Once dubbed the Murder Capital of the world, Detroit has long been a Mafia hotbed and urban gangster Mecca. The underworld of the Motor City has long been involved in the drug game with a cast of legendary crime bosses and organizations straight out of a Hollywood movie. The drug trade was so high profile in the 80s that some dealers were household names. They transcended the streets and became figures of hip-hop and street lore. The stories from Detroit’s gangland have epic and a drug dealer in the mid-1980s captured the public’s imagination like none before him. His name elicits controversy and his legend has remained relevant to this day.
Very rarely does a drug dealer, much less teenager attract the attention Richard Wershe, Jr. did during his heyday in Detroit. In the criminal underworld he was like a pop star, whose every move was profiled. Wershe’s star rose high in the chronicles of gangster lore, as he grew into the moniker of White Boy Rick, and became a local pop culture touchstone, associated with the rough and rugged streets of Detroit in the 1980s, an era marked by massive bloodshed due to the burgeoning cocaine trade and the advent of crack.
Those old enough to remember can recall the media hoopla when a 17-year-old white kid with a media friendly nickname, White Boy Rick, was alleged to be the capo di tutti capi of all the drug lords in Detroit. That legend has remained intact long after the crack era from which it emerged. The media sensation that was White Boy Rick happened during the Reagan era, when crack quickly became pervasive in inner-city America, and Nancy Reagan peddled her empty Just Say No drug campaign. As a central figure in the mythology of the War on Drugs, White Boy Rick’s legend has become synonymous with what was wrong with the whole tough on crime rhetoric of the 1980s. The idea that we could incarcerate ourselves out of the drug problem persisted for multiple decades, but not marijuana is legal.
Dealers like White Boy Rick caught the tidal wave of the crack cocaine trade and rode it to its crest, juxtaposing the best of modern business methods with street knowledge. Employing intelligence as opposed to brute force. White Boy Rick came to dominate the huge marketplace in Detroit’s streets in a way that a giant corporation would envy. While White Boy Rick’s story looks at the day-to-day workings of the cocaine industry and the economic forces that made drug dealing a rational career choice, it also examines the dirty secrets of the Drug War that most drug soldiers and proponents of the massive tough on crime rhetoric that spawned incarceration nation, don’t want the public to know about. At the age of 15, White Boy Rick was meeting with Detroit police and federal agents and getting paid for information. Yanked out of high school, he was groomed as a high profile drug dealer and transformed into the notorious White Boy Rick.
To get the real story on White Boy Rick and why he is still locked up we turned to Detroit true crime historian Scott Burnstein, who wrote about White Boy Rick in his book, Detroit True Crime Chronicles.
What does the name White Boy Rick mean in the chronicles of Detroit’s gangsta lore?
WBR is one of the most iconic names in the storied history of the Detroit underworld – he represents an era for people (the late 1980s) and a time when cocaine and the nation’s War on Drugs was a real hot-button topic and dominating the headlines. The press gravitated to him and pounded the story, his age, race and status on the streets fascinated people and his face was all over the newspaper and local television broadcasts all through 1987 and into early ‘88. As a result, despite him being relatively small in terms of wealth (probably made less than a million dollars) and length of his reign (roughly a year), he’s the first name people remember from that time period.
How did Rick get so deep in the game and in the streets and become a street legend like he did?
Rick was jointly recruited by the FBI and Detroit PD to infiltrate the local narcotics scene at the age of 14, encouraged to drop out of school and was a paid mole for the next two years. His success and ability to rise through the ranks of the streets surprised even his handlers in the government and by the time he cut ties with the cops he was a legitimate known entity and respected force to be reckoned with in the drug game. At the point, he became the dealer, mover and shaker that he was pretending to be for the feds. His high IQ, natural charisma, business sense and street smarts, combined with his acceptance into the city’s black community all resulted in him being able to become the high-profile figure he was/is.
Explain the intricacies of Rick’s case and what happened to him?
It’s my personal opinion that after breaking off his relationship with the government – an illegal and immoral venture that almost got him killed (he was shot when he was 15 in his capacity of a mole) – the “Powers that be” in local law enforcement aware of his prior connections to them, set out on a witch hunt to bring him down.
