The Plight of White Boy Rick
The famous white drug dealer was a victim of Detroit's racial politics
In 1980s Detroit, the biggest drug dealer was a 17-year-old white kid named Richard Wershe Jr. That unbelievable story was broadcast by the city’s powerful interests. It was complete BS.
“White Boy Rick,” as Wershe was nicknamed, wasn’t Detroit’s biggest drug dealer. He was a convenient scapegoat to blame the city’s crime and drug problems on. He outraged powerful figures in the city, and they made sure he went to jail for years.
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White Boy Rick’s tragic story is commonly referenced to criticize the War on Drugs. His unjust sentence was the result of America’s allegedly misguided zeal to wipe out the narcotics trade. While this is the message of the 2017 documentary White Boy and the 2018 feature film White Boy Rick, the actual facts present a more politically incorrect message. The story shows the travesty of black-run Detroit and how its corruption unfairly kept a white person in jail.
The 2017 documentary makes its intended message clear early on in the movie. Interviewed subjects bemoan the harsh sentencing guidelines set by Michigan and the federal government. They even imply Rick invited the wrath of racist Detroit cops. One subject says Wershe talked black, hung out with blacks, and even dated blacks. This apparently made him a “race traitor” in the eyes of white cops. The problem with this theory is that it was black cops and officials who kept Rick in jail—and it had nothing to do with him being a “wigger.”
Wershe was born on Detroit’s east side, a once working class white community that transformed with white flight. The Wershes became a minority in their community and crack houses sprung up on their street. Rick’s mother joined the whites fleeing to the suburbs when she divorced his father. His dad, Richard Wershe Sr., stayed behind. He sold guns to many of the black criminals turning his neighborhood into a warzone. Wershe Jr. alternated between living with both parents but chose to stay with his dad. He adapted to the new ways of the community and fit in with his black peers.
Rick Sr. worked for the feds as an informant and brought his son into the business. The feds were keen on Junior’s street knowledge and familiarity with big-time drug dealers. Despite being only 14, Wershe became an asset for several law enforcement agencies. The FBI, DEA, and local police all relied on Rick for information. He was paid over $35,000 for his informant work. While richly rewarded, the work forced him to drop out of school. Police would regularly keep him up until 3 am to make drug buys and identify suspects.
Eventually, the drug dealers caught on that this white kid may be an informant. Rick primarily worked for the Curry gang, run by brothers Johnny and Leo Curry. The Currys had close ties to powerful figures in the city. Johnny was married to then-Mayor Coleman Young’s niece, Cathy Volsan. The popular black leader assigned a police detail to protect his niece and her drug dealer husband. The Currys also had a close friendship with Gil Hill, the chief of the homicide division in Detroit’s Police Department. Hill was a local celebrity and appeared in the popular Beverly Hills Cop movies. He was also allegedly in league with the city’s drug lords. The Curry Gang was a real force in the city.
Rick narrowly avoided death after being shot by a Curry lieutenant in 1984. Instead of taking him off the street, law enforcement sent him back out to the gang. It was reasoned that returning after being shot would help his street cred and prove he was not an informant. That theory proved correct. Wershe gained the trust of Johnny Curry and was welcomed into his inner circle.
His informant work would lead to an indictment against Curry. But it also drew the ire of local officials. When members of the Curry gang killed a 13-year-old in a drive-by shooting, police made sure to pin it on an innocent man. According to Wershe, Curry paid off Gil Hill to ensure his gang wasn’t blamed for the crime. Information about the murder was supplied by the FBI in defense of the innocent man framed for the crime. That helped deliver justice, but it also made Detroit police suspect Wershe was a rat.
The documentary claims the feds and police abruptly stopped working with Rick after an indictment was set against Curry. With no guidance of what to do next, the teenager continued to be a drug dealer— but now without law enforcement supervision and sanction. According to the criminals interviewed, Wershe never became a kingpin. He was a minor dealer who did move enough cocaine to satisfy a long jail sentence, but he wasn’t a power player. He was a small fish.
But the police had it out for him. A convicted hitman, Nate "Boone" Craft, claims Gil Hill hired him to kill Wershe. He nearly succeeded in executing his target while doing a drive-by. A jammed gun saved White Boy Rick’s life.
Rick further irked the city’s black leaders after being caught sleeping with Cathy Volsan during a police raid.
In 1987, he was arrested by local cops with over eight kilos of coke. That was enough to send him to jail for life under Michigan’s tough drug laws. Wershe got a white attorney, William Buffalino, who planned an aggressive defense that would seek to throw out evidence. But Rick was convinced by Volsan to ditch his white attorney and get two black attorneys with ties to the mayor. She claimed they would ensure everything got worked out. The two lawyers, Ed Bell and Sam Gardner, pursued a far less aggressive defense but assured their client they’d get the case taken care of. They did not live up to their promise. Wershe was found guilty and sentenced to life in jail. He felt his lawyers threw his case on Coleman Young’s behalf. Detroit’s black elite wanted him to go away.
