When people think of Detroit they think of the Motor City and the Lions, Pistons and Tigers. All storied professional sports franchises, but those in the know can relate to the reality of Motown’s streets. Once dubbed the Murder Capital of the World, Detroit has long been a mafia hotbed and urban gangster mecca.
From Butch Jones and the YBI to the Chambers Brothers to White Boy Rick to the Purple Gang the underworld of the Motor City has long been decorated with legendary crime bosses and organizations. We sat down with Scott Burnstein, a true crime writer of note, to discuss his new book Detroit True Crime Chronicles and the history of Detroit’s gangland and the major players from the last couple of decades.
Who is featured in your upcoming book Detroit True Crime Chronicles?
The Detroit True Crime Chronicles is a complete Motor City underworld anthology and touches on practically every street icon from the city’s rich and storied gangland history dating back to Prohibition. The list of figures and groups featured includes, Henry ‘Blaze’ Marzette, the city’s first Black Godfather, the Burnstein Brothers and Purple Gang, the city’s one and only Jewish organized crime faction, Milton “Butch” Jones and YBI, Demetrius Holloway, the original ‘Big Meech’, Maserati Rick and White Boy Rick, Big Frank Nitti Usher, Eddie Jackson, The Chambers Brothers, the Brown Brothers, Nathanial ‘Boone’ Craft and the Best Friends Gang, internationally-famous Outlaw Biker don Harry ‘Taco’ Bowman, the area’s Arab mafia, and the traditional Italian mob, specifically such fascinating characters like founding-father Dons Joseph ‘Joe Uno’ Zerilli and William “Black Bill” Tocco, Anthony “Tony Jack” Giacalone, the man who organized the kidnapping and assassination of Jimmy Hoffa, local drug lieutenants Giovanni “Papa John” Priziola and Raffeale ‘Jimmy Q” Quasarano and infamous enforcers, Bernard “Bernie the Hammer” Marchesani, Anthony “Tony the Bull” Corrado, Frank “Frankie the Bomb” Bommarito and Nick “The Executioner” Ditta, among others.
Those Motor City street icons that didn’t make it into this book will hopefully be featured in DTC Vol. 2, if the demand from consumers exists, which I really hope it does.
What got you into writing about the street legends from Detroit?
I grew up in the area and have always been fascinated by history, especially local Detroit history. My family has a pretty significant underworld pedigree – my cousins were the Burnstein Brothers, who founded and led the Purple Gang Jewish mob through the 1920s and 30s – so I was sort of naturally drawn to learning the city’s gangland history from a pretty early age. I never thought of trying to make a living writing and researching about it until my late twenties, but there was a niche there, a void, to be filled and I was hungry to fill it once I realized I had the ability and the talent to adequately do the job.
What street DVDs have you been involved with or appeared in?
I’ve been involved in a lot of them – practically every street DVD about the Detroit underworld released in the past five years, as well as being featured on the History Channel’s hit show Gangland in their Detroit episode, ‘Kill ‘em All.
I wrote, produced and starred in ‘Detroit Mob Confidential’ and have been a ‘talking head’ in other Motor City street classics like ‘Rollin, the Rise and Fall of BMF, AZ IS’s Maserati Rick doc, two editions of the Detroit Connection series by Flipp Wilson, among others.
What other books do you have out?
Well, there was my first book, the regional best-seller Motor City Mafia from 2007, my Chicago mob book, ‘Family Affair’ from 2010 and now my two books this year, which will be out in November and December respectively, ‘Mafia Prince,’ an autobiography of former Philly and Atlantic City mob Underboss ‘Crazy Phil’ Leonetti and the aforementioned Detroit True Crime Chronicles.
What is up with the White Boy Rick story you have been working on?
I’ve been working with Rick for over five years now. He’s not just a book subject for me anymore, but a close friend and someone who needs and deserves to be advocated for. His situation is more complicated and head-scratching than anyone could ever imagine. Since he was a very young boy, he’s been exploited by the government, prostituted in a variety of ways and then thrown in a cell to rot the rest of his life away to pay for the sins of others.
Rick is a great guy, with a big heart and isn’t the same person he was 25 years ago as a cocky teenager, At one point in time, White Boy Rick was an arrogant and absurdly-empowered 16-year-old kid, now he’s just Rick Wershe, a man that is in his mid-40s who hasn’t seen a day outside a prison cell since he was a mere adolescent. Never have I seen a more disgusting and politicized situation than the one regarding Rick’s continued incarceration. There are several very influential people in the state government, that for whatever reason, want to treat him like he’s Al Capone or Nicky Barnes or something, which is totally inaccurate. For an 18-month period in the late-1980s, Rick was a big coke dealer and reached heights no other person his age or race has ever ascended to. He was not a killer, nor has he ever accused of being one. He never took a ‘kingpin’ case, but instead was caught with several kilos of drugs following a routine traffic stop, a conviction he remains behind bars for over two dozen years later with no foreseeable release date. His is a story that needs to be told and I am proud to be the one that will eventually bring it to the public for them to see for themselves the injustice this man has had to and continues to endure.
