew and the Detroit police had Wershe in their sights by 1987. He’d sold $1,600 in cocaine to an undercover DEA agent at his father’s house the previous September. Subsequent raids aimed at Wershe turned up all the makings of a serious drug operation—scales, a money-counting machine, cash, and weapons—but produced only one charge against him, for possession of a small amount of cocaine. Now the police were pulling him over on flimsy pretexts, he says, to see if they could find something on him. Wershe was a prize for any cop who could bring him down. His run couldn’t last.
On the night of May 22, 1987, when Wershe was 17, he was riding in the passenger seat of a Ford Thunderbird driven by an associate when they pulled up at a stop sign a block from his family’s house. Diagonally across the intersection was a police cruiser, and inside it was an officer Wershe says he already knew, a man named Rodney Grandison. Their eyes met. As Wershe’s car pulled through the intersection, the cruiser turned to follow, then flipped on its siren.
The driver stopped next to the Wershe house, and he and Wershe stepped out of the car. Grandison noticed a Kroger shopping bag on the floor in front of Wershe’s seat and told his partner to look inside. Wershe tried to stop him; the bag contained about $30,000 in cash, and although it wasn’t a crime to have it, Wershe was convinced that it would get him arrested. He grabbed the second officer’s arm, and a struggle ensued.
It was about 9 p.m. on a hot spring night, and everyone was outside. Onlookers began to gather. Wershe’s sister and father came out to the street and joined in the fracas. Somehow Rick Sr. grabbed the bag of cash and handed it to Dawn, who ran into Wershe’s grandparents’ house with it. Wershe fled on foot through several backyards.
As soon as the call went out on police radio, cruisers and unmarked cars and federal agents started descending on the scene. Officers barged into the house after Dawn and searched it from top to bottom, eventually finding the cash in a linen closet. Grandison chased after Wershe and caught up with him one street over. Tom McClain of the DEA says that when Wershe was cuffed and led toward a cruiser, there were congratulations and smiles among the cops. Wershe had been roughed up, and he was taken to the hospital before he was booked. Grandison’s partner admitted to punching him during the scuffle.
According to police reports, within a couple of hours officers received an anonymous tip that Wershe had stashed a cardboard box under a nearby porch before he was arrested. When police recovered it, they said, they found eight kilos of cocaine inside.
Wershe posted bail, but now his business dealings were a matter of public record. Chris Hansen’s WXYZ exposé appeared not long after. The papers carried Wershe’s mug shot and noted with some bewilderment that he looked “as though he should be thinking about the prom, not prison.” When Wershe went to a Detroit Pistons game at the Pontiac Silverdome, the cameras found him and put his face up on the Jumbotron. Fans wished him luck, he says, as if he were a hip-hop star. He couldn’t believe it. He was famous. The neighborhood dry cleaner knew who he was.
That October, Wershe was arrested again by members of the No Crack Crew near Royal Skateland, this time for possession of five kilos. The day he came home from jail, the No Crack Crew simultaneously raided his father’s and his grandparents’ houses, across Hampshire from each other, and found guns and drug paraphernalia. They couldn’t pin anything on Wershe himself, but he was already in deep trouble. He was due to face trial in three months for the eight-kilo charge. And he knew that a guilty verdict meant life without parole.
In January 1988, Wershe arrived at the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice, one of a grim cluster of concrete criminal-justice buildings in downtown Detroit. He walked into the courthouse flanked by his parents, his mother in large sunglasses and a long fur coat, his father looking gaunt in a gray trench coat. Wershe wore a double-breasted suit, with pleated pants, and alligator loafers.
One of Wershe’s attorneys was William Bufalino II, a short and pudgy man known for his courtroom showmanship. His father represented Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamsters and was often accused of having links to organized crime. Bufalino had stoked attention in the Wershe case, hosting a press conference at which Wershe’s father held forth about violations of his and his son’s constitutional rights.
The media, including a camera crew from 60 Minutes, turned out en masse for the trial, as did Wershe’s supporters and others in the drug trade, some of them notorious enough that the journalists in attendance recognized them. One newspaper reporter described young men congregating by the pay phones but dispersing and hiding their faces when they saw TV cameras. Deputies spoke of seeing some of them searching through wads of cash for bills small enough to pay for potato chips in the courthouse tobacco shop during breaks. Pagers went off repeatedly during the proceedings.
Wershe had reason to like his chances. The neighbors had claimed that he approached their backyard with the cardboard box in his hands, but there was no physical evidence linking Wershe to the box. In the courthouse hallways, he joked with people he knew and razzed a TV reporter who had been suspended from his job for paying a source to smoke a crack pipe on camera. In earshot of journalists, Wershe complained about his lawyers forbidding him from attending any more Pistons games, where he might end up on camera. While a reporter for the Detroit Monthly was interviewing him, Wershe reached out and straightened the man’s tie.
When Grandison testified that he had never seen Wershe before the night of the arrest, Wershe scowled. The prosecutor, Robert Healy, accused Wershe of giving him “the bad eye.” Wershe lashed back amid a volley of voices and objections. The judge ordered Healy to “cut out dramatics” and proceed.
One of Wershe’s attorneys suggested that police had planted the drugs to cover for the beating they had delivered to Wershe, who defense witnesses said was struck with a cop’s pistol. In his closing statement, the attorney said that with all the lies and flaws in the state’s case, “it repels you and makes you want to stand up and shout, ‘No way, no way!’”
Wershe now admits that in fact he was responsible for the cocaine—a shipment that had come in hours before the arrest—but says that it was a partner who lived nearby who hid it under the neighbor’s porch after hearing police sirens. In any case, the defense succeeded in casting some doubt on the matter. Deliberations took place over four days, and the jury twice sent notes to the judge reporting that they were deadlocked. Wershe continued joking in the halls.
When the guilty verdict was announced, Wershe sat expressionless. His mother wept softly. His father stood up, grabbed his coat, and stormed out of the courtroom, ignoring a deputy’s orders to sit down.
The sentencing hearing three weeks later was a formality; possession of over 650 grams meant life in prison. The judge remarked that he couldn’t help noting the youngsters in attendance “decked out in gold chains and dress that is common to the drug trade.” He told Wershe, “If they are lucky to survive death, they will probably join you as neighbors in your new residence.”
During jury deliberations at Wershe’s trial, Rick Sr. confronted a member of the No Crack Crew in the hallway outside the courtroom and told him, “You better not sleep too well,” according to the cop. He was swiftly arrested and charged with threatening an officer—and, for good measure, with possessing illegal silencers that had been found in one of the raids.
From his cell in the Wayne County Jail, Rick Sr. agreed to interviews with several reporters in the weeks following his son’s conviction. To each one, he told a story that sounded unbelievable. Both he and his son, he said, had worked as informants for federal agents.
“They used me,” he said, “and they used my son.” The Wershes had put themselves at great risk, he claimed, to help authorities gather important evidence of drug dealing on the East Side. “And now they turn around and fuck us over,” he told Detroit Monthly.
