The writer is a former investigative reporter for WXYZ and Fox 2 who lives in California. His book, “Prisoner of War: The Story of White Boy Rick and the War on Drugs,” is available as an ebook and paperback. He also operates a blog, Informant America.
By Vince Wade
A notorious figure from the annals of Detroit crime is on 2,500 movie screens from coast to coast, starting Friday.
“White Boy Rick” is the somewhat-true tale of a Detroit kid, Richard “Rick” Wershe, Jr., recruited by the FBI—at age 14—to become a paid informant against a politically connected black drug gang. This guy’s amazing tale made frequent, sensational headlines in Detroit in 1987-88.
Hollywood markets the film as “based on a true story.” But Hollywood takes significant liberties with the facts. What you see on the screen is not the true story.
The movie poster calls Wershe a drug kingpin — completely untrue. Nothing in official records or files supports that falsehood, which has become part of the legend. Rick tried to become a major player, but never made it. He wound up spending his entire adult life behind bars.
Wershe grew up in a dysfunctional family and he roamed the streets freely. His father was a get-rich-quick dreamer and schemer. He was a licensed neighborhood gun dealer who did some shaky deals, but he had numerous other hustles: gadgets to defeat pay TV scrambling, a gizmo to defeat the billing on cellphones and other schemes. He always seemed to be on the edge of the law in whatever money-making scheme he was pursuing any week.
Here’s the way the movie’s star, Matthew McConaughey, explained the plot line on “The Tonight Show” this week:
“Early eighties. Southeast Detroit. Young man, Richard Wershe, Jr., 14, begins dealing on the streets. The FBI comes to him and says ‘We want you to be an informant.’ He says, ‘No, I’m not going to be an informant.’ They said, ‘Yeah, you are going to be an informant, because we got two bodies we traced back to guns that your dad was selling.’ So, he says, ‘Yes. I will be an informant.'”
This suggests the big, bad FBI coerced an adolescent to become a snitch in the often-murderous drug underworld to protect his beleaguered dad from a homicide-related gun case. It’s an intriguing story line, but it’s not true.
A Detroit Reporter
I was a TV news investigative reporter in Detroit during Rick Wershe’s heyday. I have written over 100 blog posts about his story and the author of the book, “Prisoner of War: The Story of White Boy Rick and the War on Drugs.”
In 1984, the Detroit FBI — participating in a new federal drug task force –set its sights on the Curry Brothers, a successful drug gang that had political connections. The leader, Johnny Curry, was engaged to Cathy Volsan, the niece of then-Mayor Coleman Young. During the course of their investigation the FBI noticed a young white kid was a frequent visitor at the Curry home in northeast Detroit.
By coincidence, Rick’s father called a couple of FBI agents he had met, asking for help finding his drug-addicted daughter, Dawn. Two agents visited the family home with a proposition: they’d help find Dawn, but wanted some help, too.
They showed Wershe surveillance photos of some black men. Wershe said he didn’t know them but his son might. Rick was called to the table and identified each of the men in the photos by their street names.
The federal agents immediately suggested a paid informant arrangement. Richard Wershe, Sr. would become an on-the-books FBI informant—code-named Gem. It was understood that his son was the one with all the information.
The Infamous Curry Brothers
In subsequent clandestine meetings, Rick Wershe provided drug-related intel, particularly about the Curry Brothers, while his father said little but collected the FBI’s cash.
Retired agent Jim Dixon was one of the recruiters of the Wershes. He says the recruitment had nothing to do with dead bodies and a gun case. “It was all about the money,” Dixon told me. His account is backed up by retired FBI agent Herman Groman who was Rick Wershe’s “handler” for many years. Groman says there is nothing in his recollection or in the FBI files to indicate the recruitment of the Wershes had anything to do with a gun case.
The “White Boy Rick” movie would have the audience believe Richard Wershe, Sr. was a lower-class but loving father who struggled to keep his family together. This isn’t true, either.
Wayne LeCouffe was Rick’s cousin by marriage. “Rick’s father was never home for Dawn or Rick,” LeCouffe said in an interview. “He was never there. Rick and Dawn grew up without parents.”
In 2003, Rick Wershe said as much in testimony before the Michigan Parole Board: “I really didn’t have any parental supervision at that time. I was basically raising myself.”
The movie screenplay writers apparently wanted to make the film a tale of a father and son battling the world together. In truth, Rick’s father didn’t object to putting his 14-year-old son in the danger-filled drug underworld, because he relished the FBI’s informant cash. Rick and his father were estranged for years. They reconciled as the elder Wershe was dying of cancer.
There was a domestic violence side to Richard Wershe, Sr. which contradicts the movie fantasy of a father struggling to help his family.
The senior Wershe was arrested and charged with domestic violence several times. Wershe once threw his wife out of the house in the dead of winter and locked the doors. She was barefoot, wearing only a nightie. She ran through the snow to a neighbor’s house seeking shelter and help. She fled the marriage, leaving her children behind.
Richard Wershe, Sr. was a family-beater. He was arrested for domestic violence by the St. Clair Shores and Roseville police departments.
Once in St. Clair Shores, Wershe choked his 10-year old grandson for not helping bring groceries from the car. In another incident he punched his young granddaughter in the face for fighting with her brother.
Dawn Wershe told the police her father “has a history of physical abuse and has assaulted family members in the past.”
Rick’s relationship with the FBI went awry when he told them that members of the Curry gang were responsible for inadvertently killing a 13-year old Detroit boy, Damion Lucas. The FBI discovered the Detroit police were deliberately botching the homicide investigation. It appeared they were trying to protect the mayor’s niece, who might become a witness in an honest investigation.
Agents were confronted with face-to-face obstruction of justice by police command officers, including then-Chief William Hart. But the bureau couldn’t do anything because a major police corruption case would expose that they had falsified their own files to cover use of a teen snitch. Falsifying federal investigative files is a 20-year felony.
The FBI response was to drop Rick as an informant. He had grown used to the FBI informant cash. He started dealing drugs himself, got caught, was tried and convicted and sentenced to life in prison. He was finally paroled in 2017. Rick had an unrelated car fraud/theft case in Florida. Currently he is serving time for that conviction
White Boy Rick has a fine cast and a talented British director. But the truth about Rick Wershe takes a significant hit on the big screen.
Related coverage today:
Is ‘White Boy Rick’ Worth Seeing? Here’s What 6 New Reviews Say