Of more than 200 people sentenced to life without parole under a controversial Michigan drug law only one remains. At last he has a hope of freedom
Rick Wershe Jr has a daily routine not unlike most of the 43,000 incarcerated individuals in Michigan’s prison system.
Every morning, he wakes up in a cell inside the Oaks correctional facility, a state prison in Manistee, Michigan – about four hours north-west of Detroit. He’s allowed an hour and 15 minutes outside in the prison’s fenced yard per day. Four days a week, he works a two-to-three-hour shift in the laundry unit. Otherwise, he passes time in his 8ft-by-12ft cell.
“It’s like living in a bathroom,” Wershe said. “A small bathroom.”
What is unusual about Wershe’s imprisonment is perhaps the fact he’s still there: he’s serving out a life sentence he received in 1988 as a minor for possessing eight kilos of cocaine under Michigan’s so-called 650 Lifer law. The act mandated an automatic life sentence, without parole, for carrying at least 650 grams of cocaine.
By 1998, the law – what former governor William Milliken called the “worst mistake of my career” for signing – was seen as a brimming failure and summarily rolled back. At the time, it was accountable for the sentences of more than 220 convicts. Since then, they’ve all been released – except Wershe.
“In my heart, I think I know why,” Wershe told the Guardian. “But why am I so different from everyone else?”
Despite the aid of high-profile rock stars, former FBI agents he assisted and the attention from reporters in recent years to his peculiar story, Wershe and his attorneys have met a series of roadblocks on the path to obtaining his release. His parole bids have been denied; a stream of litigation has been stymied, time and again.
“All I’ve been trying to do for the last 10 years is get ground to stand on so I could argue on this man’s behalf,” said Ralph Musilli, Wershe’s longtime attorney. “We’ve never been able to get a hearing anywhere on anything.”
That may change this month.
On Friday, Wayne County circuit judge Dana Hathaway granted Wershe’s request to be resentenced.
The new opportunity for release comes after the Michigan supreme court ruled last month that mandatory sentences are now advisory, not mandatory. Wershe will get a new sentencing hearing on 18 September.
“The court is not ruling that a parable life sentence for this crime is unconstitutional,” Hathaway said. “It’s simply saying that he’s entitled to be resentenced with consideration given to his youth and circumstances surrounding the crime.”
The development could shed light on a question that’s loomed for years on Wershe’s mind: given the constellation of evidence that suggests he should have been released long ago, why is he still locked up?
“My best guess is he cost a lot of people a lot of money,” Musilli told the Guardian.
Brought into the fold as a police informant when he was only 14 years old, Wershe immersed himself with drug dealers and helped bring down violent kingpins, a corrupt ring of Detroit cops and a string of gang members. Nearly all – including a hitman who testified to committing upwards of 30 murders – got out before Wershe, better known as White Boy Rick.
His downfall happened in short order. After two years of aiding Detroit police, the world he came to know at the government’s behest was a lifestyle that, as a teenager, he couldn’t shake.
“Was I blinded by the money, was I blinded by the girls, was I blinded by the material possessions? Absolutely,” he said. Eventually, he was reeled in to the other side.
But the government has for years grossly overstated his significance in the drug trade of the 1980s, Wershe said. When his trial eventually began, his role as an informant wasn’t admissible in court, allowing the government to portray him – incorrectly, according to Wershe, former FBI agents and his attorney – as a high-profile dealer who ravaged the streets of Detroit. That was a status that prevailed over time in the eyes of law enforcement: in 2003, with a parole hearing imminent, the county prosecutor said the “sheer volume” of drugs he introduced to Detroit’s neighborhoods “confirm that Wershe is a serious danger” to the city’s residents.
The thorn in Wershe’s side has been the sight of violent felons and convicts – ones he helped law enforcement authorities snag – earning their freedom while he remains imprisoned, left to stew on his extraordinary circumstance. And he begrudges ever falling into drugs – as an informant and a dealer.
“I was misguided, and I went down a path that I never thought would affect the rest of my life,” he said.
His brief stint as a dealer, however, shouldn’t dictate a life sentence, Wershe contends. “I sold drugs for 11 months … without the government and the [Detroit police department’s] help, and you say I should die in prison?” he said. “They’re sick. Something isn’t right.”