It was a baffling assertion, coming at a strange time. If it were true that White Boy Rick had been working with the FBI all along, why hadn’t his lawyers mentioned it in the trial? Besides, Rick Sr. was not the most credible figure—not only was he facing criminal charges, but he had made the implausible claim that his family’s cash had come not from coke dealing but from his own legitimate income from various jobs. “I can make a million dollars this year,” the man who lived on the decaying East Side said. Few people paid him any mind.
The FBI told reporters that, per agency policy, they would neither confirm nor deny any relationship with the Wershes. An assistant U.S. attorney said he very much doubted the father’s claim. “I would have been told,” he said, speaking to the Detroit News. Even Bufalino threw water on the story. “No way” was Wershe helping the feds, the lawyer told Detroit Monthly. “Maybe his dad, OK. But not the son.”
At the time, Rick Sr. claimed that one FBI agent who handled the Wershes was a man named James Dixon. When a reporter asked Dixon about this notion not long after the trial, he refused to comment on the subject, though he did say that any suggestion that the law had betrayed Wershe was “ridiculous.” Dixon resigned the same year and never said another word publicly about the case.
Today, Dixon lives in a Detroit suburb and fishes in tournaments. When I tracked him down by phone recently, he spoke tentatively at first and asked repeatedly about me and what I was writing. He seemed more at ease after I told him that I had spoken with several colleagues of his from the time. We began by discussing the Currys, and Dixon mentioned in passing “an informant” he had worked with, without giving a name.
“Was that informant Richard Wershe?” I asked.
There was a long pause. “Yes,” Dixon said.
Early one morning in the spring of 1984, three years before Wershe’s arrest, there was a knock at the door of the little brick house with white trim on Hampshire Street. When Rick Sr. opened it, two FBI agents were standing outside. They asked if he had a minute.
By this time, Rick Sr. had known local FBI agents for years. The downtown gun store he managed, Newman’s, was located near the bureau’s field office. Agents would come in and shop for gear, and they would talk. After the FBI formally teamed up with the DEA in 1982 to step up the drug war, bureau agents began working the gang beat alongside the police on Detroit’s East Side. The local agents had occasionally done favors for Rick Sr. before—they looked out for Dawn and called her father if she was caught up in trouble, and they once got him out of a jam on a weapons charge, he claims. Before long, agents started to think about what the friendly gun dealer who happened to live on the East Side could do for them.
Rick Sr. told the agents on his front steps that he was about to take his son to school but that he could talk for a bit. He showed them into the house, where the agents pulled out some photographs. They wanted to know what he knew about the people in the pictures.
The younger Wershe craned his neck from across the room, curious. As a corner-cutting weapons dealer, Rick Sr. made a habit of staying out of people’s business, so he had only so much to offer. But his son started pitching in with information. “Rick had more answers than I did,” Rick Sr. told me.
Wershe wasn’t spending time with the Curry crowd yet, but he had some familiarity with them. He could pick out the major players. It was hard to miss Johnny Curry’s tricked-out Berlina—it was “almost like a pimp car,” Wershe says. He knew some other operators in the area, too; he’d sold his father’s guns to a couple of them. To Wershe, it seemed like the FBI agents were up to something you’d see in Scarface, his favorite movie. (“He must have watched that thirty times,” his father says.) Seeing the agents hanging on his words, Wershe told me, made him feel important. He had something the FBI wanted.
On their way out, the agents thanked Wershe’s father. “Your son was very helpful,” he remembers them saying.
About a week and a half later, the FBI agents came back with an envelope of money. They told Rick Sr. he should take it and become a confidential informant. Everyone on the East Side knew that snitching could get you killed, but, Rick Sr. told me, “I took the money. I wasn’t doing all that well at the time. And I thought it was the right thing—keep some drug dealers off the street and get paid for it.”
FBI documents pertaining to the Wershes that I received show that after a “suitability inquiry” in June 1984, Richard Wershe Sr. was approved as an informant. The agency assigned him a number and a codename (“GEM”). He would collect payments, and he told his son they would split the cash. At this point, Rick Jr. was 14 years old.
The attorney general’s guidelines do not explicitly forbid the use of juvenile informants by the FBI, but the rules set out age as an important consideration for eligibility, and they call for ongoing “careful evaluation and oversight.” Gregg Schwarz, the former FBI agent, acknowledged years later that if Wershe’s work with the FBI had been widely known at the time, it “would have been an embarrassment to the federal government.”
The redacted FBI files don’t distinguish between the father’s assistance and the son’s. But when I spoke with Dixon, he confidently confirmed what other FBI veterans and Rick Sr. had told me: Although the father was the registered informant, the younger Wershe was the true source of useful intelligence. When I asked Dixon if Wershe knew more than his father, he said yes. Then he chuckled. “Yes,” he said again. “I think the son knew everything.”
Rick Sr. claims that FBI agents and Detroit narcotics cops soon began going around his back and meeting with his young son alone. That would represent a clear violation of federal guidelines, since Wershe was never vetted or approved as an informant—and, at his age, it’s unlikely anyone would even have tried. “He’d take his grandmother’s car at 14 and he’d drive and meet these guys,” his father says. (Dixon says that he never met with Wershe without the father present; Rick Jr. says that he used to meet Dixon alone in a church parking lot across town, off Livernois Avenue.)
At first, Wershe just gave up isolated scraps of intelligence: the identities of the thieves who robbed a jewelry store, the name of a health clinic that was selling illegal prescriptions, the location of a cache of stolen guns. In time he grew bolder, however, and he began informing on leading crime figures. Wershe told officials about visiting a house that contained dozens of guns, a bedroom full of stolen video equipment, two punch bowls full of cocaine, and a cabinet that he was told contained a quarter of a million dollars. In February 1985, authorities raided the house, executing a search warrant obtained with Wershe’s information, and came away with almost $200,000 in cash. It was exciting, Wershe told me. “What kid doesn’t want to be an undercover cop when he’s 14, 15 years old?”
Wershe told me that he would regularly meet with FBI agents and police investigators. He says he would meet them far from where he lived, so as not to be seen, then ride back with them to the neighborhood in unmarked cars, keeping his head low, pointing out dope houses and dealer hangouts. While they kept watch, he would use money they gave him to buy cocaine at drug houses, helping them amass evidence. Then he would be paid, cash in hand—a few hundred here, maybe a couple thousand for a bigger score.
Wershe’s father now seems to lament allowing his son to become an informant as much as he laments allowing him to deal drugs. To him, the two are inextricably tied together. One day, Rick Sr. recalls, a narcotics cop who worked particularly closely with Wershe dropped him off in the driveway. Rick Sr. was home early and came outside, but the officer drove off without waiting. Wershe’s father could see the bulge in his son’s pocket and became upset. Wershe yelled back that he’d earned the money. “He had $2,000,” his father says. “At 14.”
Wershe’s ties to the FBI and police may cast a new light on some incidents from his rise to prominence. When he was charged at 14 with shooting the .22 at the man stealing his grandmother’s car, his run could have been derailed early on, but the arresting officer never appeared for trial. Wershe says he didn’t show up because one of Wershe’s handlers, a fellow cop, told him not to—so that he could keep working with Wershe. (The officer said to have stepped in, now retired, did not respond to interview requests.) When Wershe was shot in the stomach, he says, his handlers showed up at the hospital right away; they were worried he’d been found out as an informant and registered him as a patient under John Doe. Wershe’s father was furious to find them gathered in Wershe’s hospital room. “Get away from my son!” he yelled. (The former federal agents I interviewed would not corroborate this story.)