Wershe got an opportunity to get back at those involved in his arrest and sentence. The FBI contacted him in the 1990s to help target corrupt officials in Detroit. The feds promised to help Wershe to get an early release. Rick agreed and connected individuals connected with Coleman Young to a drug dealer in Miami. That drug dealer was an undercover agent. Gil Hill was targeted by the sting and met with an undercover agent. But there wasn’t enough evidence to indict. Mayor Young’s brother-in-law and bodyguard were indicted and convicted over the FBI sting. It was considered one of the biggest corruption cases in Michigan history and a major success for the FBI. It should’ve helped Wershe get out of jail early. Instead, it kept him in jail for even longer.
During Rick’s incarceration, Michigan reduced the length of the mandatory minimum sentencing of his conviction. When he was tried, it meant life in jail. But the state sentencing laws for juveniles changed during his prison term, allowing him the opportunity for freedom.
But his 2003 parole hearing showed the changed laws wouldn’t help him out. While federal agents strongly recommended his release, Detroit’s power structure deployed its vast resources to keep him in jail. The district attorney’s office sent a letter to the parole board implying Wershe, who was never implicated in any violence, was responsible for dozens of murders and was the city’s worst drug kingpin. Black homicide detectives were sent to strengthen this spurious connection in testimony to the parole board. One of the homicide detectives admits in the documentary that his testimony was dubious and he should’ve never been sent. But it worked. Despite the strong support of federal officials, the parole board denied Wershe’s request. By all accounts, Wershe was a model prisoner. But he was kept in jail because he angered Detroit’s black leaders.
He languished in jail for 12 more years before Wayne Circuit Court Judge Dana Hathaway (a white woman) ordered him resentenced to a lesser offense in 2015. However, this did not get Wershe released. The order was overturned by the state appeals court after Wayne County District Attorney Kym Worthy, a close ally of Gil Hill, vigorously protested it. Worthy was determined to keep Wershe in jail by any means necessary, despite the fact worse offenders had served much less time.
Kingpin Johnny Curry and hitman Nate Craft had both served under 20 years in jail. Wershe was approaching 30 years in jail for being a minor drug dealer with no murders tied to him. He was kept in jail because he was a white boy who snitched on the city’s black leaders.
Rick’s fortunes finally changed with Hill’s death in 2016. The black cop was hailed as a local hero, despite the accusations of corruption and misconduct. His skeletons, however, began to emerge. Craft’s allegations that Hill hired him to kill Wershe was aired to the public, creating headaches for the city’s leadership. The revelations persuaded Worthy to drop her resistance to Wershe receiving parole. White Boy Rick was finally granted it in 2017. He didn’t gain freedom, however. He was sent to a Florida jail to serve out a sentence for his role in a car theft scheme during his previous jail term.
Werseh was undoubtedly a victim of Detroit’s black elite. There’s no doubt he should’ve served time for drug dealing. His young age and his good service putting powerful drug lords and city leaders in jail compensated for his transgressions. But those good deeds, not his drug dealing, made him an enemy to the Motor City’s leaders. The WASP-y FBI agents interviewed in the documentary were befuddled by this. They couldn’t understand city leaders disregarding principles, laws, and norms to keep some white guy in jail. They found it a travesty, because they clung to WASP norms. Detroit’s leaders had very different standards. The law of the tribe outweighed any other concern.
Coleman Young outlined his governing philosophy when he first ran for mayor in 1973. Some of whis black supporters worried he would abandon their interests in favor of proper governance. He assured them they were wrong, declaring he “was a Negro first and a Democrat second.” Black power was critical to his appeal and he delivered on its promises as the city’s mayor. It turned Detroit into a hellhole, but at least now his people had the power.
Young still stands as a hero in the Motor City. Detroit’s airport and its city building are both named after him. Last year, Michigan selected him to represent the state in the National Statuary Hall Collection within the U.S. Capitol. He would replace Lewis Cass, one of the foremost politicians of the antebellum era. Young’s alleged corruption and his legacy of ruining Detroit somehow make him fit for public honors. His race matters far more than his deeds.
White Boy Rick’s tragedy was not the result of the Drug War. It’s the story of a white kid who became the scapegoat for the problems of a black-run city and was harshly punished for doing the right thing. His tale shows why tens of thousands of whites fled Detroit under Coleman Young. Parents didn’t want their kids to be like Richard Wershe Jr.