Drug informant to drug dealer
Wershe grew up on Detroit’s east side, living on and off after his parents’ divorce in a small brick house on Hampshire Street, a front-row seat to the deteriorating conditions of 1980s Detroit: the middle of the decade brought a steady increase in crime, auto factory jobs were fleeting and crack cocaine was a growing commodity.
But Wershe has fond memories of his hometown. “I wasn’t really the person people think,” he said.
His father, Rick Wershe Sr, sold firearms for a living; on the side, he worked as a police informant. By the time his son turned 14, during a brief encounter with officers at his home, Wershe said he also began aiding police. At first, he’d speak to police with his father; eventually, it became a solo endeavor.
“He’d take his grandmother’s car at 14 and he’d drive and meet these guys,” Wershe Sr told journalist Evan Hughes last year.
Over time, as he grew more acquainted with drug operatives in the city, Wershe earned their trust and respect.
“He was this baby-faced white kid who would go in and show up at parties,” attorney Musilli said. “He was a novelty.”
At some point in 1986, however, the FBI closed out its file on Rick Sr as an informant, according to documents obtained by Hughes. (His father was the registered informant, but Wershe dished the intel, Hughes said.) By then, Wershe, still only a tender 16 years old, had begun selling drugs himself.
Musilli said the reason Wershe went “off the reservation” is simple: he told his attorney, “If I wasn’t dealing drugs, I would’ve been killed.”
Nearly a year after his personal dealings began, the feds targeted Wershe at a traffic stop, later finding a stash of cocaine near his house. He was 17.
When his trial began, the media pounced on his story – the quiet white kid turned drug lord. The notoriety transformed him into White Boy Rick, a pseudonym crafted by the media alone, contrary to claims it was Wershe’s street name.
“They did it to glorify or glamorize,” Wershe said. “It was like I was like an anomaly. It was like, ‘Holy shit, a white kid?’”
His trial was swift. During a hearing, the judge said in court that Wershe was “worse than a murderer”, a testament to the fervor surrounding Detroit’s crack epidemic. Capitalizing on the sensation in town of Wershe’s story, the judge threw the book at him, sentencing the teenager to life in prison without parole.
But Wershe said he never sold drugs until he became an informant. It was an art he crafted with the assistance of the government.
“I learned it from them for two years,” Wershe said. “I never sold drugs on my own for those two years, and then they … left me in the middle of it. I was a 16-year-old kid.”
‘I grew up in prison’
Despite the conviction, Wershe remained an asset to the law enforcement officials. In 1992, he was approached by FBI agents hoping to break into a ring of corrupt cops.
The feds “couldn’t get into it”, Musilli said. “Their undercover guy couldn’t get into it. They go up and ask Rick if they’ll lend his name … using his name, using his credibility, they do and they break the ring.”
As a result, the feds arrested nearly a dozen cops tied to the scheme. In return, Wershe was transferred to a witness protection program and moved to a new prison facility for several years, until 1998, when Michigan decided to roll back the 650 Lifer law.
The following year, a judge resentenced Wershe to life with parole. His first shot at freedom was set for 2003.
When the day arrived, for Wershe, the parole hearing was a disaster.
Early on, according to a transcript from the hearing, Wershe delivered an impassioned response when a parole board member asked him about the comment from Judge Hathaway some 15 years earlier.
“I don’t agree with it … as I told you before, I was a young kid. I went down the wrong path, and I grew up in prison,” he said, adding, “I had no one there to guide me other than older people that were all criminals themselves.”
Following Wershe, a nervous Bob Ritchie – better known as Kid Rock – testified.
“I just think … this is a tragedy, and there’s a way to make it better, is to say, ‘Let’s just give this kid a second chance,” Ritchie said. “He’s done 16 years.”
Wershe said the pair became close while he was in prison, but the testimony didn’t work to his benefit. The prosecutor’s office construed Ritchie’s words to say Wershe would strive to adopt the rock star’s lifestyle, if released.
“They twisted everything that was going to be good into something bad,” Wershe said.
In his defense, former agents who knew Wershe testified about the intelligence he procured, and supported his release.