In all, Wershe estimates, the authorities paid him perhaps $30,000 for his work. FBI documents record less than $10,000, but both Wershe and his father claim that some payments he received were off the books, and that often it was police, rather than FBI agents, who handed him the cash.
Wershe told me that he never dealt drugs until after he became an informant. Dixon said that when he handled Wershe in the early days, the teenager “knew a lot” and “ran with some of the people, you know, the lower-end people.” But Dixon didn’t think Wershe was involved with the drugs himself. “Nothing that I picked up on, anyway,” he told me.
That soon changed. The money Wershe made from informing, he claims, helped finance his drug business. He claims that sometimes his handlers would save him a step and let him keep the drugs he bought with their money. He would turn around and sell them. He soon earned the trust of suppliers, who would front him cocaine and allow him to pay them later with the proceeds from sales. He had a knack for it, and his operation grew.
“We brought him into the drug world,” Gregg Schwarz, the longtime FBI agent, told me. “And what happened? He became a drug dealer. And we’re surprised by that?”
Several of Wershe’s handlers were members of the joint FBI and Detroit Police Department task force charged with probing the Curry brothers’ operation. When he came to know Boo Curry and the rest of the Curry crew, Wershe says, he was already working as an informant for the investigators who were trying to bring them down. The problem was, Wershe genuinely liked Boo. He felt guilty feeding agents information on the crew, and he tried to convey that Boo was just a minor figure, not really worth gunning for.
Wershe also admired and feared Boo’s older brothers—and he knew they would have no tolerance for betrayal. While he was hanging out with the Curry crowd at Stoke’s and riding shotgun with Johnny Curry himself, he was playing the kind of dangerous game a cocky kid might wander into without thinking it through. He had become a mole. And the FBI documents are unambiguous about just how useful a mole he was. One report, a request for more funds to pay the “source,” observes that he was “very instrumental in providing the exact addresses and names of certain lieutenants who operate certain ‘drug houses,’” and that a dozen search warrants were executed based solely on his information on one day in July 1985.
Wershe claims that when he flew to Las Vegas for the Hearns–Hagler fight in April 1985, he did so courtesy of the FBI—that the bureau bought him a professional-grade fake ID that bumped up his age and that it paid for his airfare, hotel, and other expenses so he could keep an eye on the Currys and get information about their suppliers. It was the first time he had ever flown on a plane alone. “I was, like, in awe, dude,” he told me. “I had never been anywhere like that.” He likened the trip to the movie Home Alone. “I had a pocket full of money. I could buy whatever I wanted. I could eat whatever I wanted.”
When Wershe first told me all this, the story struck me as highly unlikely. Would the federal government really send a 15-year-old boy to Las Vegas to gather intelligence on a dangerous gang? What if he got into a scrape with the law—hardly a long shot, given the circumstances—and tried to use that ID? What if he got killed?
But when the FBI documents arrived in the mail and I began to pore over them, it was not long before I came across evidence that Wershe was telling the truth. One memo is an itemized request for the necessary money for the trip. In Las Vegas, the memo states, “the source will be privy to [redacted] suppliers and the methods used to smuggle the narcotics into Detroit. In light of the foregoing, $1,500 is requested to pay the source’s expenses.”
Dixon told me that some of Wershe’s best tips had to do with connections between drug figures and public officials, and he recalled that some intelligence had come from a trip to Las Vegas for a marquee fight. In general, he said, Wershe’s information was reliable and “very significant.”
Eventually, Dixon’s supervisors took the Wershes out of his hands, but the father and son were soon put in touch with another FBI special agent, Herman B. Groman. A slim and slight man then in his thirties, Groman wore a mustache and favored French cuffs and double-breasted suits. When he first went to meet with “GEM,” he thought he was going to be dealing with a middle-aged man—the officially listed informant. Groman was taken aback, he told me, when Rick Sr. “brought this young kid along” to the meeting. “I’m thinking to myself, This is kind of a bizarre father-son relationship.” When Groman started asking questions, Rick Sr. kept turning his head toward Wershe for answers. “I noticed he would defer to the kid.”
At the time, Groman was assigned to the task force that was investigating the Curry brothers. Since Johnny Curry was too smart to be busted in a room full of drugs, the task force was building a RICO case, trying to demonstrate an ongoing criminal conspiracy made up of smaller violations that suggested the big picture. With a judge’s approval, they had set up a pen register on Curry’s phone—a device that would record the destination number of outgoing calls. But as it happened, the most startling revelation that emerged from the Las Vegas trip and the pen register did not involve the Currys’ drug dealing. It had to do with a homicide.
Before they flew to Las Vegas, the Currys had tasked a small-time dealer named Leon Lucas with making arrangements for their accommodations and entertainment. The Currys were displeased with the results; Lucas and his cousin had failed to get them tickets to the fight. Two weeks later, Lucas’s house in Detroit was riddled with bullets. Lucas himself was not home at the time, but his two young nephews were. One of them, 13-year-old Damion Lucas, was shot in the chest and killed.
Wershe learned from the nervous talk among the Curry crew that three of Curry’s men had carried out the shooting. They hadn’t intended to kill anyone, only to shoot up the house. Wershe says Johnny called a meeting in his basement and told everyone that if the cops offered to pay for information on the Lucas case, he would pay more for silence. Wershe, who was already in touch with the cops, sat petrified. Nevertheless, steeling himself, he passed along what he knew about the Lucas killing to his handlers on the Curry task force. Wershe wasn’t just a drug mole anymore—now he was a homicide informant. And he had blown the whistle on a case that would have serious repercussions in the city of Detroit.
When Groman checked the log for the morning after the shooting, he found that the first two calls made from Johnny Curry’s phone were to members of the Detroit Police Department. One number belonged to a sergeant named Jimmy Harris. The other was the unlisted direct line of Harris’s supervisor, Commander Gilbert R. Hill.
Gil Hill was a well-known figure in Detroit. He had played a character not unlike himself the year before in Beverly Hills Cop, in which he was cast as Eddie Murphy’s foul-mouthed boss in the Detroit Police Department. Hill would later become the City Council president, and in 2001 he would run for mayor and narrowly lose. At the time of the shooting, he was the police department’s inspector in charge of homicide, but some veteran officers under his command were assigned to another, unofficial detail: looking after Mayor Coleman Young’s family and particularly his niece—Cathy Volsan, Johnny Curry’s then fiancée.
The fact that Volsan was the mayor’s niece does not fully capture how closely tied she was to Detroit’s power structure. Young treated Volsan like a daughter. When she and Curry had a child together, the baby shower was held at the mayoral mansion, where wives and girlfriends of reputed drug dealers arrived in luxury cars for the party. As Volsan became increasingly enmeshed in the city’s underworld, Young sought to protect her. As a police sergeant later testified, as many as four officers monitored Volsan and her mother, the mayor’s sister, around the clock at taxpayer expense. Jimmy Harris was the lead man, he told me, and frequently reported back to the mayor. These police looked on while Volsan socialized with the city’s drug bosses, and they tried to keep her out of potentially embarrassing situations. “Cathy started getting in more trouble than you can believe,” Harris says.