Give us your take on these notable legendary Detroit street players like Maserati Rick & Demetrius Holloway?
Maserati and Demetrius were the biggest bosses on the street of Detroit from the mid-to-late 1980s. Demetrius was the business man-type, while Maserati was the flashy persona out in front pounding the pavement. They were both shot-callers with few equals in the annals of the Motor City drug game. Although each was respected and feared, Demetrius was more beloved. Most impressive about Demetrius’ legend is that despite being responsible for over half of the coke coming into the city for a good five years, he never took a drug bust. His intelligence and street savvy were undeniable. Interestingly enough, even though Maserati Rick was his nickname, he preferred Beemers and Benzs and was rarely ever seen driving an actual Maserati. Both of their legacies are enhanced by the fact that their respective murders were so high-profile – Maserati Rick was killed in his hospital bed in the intensive care unit of a local hospital and Demetrius was killed while shopping for clothes in broad daylight at a popular downtown clothier – in many ways marking the end of an era.
YBI and Butch Jones?
Butch and YBI were innovators and the first incarnation of the modern urban drug conglomerate in the city of Detroit, in the fact that they were the first group to successfully organize away from the Italians and create complete independence by developing their own supply sources in Southeast Asia and redefined how to manufacture, market and sell narcotics in a concentrated area, making a ridiculous amount of money in the process. While Butch gets the lions’ share of the credit regarding the gang’s rise to power, the contributions of fellow YBI founders and leaders Raymond ‘Baby Ray’ Peoples, Dwayne ‘Wonderful Wayne’ Davis and Mark ‘Block’ Marshall, were just as critical to the organization’s success. The last of the major heroin distributors in the Motor City, getting busted in the early 1980s just prior to the crack cocaine epidemic hit.
The Curry Brothers?
Could be the most ‘underrated’ urban drug gang in city history in terms of the amount of time they were able to extend their success without taking a pinch. ‘Little Man’ (Johnny Curry) and ‘Big Man’ (Leonard Curry) ran their operation for over a decade, spanning the gap between the heroin and crack eras, lasting from 1976 until finally getting taking down by a federal indictment in 1987. Doubled the time YBI was on top of the city’s drug game due to an edict to avoid headlines and media scrutiny at all costs, as opposed to the camera-mugging and attention-grabbing YBI’ers. Johnny Curry was incredibly connected into the city’s political machine through his marriage to Cathy Volson, Mayor Coleman Young’s favorite niece and used ties into the local government and Detroit Police Department wisely and to his advantage for many years.
The Best Friends?
The most ruthless gang in city history. Pure bloodlust, plain and simple. Founded by the Brown Brothers – Terrance aka ‘Booglaloo, Reggie aka ‘Rock’in Reg’, Gregory aka ‘Ghost’ and Ezra aka ‘Wizard’ – in the mid-1980s, as a murder-for-hire gang. After making a reputation for themselves as enforcers, they quickly made the move to fully-functioning criminal organization by the end of the decade. They killed for fun, not profit or business that was what separated the Best Friends from all the others gangs of that era.
The Puritan Avenue boys?
PA ‘Bosses’ like Thelmon “T-Stuck-Stuckey, Reginald ‘The Dude’ Danzy and Damone ‘Slim’ Brantley are three of the most iconic street figures from Detroit in the late-1990s and beginning of the New Millennium. T-Stuck is a revered to this day on the local streets, even though he’s been serving a life sentence since the early 2000s. Dude and Slim were the ones out front, doing the dirty work. They have lots of respect and love in the area too. Puritan Avenue was always a very strong set, but T-Stuck, Dude and Slim took things to a whole different and higher level
Big Meech & Black Mafia Family?
Big Meech is arguably the biggest urban drug kingpin of all-time. To this very day, his stature on streets around the country is unparalleled. A lot of people nationally don’t think of Meech as a ‘Detroit guy’, but he was Motor City through and through. His mentality, his way of doing business, was all inherited from where he grew up, where his roots were. Plus, Detroit was a huge part, a major cog, of BMF’s operation. Southwest T was in Detroit a lot, and so was Meech even though he was living down South in Atlanta, and big chunk of their top lieutenants were working out of the Detroit area. It gets overlooked but BMF was holding things down up here that whole time too.
White Boy Rick?
A one-of-a-kind story, a Tiger Woods of the drug game so to speak. Simply unbelievable that a 16-year-old white kid could rise to the heights he did in an all-black underworld with people more than twice his age running things and doing it so effortlessly. He became a media superstar around here and sightings of him around town sent people, the general public and the press alike, scrambling. Rick’s tale and persona fascinated people and what’s most mind-blowing about the whole thing is that he was started in the game as an innocent 14-year-old kid by the federal government. If he hadn’t been, who knows where he would have ended up?
The Chambers Brothers?
The story of the Chambers Brothers is the real life story of Nino Brown and New Jack City, they were the screenwriter’s inspiration for that movie, that’s all you need to know.
You can order the book The Detroit True Crime Chronicles from www.amazon.com