Richard Wershe Jr., “White Boy Rick,” was 14-years-old when the FBI enlisted him as an informant.
Richard Wershe Jr. was arrested in his home in 1988 with 17 pounds of cocaine. He was 17-years-old. Reporters and the police broadcast the young, baby-face all over the news with headlines that called him the leader of a drug cartel. Wershe, the police claimed, was a dangerous cocaine godfather known to his underlings as “White Boy Rick”.
Convicted murderers came and went while Wershe was behind bars for possession. “I told on the wrong people,” Wershe confessed.
That’s because White Boy Rick wasn’t a drug lord — he was an FBI informant. At the age of 14, the FBI taught Wershe how to deal drugs and planted him inside one of the city’s most dangerous gangs.
But when Wershe uncovered a police corruption problem that ended with the mayor of Detroit, the men who trained him cut him loose. Then they had him thrown in prison for life.
Richard Wershe Jr. Becomes An Informant
“I was brought into this life by law enforcement,” Richard Wershe Jr. reported to Vice, “I was taught it, they left me alone, and a year later I’m busted and put in jail for life.”
The law enforcement he’s referring to are the FBI agents who came to his door for his father in 1984.
White Boy Rick’s father, Richard Wershe Sr., wasn’t a man who lived entirely within the law. He raised his son and daughter alone in a Detroit slum overrun with crack addicts and gangsters. He made his living running scams and selling guns out of his own home.
The FBI, though, wasn’t there to send him to prison. They wanted information. They came with an envelope full of pictures and hoped that Richard Wershe Sr. would recognize the faces. Richard Wershe Sr. didn’t have any answers but his 14-year-old son, Richard Wershe Jr., knew every name.
The 14-year-old wasn’t a drug dealer or a gangster. Though he wasn’t an angel — he’d already started looting people’s homes for cash — Wershe Jr. had never touched cocaine in his life. He was just aware of what went on around him in his community, a streetwise kid, and the FBI was willing to pay to find out just how much he was aware of.
Wershe Jr.’s father saw this as an opportunity to keep food on their table. As Richard Wershe Sr. put it:
“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.”
And to the 14-year-old Richard Wershe Jr., it was an adventure:
“What kid doesn’t want to be an undercover cop when he’s 14, 15 years old?”
That’s how Richard Wershe Jr. became the FBI’s youngest informant.
White Boy Rick Is Born
Richard Wershe Jr. was good at what he did. He went above and beyond what the FBI asked him to do.
He took up with the Curry Gang, the foremost drug slingers in Detroit at the time, and made friends with dangerous criminals so that he could get better information.
The FBI, in turn, began to train the young Wershe Jr. on how to be a gangster. They taught him how to pedal drugs on the street. They even gave him money specifically to buy cocaine so that the FBI could use it as evidence.
To put a 14-year-old boy’s life at risk wasn’t exactly FBI protocol but “White Boy Rick” – as Wershe then began to call himself – was too useful to let go. According to FBI Agent John Anthony, at that time, White Boy Rick was the single most productive informant the FBI had in Detroit.
The FBI covered their tracks. On paper, they recorded White Boy Rick’s tips under his father’s name.
A 15-Year-Old Exposes Widespread Police Corruption
White Boy Rick, though, was a little bit too good. Pretty soon he uncovered a conspiracy that ran through the whole city.
Rick began to see the corruption when a 13-year-old boy was shot by the Curry Gang and the Detroit police did nothing about it. Their chief of homicide, Inspector Gilbert Hill, deliberately diverted the investigation away from the gang leader, Johnny Curry.
White Boy Rick knew this was because Johnny Curry was connected to Detroit Mayor Coleman Young; in fact, the king of Detroit crime, Johnny Curry, dated the mayor’s niece Cathy Volsan. In Mayor Young’s city, to get Curry into trouble was dangerous for himself and bad for his business. Curry, Rick found out, had slipped Inspector Hill a $10,000 bribe.
His information helped uncover one of the biggest corruption cases in police history. More than a dozen police officers were implicated.
Inspector Hill and Mayor Young, though, would walk away free. According to one anonymous FBI agent, the agency was ordered to let the mayor go. The order came down the pipe that the nation didn’t want to deal with another news story about a corrupt mayor: “Washington didn’t want another Marion Barry,” a government official who had recently been caught dealing crack.