Within days of the Lucas shooting, the FBI began listening in on Johnny Curry’s phone. The wire recorded Curry talking about men in his crew who “went and done a dumb … move by killin’ that little boy, man, that’s a little boy.” Groman told the Detroit police what he knew about the homicide, but for months they failed to act on the information. No charges were ever filed against Curry’s associates.
Suspicions about Hill’s alleged role in the case hung over Detroit for years. In 1992, Cathy Volsan testified under oath that Hill once warned Johnny Curry that his phone was tapped. The FBI interviewed Wershe about Hill that year, and Wershe told the agents that he was once riding with Curry in his Bronco not long after the shooting when Curry discussed the Lucas case with Hill on the hands-free car phone. Wershe could hear both sides of the conversation. Hill told Curry, “Don’t worry about nothing, I’ll take care of it,” Wershe claimed.
Groman and Schwarz—who also worked on the Curry case—told me that when they interviewed Johnny Curry in federal prison in Texarkana, Texas, years after the shooting, he told them that Hill had tipped him off that his crew was being targeted in the Lucas investigation. Curry said that he went to Hill’s office with Volsan and paid Hill $10,000 in cash for the heads up.
Hill steadfastly denied all the allegations. “I haven’t discussed this case with Johnny Curry, period,” he told reporters in 1992. “Period.” Now 82, Hill has withdrawn from public life and has avoided giving interviews for years, and I was unable to reach him at any of his known phone numbers; he also did not respond to a request for comment delivered to his last known address. But I was able to speak with Harris, who had consistently dodged questions about the episode in the past. Breaking ranks with his old boss, Harris corroborated Curry’s account.
The morning after the Lucas shooting, he said, Hill told him to bring Volsan to police headquarters right away. Harris and Volsan spoke on the phone, and when Harris picked her up, she was with Johnny Curry. Harris brought Volsan in to the homicide section, where the officers under Hill’s command were at work investigating the Lucas shooting. Curry came to the station as well, Harris said, and he and Volsan went to Hill’s office. “I remember him showing me a wad of money,” Harris said of Curry. I asked if Curry told him what the money was for. “I think Johnny just appreciated Gil keeping him abreast of what was going on,” Harris said.
Although Johnny Curry and his associates had dodged a homicide charge, the investigation into his drug operation, free as it was from the entanglements of local politics, advanced apace. When the grand jury finally returned an indictment in 1987, it presented a sophisticated and damning picture of the Currys’ drug business. Johnny Curry decided to take a plea in exchange for a 20-year sentence. The other 19 defendants, ever the loyal soldiers, fell in line and took their own deals. Groman and Schwarz attended Curry’s sentencing in January 1988. As Curry was led away in handcuffs, Schwarz gave him a wave. Curry smiled back weakly and raised a cuffed wrist to wave back. The Curry organization had gone down.
The indictment of the Currys was a testament to Wershe’s value as an informant. Many significant details had come from him, gleaned in the hours he had spent in Curry’s house, in the passenger seat of his car, on trips to Belle Isle. Wershe’s “efforts were significantly instrumental to our success,” Kevin Greene, a Detroit police officer who worked on the Curry investigation, would attest years later. “His involvement was known to and supported by the FBI, the DEA, and the Detroit Police Department.”
The day that Curry was sentenced, however, Wershe was in a courthouse across town, at his own trial. By the time the police had searched his grandparents’ house and recovered the money and the nearby box of cocaine eight months earlier, the authorities had ended their relationship with him. According to the FBI records, the Wershes’ handlers officially “closed” Rick Sr. as an informant in June 1986, nearly a year before his son’s arrest. They may have pulled away because they sensed Wershe was becoming a cocaine dealer of some note. At one point, Groman told Wershe’s father that they had evidence of his son’s dealing; Rick Sr. remembers Groman playing him an audio recording as proof. Whatever the reason, Wershe’s pager had gone quiet. Now he was on his own.
Wershe’s arrest and trial transfixed Detroit as the city marveled at the idea of a white teenage kingpin whom a judge had called “worse than a mass murderer.” In retrospect, however, it seems clear that Wershe’s notoriety exceeded his real significance in the trade. “The notion that an 18-year-old kid—white, black, or purple—was the boss of the streets in the city of Detroit in the ’80s is so ludicrous as to deserve no further comment,” Steve Fishman, a prominent defense attorney in the city, told me as we sat in a nearly empty bar one afternoon in downtown Detroit. Fishman emphasized that he would know: He was the go-to lawyer for the true bosses of the era, representing Demetrius Holloway, Maserati Rick, and Johnny Curry. “It was a joke” among his colleagues, Fishman said, that people placed Rick Wershe on the same level as those men.
Much of Wershe’s notoriety stemmed from his role as an alleged supplier of the Chambers brothers. But when I spoke with B.J. Chambers—who, after a two-decade stint in prison, now lives back in Marianna, Arkansas—he told me that Wershe rarely did any business with him. If B.J. was temporarily short, he allowed, Wershe might sell him a kilo or three to hold him over, but that was about the extent of it. Wershe says he was in B.J.’s presence perhaps five times, and he had no tie to B.J.’s brother Larry, who operated the notorious Broadmoor and reaped the biggest earnings in the family. Although he reported otherwise on WXYZ 27 years ago, Chris Hansen now finds it plausible that Wershe in fact had a tenuous Chambers connection.
From B.J. Chambers’s description, Wershe emerges less as a prodigy criminal mastermind than as an adolescent who had gotten in over his head, intoxicated by being in the game. Major leaguers like Art Derrick were using Wershe to get their cocaine to a hot local market, and Chambers says Wershe did not have the clientele or the foot soldiers to move it efficiently. What help Wershe did have was sometimes ripping him off, Chambers recalls—a common problem in the business. Wershe divvied up shipments from Miami with friends because he needed help selling it.
Wershe would find himself strapped for cash more often than would be expected of a genuine kingpin, and he’d sell a kilo below the normal price to raise money quickly. That “started a lot of beef in the street,” Chambers says, because Wershe was undercutting the market and quoting different prices to different buyers. And keeping multiple kilos of cocaine in a single box, like the one found under the neighbor’s porch, was a rookie move. Chambers told me that his crew and other experienced traffickers, mindful that even 650 grams would spell the end, divided their supply and kept a judicious distance from it.
“We were all kind of impressed with what the Chamberses put together,” Tom McClain of the No Crack Crew told me. “But I don’t remember being impressed with [Wershe] and his abilities. He was just kind of like a goofy kid.”
Herman Groman told me that there was a short period when Wershe might have been able to put together a six-figure deal but that he wasn’t near the level that others have described. He was never a supplier to the Currys or the Best Friends, as many Detroiters still believe. And because he was primarily a weight man—a wholesaler—Wershe missed out on a lot of the big profits. Other operators were vertically integrated and made huge margins further down the line—in drug houses that sold the cocaine in smaller amounts, especially in crack form. If Wershe was able to sell at full price, he says, he was buying at about $12,000 a kilo and dealing at about $17,000, maybe a little more. He claims he made about $250,000 total in his short career. His spending at the time—the cars, the lawyer bills, the jewelry—suggests that the true number is likely higher than that. But no knowledgeable source I spoke to pegged him anywhere remotely close to the Chambers brothers’ estimated gross of more than $55 million per year.