But soon after, a string of former cops and law enforcement officials negated whatever momentum may have been gained. Assistant prosecutor Karen Woodside delivered a presentation to the board on behalf of her boss, Mike Duggan, the current mayor of Detroit and then county prosecutor.
In a scathing letter to the board, Duggan ripped Wershe to shreds. “This is one inmate that needs to remain in prison for his entire life,” Duggan wrote.
Saying that several potential cases against Wershe were “never charged”, Duggan continued: “Wershe’s violent collateral crimes and the sheer volume of controlled substances that were introduced into the city of Detroit confirm that Wershe is a serious danger to the people of … south-eastern Michigan.” (The mayor’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.)
But the testimony from law enforcement, said Musilli, was nothing more than innuendo. “They never accuse him of anything,” Musilli said, “but they keep throwing his name into” descriptions of a downtrodden Detroit that, according to the prosecutor, fell apart thanks to Wershe.
The board denied Wershe parole.
‘I thought he had been released’
Wershe remained in the witness protection program and was sent to a prison in Florida. There, he landed in hot water again. Police linked him to a stolen car ring that was operated out of prison. It’s disputed whether or not Wershe knew the cars were stolen – he has said he was clueless and stopped once he learned the cars weren’t legally purchased, but a former FBI agent told Hughes that Wershe admitted he fully understood where they originated. Wershe faced a charge in relation to the scheme nonetheless after helping his sister and mother purchase a Mercedes, according to Musilli.
In 2005, he pleaded guilty to a minor role, but only because prosecutors claimed they would charge his mother and sister, Wershe said. But the major players in the scheme curiously received lenient sentences compared with Wershe, according to Musilli.
“He gets sentenced to five years,” he said. “The guy that was running the ring got 18 months and everybody else got probation.” The sentence would be served upon his release from prison in Michigan.
From there, Wershe’s circumstances didn’t improve. A potential parole hearing in 2010 never came to fruition; two years later, another was unexpectedly canceled.
One former parole board member, Robert Aguirre, who reviewed Wershe’s file at the time in 2010, stood out as a vocal supporter for his release.
In a sworn affidavit filed in federal court last October, Aguirre said that, since 2011, “I have developed significant information that I believe was not available at the time of my presentation that would have significantly aided in my argument for the release of Richard Wershe Jr, now in prison for 26 years on a single non-violent crime.”
One piece of information, perhaps, is another sworn affidavit Musilli obtained from former Detroit police officer William Rice, who testified against Wershe’s release at the parole hearing in 2003, and has since been sentenced to prison on several perjury charges.
“I had recently learned, to my great surprise, that Richard Wershe Jr is still incarcerated,” Rice stated in June 2014. “I thought he had been released on parole.”
Rice admitted when he was called to testify against Wershe, he didn’t know who the guy was. “I was told that it had come through channels [police talk for saying it was orders for a higher-ranking officer],” he said.
Rice continued: “It is my considered opinion 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’, which means that someone, or some group, has taken a special interest in his file.”
‘It’s going to be foreign’
If that someone exists, they’re probably paying close attention to Wershe’s case again. With the Michigan supreme court’s 30 July ruling that eliminated mandatory sentencing guidelines in the state, Wershe has been granted an unexpected opportunity to make a new argument for his release.
Reflecting on his possible release, Wershe said he would consider going back to school “to learn about these computers”.
Wershe sounds like an affable elder when discussing the likes of the internet – which he can’t access in prison. In the passing decades that have brought the rise and proliferation of smartphones, Wershe appears amused and delighted at the prospect of using an iPhone for the first time.
“It’s going to be foreign to me,” Wershe said. He recalled a conversation with his mother, now 70, about her ability to send a text message.
“I asked her a couple years ago, ‘Mom, you know how to text?’” Wershe said with a laugh. “She got kind of offended and said, ‘Of course I know how to text.’”
Wershe’s two kids, now grown, were babies when he entered prison. He now has six grandchildren.
“I’ve never got to take them to school, I’ve never go to do anything with them,” he lamented.
“They threw me away like a piece of garbage. I’m a human being, I have a life, I have a family.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2015
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