The Hit On White Boy Rick
The case had grown exponentially. The FBI was now involved in mayoral corruption. But they worried that if they took action on their findings, the agency would get wind of their all-too-young informant.
So the FBI left Richard Wershe Jr. to fend for himself. He was forced to find a way to navigate the streets and make ends meet without the FBI’s protection, which wasn’t easy. Though Rick didn’t know it, there was a price on his head.
Nate Boone Craft, a hitman with thirty confirmed murders under his belt, claims that Inspector Gil Hill offered him a small fortune to kill the teenaged boy who knew too much. Craft, years later, told reporters:
“I was told to kill White Boy Rick. He said, ‘125,000, I’ll make sure you get it as long as that boy is dead.’ His keyword, ‘Dead.’ … This came from Gil Hill’s mouth to me.”
Rick had already taken a bullet to the stomach from another Curry Gang member. The man who shot him had claimed it was an accident but Rick had his suspicions that there were people out to get him. He needed protection, and he needed money.
White Boy Rick only knew one way to do it. He did what the FBI taught him to do.
He sold cocaine.
A 16-Year-Old Drug Lord
In Detroit in the ’80s, everyone knew when White Boy Rick was around. He might have been a pimple-faced teenager who struggled to pull off a mustache but he came out in style.
Rick went out in mink coats wrapped up with a belt made of solid gold and a diamond-encrusted Rolex on his wrist. He’d roll up in a white jeep he was too young to legally drive, with “The Snowman” emblazoned on the back.
Johnny Curry was history. Rick’s information had gotten the drug lord locked up behind bars and White Boy Rick began to take his place. He’d even taken his girlfriend, Cathy Volsan, the mayor’s niece.
Every drug dealer was impressed. One gang lord, B.J. Chambers, praised White Boy Rick’s climb up to the top:
“He rose all the way through the ranks. He did it just as big as me, the Curry brothers, Maserati Rick — whoever you want to name.”
The FBI had nobody to blame for this new drug lord but themselves. Agent Gregg Schwarz would later admit:
“We brought him into the drug world. And what happened? He became a drug dealer. And we’re surprised by that?”
A 17-Year-Old Criminal
White Boy Rick was still a few days shy of his 18th birthday when the Detroit police broke down his front door. They caught him with 17 pounds of cocaine. The police took White Boy Rick right to the media.
The baby-faced little white boy, the news said, wasn’t just a drug dealer. He was a kingpin. They put up pictures of a criminal hierarchy, and each one showed 17-year-old White Boy Rick at the top of the ladder with every dangerous, hardened criminal in the city listed as his underling.
It was a bit of stretch. White Boy Rick was certainly involved in drugs, and he definitely moved cocaine. But the news made him bigger than he was because the police were out for blood.
During his trial the judge had no sympathy. White Boy Rick was “worse than a mass murderer”.
Richard Wershe Sr. tried to get the FBI to help his son but they refused to say a word. Richard Wershe Jr. was sent to prison for life at 18-years-old.
A 48-Year-Old Up For Parole
It took 30 years for Richard Wershe Jr. to win his freedom. While the people he’d exposed were sent free, Wershe stayed behind bars and spent the bulk of his life in a jail cell.
It was journalism that saved him. In 2014, freelance writer Evan Hughes read Wershe’s outlandish claims about a conspiracy that had put him behind bars and started to look into whether they were true. When he followed up with the FBI, Hughes found out that Wershe was telling the truth.
Pandemonium followed. Hollywood went to work making a film version of White Boy Rick’s life, while an HBO documentary crew moved into the prison to film a tell-all about his story.
For the first time in 30 years, White Boy Rick’s name was back in the headlines – but this time, the real story was printed underneath.
White Boy Rick’s new fame changed his life. On July 14, 2017, just a few days shy of his 48th birthday, he was finally granted parole.
“I’ve lost 30 years of my life,” Wershe said during the parole meeting. “All I can give you is my word. I’ll never commit another crime.”
It won’t be easy. Even now, the only trade Wershe knows is crime. From the moment he started high school, he was pulled away from a normal life and dragged into a life on the streets.
But Richard Wershe Jr. is ready to try. “All I can do is try to be the best man I can from this day forward,” Wershe says. “I can’t look back.”
Next, find out about the unjust convictions of Richard Glossip and of Lawrence McKinney, who was given $75 to make up for 31 years of wrongful imprisonment.