While Wershe was awaiting trial, Groman and a more senior FBI agent met with him and his parents at a hotel. If Wershe was willing to divulge everything he knew and possibly testify in open court against Detroit’s major drug figures, Groman told them, the federal government would provide some kind of assistance. But Wershe turned him down. He felt sure that going on record against Art Derrick and the Currys would mean certain death. Besides, he had hired expensive lawyers with pull in the city. He decided to go to trial.
Wershe says his lawyers told him they couldn’t mention that he had assisted law enforcement in court because he didn’t have proof and the police and FBI would deny it. He says that after he was convicted, Bufalino denied to the press that he was an informant in order to protect him from reprisal in jail. Bufalino, who has since died, later blamed the other two attorneys for their handling of the case. Robert Healy, the prosecutor in Wershe’s trial, told me, “Bufalino was a bit of a buffoon.”
Wershe believes that Healy knew about the informing and kept silent, but Healy claims nobody told him Wershe had been working with the FBI. When I called Healy, who is now retired, and asked him about the notion that Wershe had been an informant, he said, “That is plain baloney.” If that were true, he said, “we’d have known about it. Somebody would have come to us.” When I told him that FBI and police sources and documents corroborated Wershe’s claims of assistance, Healy granted that it was possible but said, “What I do know is that the FBI wasn’t asking us to do anything about it.”
When Wershe was led away to a gray cell block next door to the courthouse after the verdict, the weight of the matter had not yet hit him. As a teenager, he couldn’t quite reckon with the reality of a life sentence. And he couldn’t believe that no one was coming to his aid. Gregg Schwarz visited him, and Wershe came away from their conversation with a sliver of hope that there might be some leeway in the sentencing.
It took time for the reality to sink in. A lot of time has passed since.
The Oaks Correctional Facility, a state prison in Manistee, Michigan, is a four-hour drive northwest of Detroit. Manistee sits on the Lake Michigan shore and attracts visitors in the summer, but in mid-October, when I arrived, the sun doesn’t rise till after eight, and the town seemed already buckled down for the cold winter to come.
The prison complex lies a bit inland and out of sight, at the end of a long driveway enclosed by the black oak trees of the half-million-acre national forest that surrounds Route 55. Inside the waiting room, a small Halloween display with discolored pumpkins and apples collected dust in a corner. My shoes and socks were searched, and I was led through a metal detector, fitted with a bracelet, marked on my wrist with invisible ink, and escorted through three locked doors and three guarded checkpoints. I finally came to a concrete-walled room, with vending machines along one wall and sets of chairs facing each other over low tables.
Wershe was already there waiting for me and stood to shake my hand. His adolescent swagger was long gone, and so was his blond mop, now shaved to a stubble that revealed a receding hairline. His shoulders and chest were broad, but his legs looked thin beneath baggy jeans. (Prisoners’ legs can atrophy from prolonged confinement.) Wershe was nearly 45, and if anything he looked slightly older. He still had a smattering of freckles, but his eyes were sunken deep in their sockets.
Wershe had been anxious to spill information in our first conversation, to press his case, but during my five-hour visit he was more at ease. We talked a bit about baseball. His Detroit Tigers were in the middle of a playoff series against my Red Sox. “I think you guys got us,” he said, smiling. During baseball season, he said, the time passes a little less slowly. He pointed to the paved yard outside the window to show me the pay phone he’d used to call me. In the gray morning light, a few men in blue jumpsuits milled around inside the razor wire.
Over the preceding months, as I had spoken with Wershe and others about his story, the central question it posed loomed larger and larger: Why was he still in prison after all these years? As I tracked down the criminals he crossed paths with on the street, one by one, I learned that Wershe was nearly the only one among them who was still incarcerated.
Art Derrick, go-to supplier to the major dealers in Detroit, the man who bought four planes with cocaine money, served five years in prison—less than one-fifth of Wershe’s term so far. Wershe’s Miami supplier got 16 months. Johnny and Leo Curry received 20-year sentences, of which they served about 11. B.J. Chambers served less than 22 years of a 45-year sentence. Nathaniel “Boone” Craft, the hit man who made an attempt on Wershe’s life and testified to committing a host of murders—he once put the number at 30—got out in 2008 after serving only 17 years. And a number of 650 Lifers with violent pasts were paroled on their first try once the law was amended. Wershe’s own bids for parole have been summarily denied.
When I spoke to James Dixon, the FBI agent who handled the Wershes as informants, in the middle of the conversation he suddenly asked, “Where is he now?” I told him Wershe was still in prison. “Wow,” he said, his voice growing quiet. “Wow, wow, wow… He’s been in there much, much too long, I think.”
Among the handful of people who have maintained an interest in Wershe’s case, a popular theory explaining his prolonged incarceration involves an undercover operation that Herman Groman spearheaded several years after Wershe was convicted. The episode made national news at the time, but Groman himself stayed quiet about it, saying nothing to the press. When I called him recently, he agreed to tell me about it. In our first conversation, he said he was leaving out certain details that had never been made public, but he seemed to be dropping clues. “You can figure it out,” he said. Eventually, the full story of what the FBI called Operation Backbone emerged.
When Groman transferred out of the FBI’s drug squad and onto the public-official corruption squad in 1989, the Damion Lucas homicide case from four years earlier still ate at him. From the pen register and wiretaps on Johnny Curry’s phone, Groman had come to believe that Curry’s then fiancée, Cathy Volsan, had high-ranking allies in the Detroit Police Department who were willing to cooperate with criminals. Now he wanted to prove it. So in July 1990, he decided to pay a visit to an old informant.
Rick Wershe Jr. was then serving his time in Marquette Branch Prison, an imposing old state-run sandstone building on the Upper Peninsula’s Lake Superior shore. “It looked like a dungeon,” Groman told me. In the grim visiting area, with pale green concrete walls, he sat down across from Wershe on a folding chair. Speaking softly so the other inmates wouldn’t overhear, they tried to work out a deal.
If Wershe would help him uncover police corruption, Groman told him, he would try to get him moved to federal protective custody, where conditions would be better and he’d be shielded from reprisal. And if Wershe were somehow to become eligible for parole down the road, Groman would lend assistance and testify on his behalf.
Wershe was not at all keen to help the FBI or Groman. When he was on trial, nobody from the agency had spoken up about their prior relationship or come forward to help him. But now that he saw what prison was like, he was desperate. Wershe says Groman was talking a big game about how helpful he would be. And Wershe liked the idea of bringing down dirty cops. He agreed.
The linchpin of the plan was Volsan. Wershe had mentioned to Groman over the phone that his ex-girlfriend happened to be living nearby. She was enrolled in a rehab program in Marquette. She had split up with Wershe between his arrest and trial—her family was not happy that yet another of her male companions was facing drug charges, Wershe says—but the two had remained in touch after his conviction.
