February 24, 2021 – Dogged Detroit attorney Ralph Musilli died of natural causes this week at 77, just months removed from seeing his most infamous and persecuted client, former Motor City teenage drug dealer Richard (White Boy Rick) Wershe, Jr., finally walk free after more than 32 years behind bars on a single cocaine-possession conviction in a case that drew national attention and became the plot of a big-budget Hollywood film.
Wershe, Jr., was also a controversial underage government informant as a young boy, helping the FBI, DEA and Detroit Police Department make hundreds of cases when he wasn’t even old enough to drive. Musilli was known as a pit bull in the courtroom and a fire-and-brimstone advocate for his clients on multiple legal fronts.
Nobody fought harder to free Wershe, Jr. than Musilli. His passion and demand for justice to be served in regards to the historically tragic Wershe, Jr. case was authentic and his work on the case was tireless and trademark Musilli scrappy. The relentless pursuit of relief for Wershe, Jr. headed by Musilli appeared to reach its conclusion with a motion for resentencing (brilliantly-drafted by Musilli) in front of Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Dana Hathaway, which was granted in September 2015, and then within days, blocked by a higher court after an appeal effort was launched by the Wayne County Prosecutors Office in opposition of Wershe. Jr.’s release.
Musilli practiced law in the Detroit area for over five decades. In 2016, he was listed in the Top Attorneys of North America book. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Detroit and his law degree from Michigan State.
Barely a teen, Wershe, Jr. was operated as an undercover mole by a federal drug task force between the early summer of 1984 and the late fall of 1986, recruited directly out of the eighth grade by FBI agents and Detroit Police narcotics unit detectives, and tasked with infiltrating the politically-connected, all Black, Curry Brothers Gang on the city’s Eastside. The gang was toppled in April 1987, mainly courtesy of intelligence gleaned from Wershe, Jr., who was cut loose from the task force payroll just months before the bust came down.
The May 1987 arrest of a then 17-year-old Wershe, Jr. in front of his grandmother’s house — located in the gang’s neighborhood — for possession of a box containing 8 kilos of cocaine found following a routine traffic stop in front of the residence resulted in a head-scratching life sentence. Every member of the Curry Brothers Gang convicted in their case was out of prison by 1999.
Wershe, Jr., 51, was released from a Florida prison and returned to his home in Michigan in the summer of 2020. When he walked out from behind the prison gates last June, he left the Florida Department of Correction as the longest-serving non-violent juvenile offender in American history.
Musilli met Wershe, Jr. when Wershe, Jr. was just 15 and less than six months into his work with the government. Wershe, Jr. had been shot by a Curry Brothers Gang member and Musilli represented him in an insurance claim that netted $40,000 in damages.
Back in the 1980s, the baby-faced and flamboyant Wershe, Jr. was a genuine pop-culture phenomenon in the Midwest, a tabloid gangster in a pre-TMZ time frame known for wearing mink coats, lots of jewelry, dating beautiful older women and basking in the glow of his celebrity in floor seats for Detroit Pistons games and VIP treatment at the city’s hottest restaurant and clubs. The urban mythology surrounding him quickly moved out beyond Michigan, inspiring episodes of hit television shows of the MTV era like Miami Vice and 21 Jump Street at the time and a 2018 movie titled White Boy Rick, starring Oscar-winner Matthew McConaughey as Wershe, Jr.’s dad and newcomer Richie Merritt in the title role.
With pressure mounting from the McConaughey movie’s pending release and a critically-acclaimed documentary on the subject winning the Detroit Free Press Film Festival capping a flurry of media recognition related to the injustice, the Michigan Board of Parole decided to let Wershe, Jr. out in 2017. For the first time since Wershe, Jr. had become eligible for parole, the Wayne County Prosecutors office didn’t oppose his release. A conviction he took while in a witness-protection unit of a Florida prison in 2005 for engaging in a stolen-car conspiracy, sent him to Florida for three years to do a small stretch of time for his guilty plea in the auto-theft case.