This concerted effort to bust Rick at all costs led to his controversial arrest in May of 1987 when he was 17 and eventual conviction six months later under the “650 lifer law.” On May 22, 1987, Rick was pulled over in a car in front of his grandmother’s house, supposedly on a routine traffic stop by DPD. While in the process of questioning him and an associate (Roy “Bones” Grissom), the officers noticed a shopping bag full of cash in the backseat. As they inspected a bag, Rick’s pregnant sister, Dawn, came out of the house and engaged the officers in a physical altercation, grabbing the bag and descending back into the house. The police gave chase and Rick left the scene. Roughly 10-15 minutes later, he was apprehended. Due to the post-stop chaos, the cops obtained a warrant to search the area for drugs and would go onto find via a tip a box with 8 kilos of cocaine buried two blocks away under a porch. Although there were none of Rick’s fingerprints on the drugs or the box they were in, he was convicted based primarily on the testimony of neighbors (David “Peanut” Golly and Julie Story), both of whom claimed they saw him plant the drugs. Golly would later recant his testimony and sign an affidavit saying him and Story were “kidnapped” by DPD narcotics officers the night before they testified, taken to a hotel, held, and physically and mentally intimidated into saying they saw him plant the 8 kilos of coke when in fact they had not.
What exactly was Rick’s role and his association with the other crews like best friends, the Curry brothers and dudes like Maserati Rick and Demetrius Holloway?
Rick socialized and/or did business with all the major players on the streets of Detroit back in that era. The fact that he ran in these circles and was so freely accepted cemented much of his legacy. Demetrius was a mentor of Rick’s. And so was Johnny Curry. Maserati Rick, the Brown brothers (at least at first) aka The Best Friends and the Chambers boys were more social companions. The Browns and their Best Friends gang eventually fell out with Rick, over a beef between “Rocking Reggie” Brown and “Freaky Steve” Roussell, Rick’s best friend and right-hand man that stemmed from a dispute over a girl. Reggie Brown would eventually be convicted of killing Roussell and by Rick not siding with Reggie and his brothers in the beef, they put him in their crosshairs too.
What was Detroit street life like back then in the crack era?
The Wild West, It was a crazy time period, life was cheap and bloodshed was everywhere. If Rick hadn’t have been sent away in January 1988, I’m pretty confident in saying he would not have survived the decade.
Looking back does it seem like maybe the police were the real gangsters?
The DPD is as corrupt as they come. It was then. It was before then. It was after then. It is now. The gangsters in Detroit have always been on both sides of the law.
Describe Rick’s associations with them and what happened when he set them up?
When Rick was three years through his life sentence, he decided to reconvene his relationship with the FBI in exchange for its’ support of his eventual parole. His connection to “dirty cops” came via his girlfriend at the time, Cathy Volson, the Mayor of Detroit, Coleman A. Young’s favorite niece (Rick’s romance with the six-years older and glamorous Cathy, the ex-wife of his one-time street mentor Johnny Curry, only added to and enhanced his legacy). Volson’s father was Willie Volson and his boss Jimmy Harris, both high-ranking DPD officers, were running a protection racket for drug dealers coming into the city to do business. From behind bars, Rick had Cathy introduce an undercover FBI agent to her father and Harris, (the person who was in charge of the Mayor’s personal security detail) which led to a highly-publicized bust. Harris was sentenced to 30 years in prison, however pardoned by President George W. Bush upon him leaving office in 2008 after serving only 15.
Why is Rick still in prison when most of the other people, police and gangsta’s are out now?
That is a very complicated issue and question. I contend that it’s extremely political in nature. His treatment by the state and the parole board doesn’t measure up with his case or criminal record (no violent offenses, the May ’87 650 case being his only conviction and it happening when he was 17). What he was doing for the government as a minor plays into it. What he did to those cops plays into it as well. Possibly most central to what I believe is a conspiracy to keep Rick locked up is his knowledge of a pay-off to then DPD Homicide Department Chief Gil Hill (Eddie Murphy’s boss in the Beverly Hills Cop movies), a longtime local political powerbroker, by Johnny Curry and the subsequent burying of a murder investigation (the accidental slaying of 10-year old Damian Lucas in the spring of 1985) Curry and his gang were involved in.
Detroit has a rich and vibrant underworld history where does Rick’s legacy fall in the hierarchy of the city’s street legends?
Rick’s legacy is as big as any figure in the annals of Detroit’s underworld. The fact that his actual “street record” was incredibly tame in comparison to countless other known and unknown gangland commodities in the city’s history doesn’t appear to matter. In a cruel irony, this monumental legacy (including his nickname, too) is very detrimental to his cause and has hindered his parole prospects (in essence, he’s out on strikes before making it up to bat).
What DVDs and magazine have talked about Rick and his story and how accurate have the portrayals been?
I would say that most depictions of Rick in the media, visual and print mediums, are false and misleading, for a variety of reasons.
Rick’s case and the circumstances surrounding his plight are just so layered it’s almost impossible to break it down into bite-sized chunks (everything is tied together even if it’s not…it’s like the largest shit storm of situations possible, just got/is getting screwed from a million different angles.