They had arrived at an unusual relationship, a détente of sorts, with wariness on both sides. Wershe never told her he had informed on Johnny Curry, fearing the consequences if she turned on him and spread the word. Volsan visited Wershe in prison regularly, but he didn’t believe it was pure affection that brought her there. He suspected she wanted to stay on good terms so that Wershe wouldn’t use what he knew to hurt her and her powerful allies. Now he was about to do just that.
After the meeting with Groman, Wershe spoke to Volsan on the phone and told her that his sister, Dawn, was coming up to visit him for his 21st birthday. Accompanying her, he said, was an old friend of his from Miami named Mike Diaz. Wershe told Volsan she should get together with Dawn and Diaz and go out for dinner. The word “Miami” was enough, Wershe says, to plant the idea of what kind of friend Diaz was—Volsan would assume he couldn’t explain further over a monitored prison phone. “It was like dangling a worm in front of a hungry fish,” Wershe told me.
Diaz and Volsan met on July 26, 1990, over dinner with Dawn at one of Marquette’s better restaurants. Diaz told his story to Volsan, who listened attentively. He was a longtime drug “connec” of Rick’s, he said, and he looked after Wershe and his sister because Wershe never flipped on him. Now he told Volsan he was willing to pay for connections in Detroit who could protect some shipments of money he was laundering. Volsan said no one had connections like she did, Groman recalls. She bragged of her ties to Detroit police. Diaz replied that perhaps they could work together.
Volsan left the restaurant unaware that she had actually met with an FBI agent named Mike Castro, not Mike Diaz, and he had recorded the conversation with a hidden microphone. Herman Groman had been sitting at a nearby table.
A few months later, Volsan introduced Castro to her father, Willie Volsan. A portly man with a beard and evident intelligence, Willie Volsan wielded a lot of clout in Detroit through his family ties—he was Mayor Coleman Young’s brother-in-law. He had been an unindicted co-conspirator in the Curry case and had been linked to several federal drug investigations, but he had never been convicted. According to Castro, he would boast about how his friendship with the mayor kept him out of legal trouble.
Willie Volsan, in turn, brought the police sergeant Jimmy Harris on board. The protection scheme needed a cop with clout, and Harris—an influential figure in the department with close ties to the mayor—fit the bill. Groman remembered that Harris had turned up on the Curry pen register after the Lucas shooting, and he’d had him in mind from the outset. “He was the guy,” Groman told me, and Volsan “brought him right to us.”
From there, Operation Backbone snowballed. In exchange for cash, Harris and Willie Volsan enlisted more people in the plot. Five shipments followed. A team of police led by Volsan and Harris would typically go to Detroit Metro Airport to meet Castro, who pretended he had just flown in. He would be carrying suitcases purportedly filled with $1 million in drug money—in reality, cut-up paper, with a few layers of real bills on top. The police detail would escort Castro to a bank in Troy, where he would walk in and pretend to make a deposit before being escorted back to the airport.
Groman and Castro kept pushing for more. Once lower-ranking cops had implicated themselves by guarding deliveries, Castro would claim to be suspicious of them and ask Harris or Volsan to bring in replacements, which they did. Upon request, one officer slipped a machine gun past security at the airport, with the understanding that it was going to be used in a homicide in Chicago.
But Groman was convinced that the rot within the Detroit Police Department went still deeper and extended higher up the ranks. Because of his experience with the Damion Lucas case, he was suspicious of Gil Hill in particular, and Willie Volsan would often mention his ties to Hill.
Through Harris and Willie Volsan, Castro and another undercover agent he’d introduced as a partner arranged two meetings with Hill. Groman’s men went to great lengths to record those meetings, as well as conversations between Volsan and Hill. At one point, while Castro kept Volsan occupied in a mall, agents temporarily stole Volsan’s Cadillac from the parking lot to wire it for recording. While the work was being done, they replaced the car with an identical model, so that Volsan wouldn’t see an empty parking spot if he looked outside. Volsan drove Hill in the bugged Cadillac to meet with the undercover agents—both wearing wires—at a Bob Evans restaurant on the outskirts of Detroit, where patrons kept approaching to ask for Hill’s autograph. According to Groman’s account, Hill indicated that he was receptive to participating in the protection scheme on tape. Afterward, back in Volsan’s car, Hill said that he was taken aback by how direct “Diaz” was about his illegal intentions but that he thought he could probably help out. “Do they have money?” he asked, according to Groman. Volsan assured him that Castro and his partner were loaded. “I’m just elated at this point,” Groman told me. “I felt like a maestro at the symphony.”
After the first meeting, however, Hill proved elusive. Groman’s supervisors, he says, couldn’t agree on whether to authorize a sting targeting him. Meanwhile, Hill wavered and backed away. The investigators eventually decided they needed to make their move and arrest Harris and his co-conspirators and leave Hill out of it for now; perhaps Harris would talk in exchange for leniency. So Groman set up an audacious finale.
Late on the morning of May 21, 1991, a small turboprop descended into Detroit City Airport. The little airfield sat on the ragged outskirts of Rick Wershe’s old East Side neighborhood. Outside the perimeter fence that surrounded the lone runway stood an auto repair shop, some forlorn houses, and a shady motel.
The plane taxied to a remote corner of the tarmac, and a Lincoln town car pulled up nearby. Three men stepped down from the plane, and a man got out of the car to meet them. It was Jimmy Harris. They shook hands, then got to work lugging a series of black duffel bags from the plane to the trunk of the town car. In all, the bags contained 100 kilos of white powder.
Harris was running the protection operation. As an extra precaution, he had given a secure police radio to his business partners in the plane so they could follow the movements of any cops who weren’t in on the deal. The Lincoln pulled out of the airport and headed southwest beyond the city to the suburbs. Several police vehicles, a mix of cruisers and unmarked cars, followed. Finally, Harris and his associates pulled into a parking lot in the town of Monroe, where they met another car. The duffel bags were transferred to the trunk of the second car, then the two vehicles parted ways. The deal was complete.
Later that day, Harris arrived at a hotel room in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn. Mike Castro—the man Harris knew as Mike Diaz—answered the door. He had Harris’s payment ready: $50,000 in cash for the cops’ services.
In the next room, Herman Groman listened to the conversation on his headphones. He had been working with a team of about 100 people to prepare this sting down to the last detail: The plane full of FBI agents disguised as drug smugglers. The buyers—also FBI—waiting in the parking lot in Monroe. The cocaine in the duffel bags—a kilo of the real stuff on top, in case a wary cop asked for a taste, and 99 more of flour. Hidden cameras and microphones had recorded everything that transpired on the tarmac. Now a special camera with microwave technology was pressed against the wall, and it showed his team a moving image of what was happening in the next room in real time. A surveillance aircraft had even tailed Harris’s car en route to Monroe.
After he gave Harris the money, Castro convinced him to stay for a celebratory drink—there was some Absolut vodka in the minibar—and excused himself to get some ice from the machine in the hall. A minute later there was a knock at the door. Harris opened it and was greeted by a SWAT team. Groman knew Harris was armed and wanted to overwhelm him with a show of force.
The agents pulled a black hood over Harris’s head, hustled him into a car, and drove off. When the hood was removed, Harris found himself sitting in what appeared to be the command center for a massive operation that had been watching him and his associates for months. Pizza boxes and ashtrays littered the desks. Lining the walls were filing cabinets, one labeled with his name and the others with the names of his suspected co-conspirators. Poster-size blow-ups of incriminating photos of Harris hung on the walls.
