August 21, 2021 – The real story of how the FBI ended up on former Detroit teenage drug chief Richard (White Boy Rick) Wershe’s doorstep in 1984 – with the intention of recruiting him as an underage informant just days after he graduated junior high school – traces back to an undercover FBI agent sent into the city’s Eastside bar and nightclub scene to scout for drug-gang targets that spring, according to veteran crime reporter Vince Wade’s research. Retired FBI agent Bill Tisaby saw Wershe hanging around with members of the notorious Curry Brothers Gang and tipped off a federal narcotics task force, per Wade’s reporting.
The 52-year old Wershe worked as a paid government mole for the task force between the ages of 14 and 16 before being sent to prison to serve a life sentence for possession of cocaine found during a routine traffic stop on the Eastside of Detroit in May 1987 when he was 17 years old. The month before his arrest, the Curry Brothers Gang was dismantled courtesy of a federal drug and racketeering indictment Wershe had helped craft with his intelligence gathering the previous two and a half years working undercover.
Wershe was finally paroled from a Florida halfway house last year following more than three decades behind bars. At the time of his release, he was the longest serving non-violent juvenile offender in the history of the American justice system.
The manner in which Wershe was initially recruited to work for the task force has always been shrouded in mystery and the subject of great debate. Wade, who was an award-winning investigative reporter on local television in Detroit throughout the 1970s, 80s and early 90s covering the Motown underworld, explores the roots of the then-underage Wershe’s cooperation in his self-published book, Prisoner of War and cracked the code; deftly delineating between faction and fiction, urban legend and reality.
Wade’s reporting points to FBI agent Bill Tisaby’s undercover work as the trigger point in the Wershe-Uncle Sam connection. Tisaby noticed the young, Caucasian-babyfaced Wershe’s interacting with the outer fringes of the all-Black Curry Brothers Gang in June 1984 and passed the observation to a recently-convened federal narcotics task force.
Wershe was neighborhood friends with the youngest Curry brother, Rudell (Boo) Curry. The pair played on youth baseball and basketball teams together through area church leagues and at the neighborhood rec center. Boo Curry’s older brothers, were Johnny (Lil’ Man) Curry and Leo (Big Man) Curry, twins that ran the eastside dope game and maintained deep ties into the city’s political and police power structure.
The task force assigned FBI agents Jim Dixon and Al Finch to visit the Wershe home on Hampshire Street near the intersection of Harper and Dickerson on Detroit’s far eastside. Wershe was two months away from enrolling in the ninth grade at Detroit Denby high school, his dad and grandfather’s alma mater. Dixon and Finch were familiar with Wershe’s father, Richard Wershe, Sr., from Wershe Sr.’s days selling information to law enforcement on illegal weapons sales.
Wershe, Sr. worked at an area gun shop. As a side hustle, he sold guns, silencers and fake permits on the black market. From the day Dixon and Finch showed up on his porch, fully equipped with long-lens surveillance photos of Curry Brothers Gang activity for identification, Wershe, Sr., this time with his son in tow, was back on the payroll. Wershe, Sr. didn’t know or do anything for the money though.
That became slick and magnetic adolescent White Boy RickWershe, Jr.’s job.
He knew a lot. And he did a lot.
He was also paid handsomely, collecting almost $50,000 in compensation over more than two years of work. The average salary for a Detroit police officer at that time was $17,000. For large portions of the work the Wershes were entailed to perform, they were paid as a team, making it appear as if the intelligence gleaned came from the middle-aged Wershe, Sr., not his underage son.
The DEA in Detroit called him the most important informant in the history of the Southeast Michigan office. After he went to prison, he aided the FBI and DEA in making more cases, some of the more high-profile ones involving police corruption.
Oscar-winner Matthew McConaughey and newcomer Richie Merritt starred in the 2018 film White Boy Rick, depicting Wershe’s crazy teenage years running the streets of the Motor City on Uncle Sam’s dime and his relationship with his street-hustling, gun-dealing dad, played by McConaughey. Detroit rap god Eminem is playing White Boy Rick in a cameo appearance in the upcoming Black Mafia Family television show on Starz, set to debut in September.
The film took significant creative liberties in shaping its narrative. In the movie, the younger Wershe is blackmailed into cooperating with the FBI in its effort to bring down the Curry Brothers Gang by the feds telling him they would arrest his father, Wershe, Sr. for a murder committed with an illegal gun he sold to a local hoodlum, if he didn’t start informing for them. The FBI agents in the movie, portrayed by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rory Cochrane and Brian Tyrell Henry, were composites of the real-life feds who operated and in essence created the urban legend known as “White Boy Rick.”
Henry’s character was African-American and did undercover work, a mix of actual FBI agents Jim Dixon and Bill Tisaby. While Dixon “opened” White Boy Rick as a confidential informant and codenamed him “Gem,” he was soon transferred off the drug task force and passed on the Wershes to FBI agent Herm Groman to be operated as assets. The so-called “Operation Gem” was discontinued in the late fall of 1986.
Last month, Wershe filed a $100,000,000 civil lawsuit against the FBI and City of Detroit for child endangerment, naming Dixon and Groman as co-defendants. Dixon died two years ago. Groman fought for Wershe’s freedom for two decades, testifying at parole hearings and giving sworn statements to try to bring exposure to the injustice surrounding Wershe’s case.
In addition to the movie’s twisting of the facts, the Wershe lawsuit also paints a narrative of his recruitment that doesn’t square with Vince Wade’s reporting and research. According to the suit, the feds first came to see the Wershes when Wershe, Sr. summoned FBI agents he knew to his home to discuss his daughter’s drug addiction and drug-dealing boyfriend, but was then conned into having him and his son go to work for them in their war against the Curry Brothers Gang. Wershe, Sr. died of cancer in 2016.
Johnny and Leo Curry were both convicted in 1988 and did 13 years apiece in a federal correctional facility. “Lil’ Man Curry publicly advocated for Wershe’s release from prison in Wershe’s final years of incarceration. Actor Jonathon Majors played “Lil’ Man” and rapper YG played “Big Man” in the movie.
Bill Tisaby’s name has been in the headlines lately out of Missouri. Tisaby, 68, is facing a perjury and jury tampering case for alleged misconduct in the criminal investigation of Missouri Governor Eric Greitens.