Former Detroit teenage drug dealer Richard (White Boy Rick) Wershe was convicted in state court 30 years ago this week and sentenced to life in prison under the now-defunct “650 Lifer Law,” following a week-long jury trial held amid a frenzy of media coverage and collection of pager-wearing, gold-chain draped dope boys filling Wayne County Recorder’s Court as eager spectators. The 48-year old Wershe was paroled from the Michigan Department of Corrections back in the summer and is currently finishing up his time in a Florida prison for a car-theft ring he participated in from behind bars in the early 2000s.

Due to his young age and skin color in comparison to his contemporaries, Wershe became a true phenomenon in the press in the late 1980s. The acclaimed television news magazine show 60 Minutes descended on Motown to research his case and popular cop shows of the day, Miami Vice and 21 Jump Street, crafted storylines inspired by his rise in the underworld. Oscar-winning actor Matthew McConaughey will star in a film about Wershe’s life set to hit theatres this year.

At the time of his parole in August 2017, Wershe was the longest serving non-violent juvenile offender in the American prison system. He was found guilty on January 14, 1988 of possession with intent to distribute eight kilos of cocaine stemming from an arrest the previous spring when he was just 17. The drugs were found under a neighbor’s porch after a routine traffic stop in front of his grandmother’s house on the far eastside of Detroit in the late afternoon of May 22, 1987.

What wasn’t known publically at the time of his circus-like trial three decades ago was the fact that Wershe had been recruited into the treacherous Motor City drug world by a federal narcotics task force targeting eastside crime lord Johnny (Lil’ Man) Curry fresh out of eighth grade and put to work for the next two years as a paid government mole. The flashy, fast-talking, street savvy teen quickly ingratiated himself into Curry’s inner circle and became his protégé. Wershe was no longer employed by the task force when he was arrested.

Married to then-Mayor of Detroit Coleman Young’s favorite niece, Cathy Volsan and a founding member of the 1970s street gang the Black Killers, Johnny Curry pled guilty to drug conspiracy charges in the summer of 1987 and did a dozen years in federal prison. In the wake of Curry getting locked up in March 1987, Wershe began a romance with the older Volsan, adding a prickly political component to his case. Curry, 59, walked free in March 1999 and campaigned for Wershe’s release in the years preceding his granting of parole.

Wershe retained a high-profile team of defense attorneys for his trial consisting of Bill Bufalino, Jr., Sam Gardner and Ed Bell. Bufalino and his father made a name for themselves as mouth pieces for prominent members of the Detroit Italian mafia and powerful labor-union officials, including slain Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa. Gardner and Bell were confidants of Mayor Young, the first African-American to be elected Mayor of a major American city when he won a 1973 election.

One of the star witnesses at Wershe’s trial, a neighbor of his named David (Peanut) Golly signed an affidavit years later admitting he perjured himself by testifying that he saw Wershe bury a whisky box containing the eight kilos of cocaine under a nearby porch and that he was physically intimidated by Detroit Police to lie under oath. At his two parole hearings (2003, 2017), Wershe copped to tossing the box of narcotics under a porch two blocks from his grandmother’s residence while in a state of panic after he, his sister and his father, had engaged in a physical altercation with the policemen that had pulled him over.

Wershe’s trial judge Thomas Jackson was disturbed by the entourage of gangbangers he saw following Wershe around at the courthouse and filling his courtroom on a daily basis to watch the proceedings.

“You think these people are here to offer you support, I think they are here to figure out who’s going to replace you after you’re gone,” Judge Jackson told him following the jury delivering its guilty verdict.

Leave a Reply