It was all an elaborate set assembled in a conference room at the FBI’s local offices at the suggestion of the agency’s behavioral-science unit back in Quantico, Virginia, who thought it might intimidate Harris. But Harris would say nothing except, “This is bullshit.” So Groman’s task force moved on to Plan B. Dozens of agents, warrants in hand, fanned out across Detroit to round up the other suspects.
Operation Backbone netted 11 police officers and several civilians. It was probably the most extensive probe of police corruption ever undertaken in Michigan, Groman says. Charges against Cathy Volsan were dropped; prosecutors foresaw difficulties in convicting her, because she had been in a rehab program when the sting began—Groman and Castro say they had thought she was in school—and the defense would likely have portrayed her as a victim of an FBI scheme that reeled her back into the drug world. But she was never the target of the case anyway. Jimmy Harris, Willie Volsan, and seven others went to prison. (All of them have since been released. Harris was pardoned by President George W. Bush in 2008.)
In Operation Backbone, Rick Wershe’s involvement again proved crucial. He had not only set the plan in motion with Cathy Volsan, but had continued to vouch for Castro to others in the protection scheme. “The undercover agent’s very life,” Groman later testified, “at times rested solely in the hands of Mr. Wershe.” Lynn Helland, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the corruption case, says that, at the time, Wershe “was the game in town as far as pursuing that investigation.” Mike Castro told me, “Without him, the case wouldn’t have happened.”
Gil Hill realized he had been an apparent target of the sting and acknowledged it to the press. In the wake of the bust, Detroit journalists probed Hill’s connections to Willie Volsan and Jimmy Harris. (One reporter uncovered that they had once been partners in a failed business venture, funded by Volsan.) Wershe, meanwhile, swiftly got his transfer into protective custody. This time, his role as an informant was not going to remain a secret. His involvement in the case eventually made all the papers.
Speaking with both Wershe and the federal agents who had known him, I was struck by the similarity of the pictures they painted of the streets of 1980s Detroit—of a world where the cops and the criminals were players in the same game, more alike in some respects than they were different. They might have been adversaries, but the lines were blurry and could be crossed. This is a familiar story coming from convicts; it invites skepticism. What was remarkable, though, was the degree to which even some veterans of the Detroit Police Department seemed to agree with it.
While in Detroit, I met a local police officer, still on active duty, who had worked for the department for decades. He picked me up downtown in his personal car and drove us to a bar near Comerica Park. The Tigers were playing, and the bar and the streets were unusually crowded for an eerily underpopulated city, so he parked illegally. It wouldn’t be a problem, he said.
Once we’d settled in at the bar, he told me that he knew officers who had investigated Wershe years earlier. Some of them, he said, would even hang out with Wershe and smoke pot with him. When my face betrayed a measure of shock at this detail and other more damning anecdotes that he insisted I keep off the record, he would smile slyly.
The officer saw fellow police give false information in affidavits in order to get a warrant from a judge. He had partners who were “dirty,” he said—who took payoffs. He said cops at the time were drunk with power to an extent that now disturbs him. “Guys looked at you wrong, you smacked the dog shit out of ’em,” he said. “This job, it fucked you up, man. It threw you into a cesspool.”
Wershe had told me that senior police had pressed him for protection money, which in some instances he paid. Assistance flowed the other way, too. He said that when he was with Cathy Volsan, if he wanted to know what cops knew about him or whether his house was under surveillance, he could find out through her. In June 1987, when federal agents raided Volsan’s condo downtown, they found not only Wershe and Volsan but also the phone numbers of officers in the police department—including Gil Hill and Jimmy Harris—printed on a wallet-size card. They also found copies of internal police records on Wershe himself.
Tom McClain, the former DEA agent, told me that the interagency No Crack Crew could work out of the DPD’s narcotics office, but when they had sensitive records or evidence, they kept them at the local DEA headquarters; police on his crew told him there were other cops “they absolutely couldn’t trust.”
Larry Chambers, the most powerful of the Chambers brothers, has claimed that he had eight cops on his payroll during his organization’s prime. More than 125 Detroit police were under investigation for involvement in crack cocaine in 1987 and ’88. Bill Hart, the chief of police in Wershe’s era, a veteran of four decades on the force, would be convicted in 1992 of embezzling $2.6 million on the job, using the money to renovate his home and buy luxury cars for three ex-girlfriends. After his conviction, Mayor Young told the press, “As far as I’m concerned, Bill Hart was a good man and a good cop.”
In this arena with few rules, however, there was one rule that prevailed—and Wershe broke it. Although criminals probably knew more than anybody about police corruption, they also knew this: You don’t rat on cops.
B.J. Chambers spoke openly to me about his own crimes; they were long in the past, and he’d served his time. He had a generous and relaxed manner and seemed to enjoy telling war stories. But when I asked him about an incident that Wershe had mentioned, when police had allegedly seized two kilos of Chambers’ cocaine and never reported it, he just laughed melodiously. He’d “seen a lot” from cops, he allowed. But that was all he would say.
Nate Craft, the Best Friends enforcer who’d tried to kill Wershe, later ended up incarcerated with him; in prison the two men made their peace. Wershe says that Craft told him that when he had agreed to cooperate with the government against his fellow Best Friends—Detroit’s most violent gang—he did so on one condition: He would not inform on police.
When I asked Johnny Curry about Cathy Volsan’s ties to police, he said, “What kind of questions you trying to ask me about that?” He knew about Wershe’s version of events, but as for his own, he said, “I don’t want to speak on that.”
Wershe broke this cardinal rule not just once but many times. He talked to the FBI about Gil Hill’s alleged role in the Damion Lucas case. In Operation Backbone, he helped bring down 11 cops. And he spoke, not just in private but also in the media, about both cases. In 1992, while Hill was telling reporters that he had never discussed the Lucas investigation with Johnny Curry, “period,” Wershe was telling those same reporters that he had heard them discuss it himself.
After Operation Backbone, Groman had Wershe transferred into a witness-protection program within the federal prison system, which eventually delivered him to a medium-security facility in Marianna, Florida. The rollback of the 650 Lifer law in 1998 gave Wershe a ray of hope; suddenly, convicts he knew back in Michigan were being paroled.
When his own hearing before the Michigan Parole Board finally arrived, at a Detroit courthouse on March 27, 2003, Wershe told the board, “I don’t know if you’ve ever seen one, but living in a six-by-nine cell that sometimes smells like urine and stuff like that, it’s no place… I’d rather be dead sometimes.” The hearing was his best chance yet for a reprieve from his life sentence. Filling in the seats, waiting for their chance to testify, were family members and an eclectic array of supporters—everyone from FBI agents and attorneys to Kid Rock, who had developed an interest in Wershe’s case.
Herman Groman attended the hearing and gave the board a detailed account of Wershe’s role in Operation Backbone, as well as some later information that Wershe had passed along while in federal custody. But although he said that he had met Wershe when his father was an informant, he did not go further into Wershe’s work with the authorities when he was a teenager. Gregg Schwarz spoke of Wershe’s good character and remorse for his crimes, as Groman had, citing his personal relationship and frequent phone calls with Wershe during his incarceration. But Schwarz did not handle him as an informant prior to his arrest, and though he mentioned Wershe’s having given timely and accurate information to the FBI, he did not specify when. Schwarz and Groman left the courthouse after speaking, optimistic that the proceedings might actually go in Wershe’s favor.
After they had gone, however, several prominent Detroit Police Department figures took the stand to testify. This was unusual. People do not typically speak out against the inmate at a parole hearing unless they have a personal tie to the case. And these cops had worked in homicide in Wershe’s day, not narcotics; they had never encountered him before. Still, together they built an unsparing case against letting Wershe go free.
Dennis Richardson, a recently retired police commander, derided the notion that Wershe was remorseful, calling him “very manipulative” and citing a 2001 affidavit in which Wershe rather foolishly overstated his own case by proclaiming his innocence, describing himself as “a product of various state, local and federal agencies who used me to distribute, solicit, buy and supply narcotics.” “I don’t know Richard Wershe,” Richardson told the board. “I was never involved in any of his cases.”
William Rice, a veteran and former chief inspector of homicide, spoke of the dark times in Wershe’s era and mentioned the names of the drug gangs that controlled Detroit’s streets then, tying Wershe to them implicitly. Like Richardson, Rice did little to explain why he was present at the hearing. Wershe’s name had never crossed his desk.
The tide of the hearing undeniably turned. There was almost no discussion now of the crime for which Wershe was in prison, a possession charge. One DEA agent who had served alongside the Detroit police on the No Crack Crew claimed that an associate of Wershe’s had told him that Wershe had directed an attempt on his life—an incident in which no charges were ever filed. Several law-enforcement witnesses claimed that Wershe was responsible for the distribution of hundreds of kilos of cocaine per month—an implausible figure by virtually every informed account I’ve heard. “To this day you have kids who wasn’t even born yet,” a DEA agent named Gregory Anderson testified, “but they can tell you about White Boy Rick, Maserati Rick … the Best Friends, and that’s what that era did to our community.”
In the end, the board decided to “take no interest” in recommending parole. Explaining their reasoning, the board cited the “compelling adverse testimony” of “numerous law enforcement officers.” In the 11 years that have passed since, their position has not changed.
After 26 years of incarceration, Wershe is housed in a level-four cell block, out of a maximum of five. He is permitted to be in the fenced yard outside for one hour and 15 minutes per day. Otherwise he leaves his cell rarely, to report for his laundry job and for meals in the mess hall, where he eats for 15 to 20 minutes. A fellow inmate committed suicide over the winter, by hanging. Another one he is friendly with, a juvenile lifer, tried to kill himself last year.
More than once in our conversations, Wershe struck me as a kind of human time capsule. A middle-aged man now, he still speaks with the cadences of a street kid, punctuating his sentences with nah and bro and man, the last pronounced with only a trace of the n. He seems to have only a limited understanding of what the Internet is. He speaks of Detroit nightspots that are long gone and Tigers players who are long retired.
After his parole hearing, Wershe further hurt his prospects for release by becoming peripherally involved in a stolen-car ring out of federal prison. Working with his sister over the phone, he brokered the sale of vehicles—some apparently legitimate, others stolen. He was a minor player, as the prosecutor himself acknowledged, but his well-known nickname made the papers. Wershe claimed to me that he pleaded guilty only because prosecutors were threatening to charge his sister and mother, and that he stopped participating when he found out that stolen cars were involved. (Groman told me that he remembered clearly that Wershe admitted to him he knew some cars were stolen.) He was moved out of federal protective custody as a penalty and sent to the state prison where he now resides. The incident alienated some people who formerly backed him. Lynn Helland of the U.S. attorney’s office, for instance, no longer supports his release.
But the parole board denied Wershe before that case arose, and Robert Aguirre, who served on the board from 2009 to 2011, told me he does not believe that the car-theft episode lies at the heart of the board’s ongoing opposition. (A case summary following his most recent review by the board makes note of the auto-theft offense but remarks that it was “not used as a reason” for a judgment against Wershe.)
I met with Aguirre recently in a restaurant just off the interstate in Flint, Michigan, where he lives. It was Aguirre who reviewed Wershe’s file and interviewed him when his case came up again in 2010. He pressed the rest of the board for a new hearing for Wershe, he told me, but failed to muster the votes. He does not see any reason that Wershe should still be serving time for a juvenile offense. “What’s to be gained from it?” he said. “What’s to be gained by this man being held in prison?”
Aguirre feels that Wershe has suffered for his fame. “Other colleagues on the board—and I have great respect for all of them—all remember him as White Boy Rick. He has that image that was placed upon him.” It’s a theory that suggests a strange inversion of the typical effect of race: Wershe’s celebrity had been a function of his novelty as a teenage white kid who had somehow skipped across Detroit’s racial boundary and insinuated himself into the ranks of drug barons who were overwhelmingly black. And this very celebrity earned him a longer term behind bars than nearly all the others eventually served. I was somewhat taken aback when B.J. Chambers offered unprompted his view of Wershe’s case: “I think—just my opinion—I think Rick is caught up in reverse racism.” Wershe, he went on, “was the only white boy that ever sold dope in the neighborhood at that time.” Steve Fishman, the defense attorney to ’80s Detroit kingpins, says, “If White Boy Rick had been anything other than white, nobody would ever have heard of him.”
But there was more to the story behind Wershe’s fate. This spring, a new inmate arrived at the Oaks Correctional Facility and was assigned to Wershe’s cell block. Wershe recognized him immediately: It was William Rice, the former homicide chief who had testified against him at his 2003 hearing. Rice had pleaded guilty to perjury after cell phone records indicated that he had given a false alibi under oath for the defendant in a quadruple-murder case, a teenager who was related to his girlfriend. He had also pleaded guilty in December on charges of operating a criminal enterprise involving mortgage fraud and drug dealing.
Rice didn’t recognize Wershe when he approached him. He was visibly shocked, Wershe says, when Wershe told him who he was; Rice had assumed that Wershe was no longer in prison. Wershe was doing more time, he said, than the murderers he had put away. Wershe asked Rice why, as someone who had no firsthand knowledge of the case, he had appeared at the hearing and testified against him. Rice told him he was just following orders.
Rice has since provided a sworn affidavit for Wershe’s attorney explaining that he and others who spoke out in opposition to Wershe were recruited to the task. He was surprised to be chosen for the duty, but he was told that the directive came from higher-ranking officers. To prepare him to testify, Rice says in the affidavit, the Wayne County prosecutor’s office had him review portions of sealed grand jury testimony that Wershe gave under condition of immunity in the federal case against the Best Friends. Leaking such testimony is a felony.
“It is my considered opinion,” Rice’s affidavit states, “that the only rational explanation for the continued incarceration of Richard Wershe, Jr., and the consistent denial of even a parole hearing since 2003, is that his file has been ‘red-flagged.’”
Mike Castro, the undercover agent on Operation Backbone, believes that Rick Wershe is still in prison because he broke that all-important rule. When Wershe worked with him and Groman on that investigation, Castro told me, “it stung” the Detroit police and their allies in power. “It embarrassed them and it showed what they really were.”