'White Boy' Rick Wershe's long history of fighting for release from prison
Parole board to vote on Wershe's release Friday
DETROIT – "White Boy" Rick Wershe is less than 24 hours away from his best chance at release during a prison sentence of more than 29 years.
On Friday, the Michigan parole board will vote on whether or not to release Wershe, who is the longest serving nonviolent juvenile offender in the state's history.
On June 8, Wershe went through an intense four-hour parole hearing in Jackson, Michigan, with two members of the parole board and Assistant Attorney General Scott Rothermel.
During the hearing, Wershe opened up like never before, admitting to pretty much everything police accused him of doing. But at the same time, he said he has been fully rehabilitated during his long prison stay.
What he did
Wershe has been in prison since he was convicted of possessing more than 650 grams of cocaine in 1988 and sentenced to life in prison.
When he was 14, he was being paid by Detroit police to rat-out drug dealers. At 17, someone he had snitched on had him shot, and police abandoned him. Wershe began selling drugs.
On May 22, 1987, Wershe was caught with 8 kilos of cocaine and a bag of cash. He was pulled over by police and ran into his grandmother's house.
Police said Wershe was carrying two bags, one filled with money, one filled with drugs.
Wershe becomes FBI informant
In an attempt to shorten his prison time, Wershe began assisting the FBI as an informant, ultimately resulting in the conviction of corrupt police officers in the Detroit area.
"I embarrassed a lot of people," Wershe said. "All I did was what I was asked and all I did was tell the truth."
The information provided by Wershe led to the arrests of family and friends of Coleman Young, including his favorite bodyguard Jimmy Harris, his brother-in-law Willie Volsen, and his niece Cathy Volsen.
"He was extremely upset at me," Wershe said. "I thought any mayor would love to have corrupt cops off of their force but to Coleman Young, I was a stool pigeon."
Gregg Schwarz was the FBI agent who turned Wershe's information into new arrests and says that Wershe should have been thanked by the Michigan Parole Board and released from prison.
Wershe also provided information on one of Detroit's most popular cops, Gil Hill, a homicide boss that allegedly helped a drug dealer cover up the shooting death of a 12-year-old. Wershe claims he heard a phone call between Hill and the murderer.
"Basically, Gil told him everything that was going on and that he had it under control and that he would be in touch and not to worry about anything," Wershe said.
Hill was investigated, but never charged.
Wershe also provided help to the Wayne County Prosecutors Office.
"I spoke to Mr. (Mike) Cox three or four times at length about the murder," Wershe said. "I explained everything to him and basically he was more worried about whose names were going to be brought up in prosecuting the murder."
Wershe's first parole attempt
At his first parole hearing in 2003, all the promises made to Wershe were broken and parole was denied. Then-prosecutor Mike Duggan wrote a scathing letter recommending parole be denied and U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Collins rescinded his recommendation for release.
"Everybody told me I had nothing to worry about," Wershe said. "No one would oppose my release. Then all at once, it seemed like the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office, the DEA, and Jeffrey Collins from the U.S. Attorney's Office all had something bad to say about me."
Wershe said he was disappointed by the decision, but it didn't surprise him.
"I'm disappointed, let down a little bit, but I expected it, to be honest with you," Wershe said. "After all this time in here you don't believe you are going to get out of here until the day you walk out of here. I'll keep fighting until my dying breath."
He maintains police were responsible for his path to drug dealing.
Duggan's role in long sentence
Current Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan played major role in keeping Wershe locked up during his time as Wayne County prosecutor.
Before Duggan was mayor, he was the prosecuting attorney in Wayne County. During Wershe's 2003 hearing, Duggan fought his potential release, despite advice from federal officers.
The parole board ignored that advice, instead siding with Duggan.
"The Prosecutor's Office, when I was there, made a recommendation in 2003, based on the amount of time he served in 2003," Duggan said.
Duggan's previous letter as prosecutor is still part of the file that the parole board has looked at each time Wershe has been denied parole.
The Duggan letter was instrumental in 2003 because he was the prosecutor.
New chance at freedom
In September 2016, Wayne County Circuit Judge Dana Hathaway said the 46-year-old deserved a new sentence because he was sentenced at the age of 18 under an old law.
"The law that has been in existence since 2003 and allows for a person convicted of the defendant's crime to receive a sentence of life with the possibility of parole, a sentence of any number of years, or even a fine," Hathaway said. "Case law over the last decade demands that we treat juveniles constitutionally different than adults. That difference requires us to consider the defendant's age at the time that the crime was committed. The court is not ruling that a life sentence for this crime is unconstitutional, it is simply saying that he's entitled to be re-sentenced given the circumstances."
"He was an easy target," Sgt. John Simon said. "They made him a drug pin because he's a white boy and doing errands."
Simon was a supervisor in Detroit's 9th Precinct in the last 1980s -- a violent time in which crack cocaine was running rampant and the city's murder rate was double what it is today.
Simon was the officer in charge the day Wershe was arrested. He said he was chasing Wershe in his east side neighborhood when Wershe was only 12 years old.
But when it came to drugs, Simon said Wershe was no kingpin. He said Wershe was little more than an errand boy for the real drug dealers and killers on Detroit's east side.
As for violence, Simon said Wershe was fearful, not frightening.
"The only violent thing I saw Wershe do was he spit on one of the guys, the guys from narcotics in the cell, and tried to spit on me," Simon said.
But on May 22, 1987, Simon said Wershe had 8 kilos of cocaine and a bag of cash. Simon was the officer in charge when Wershe was pulled over by police and ran into his grandmother's house.
"They searched the house and stuff, and apparently he had gotten out of the back of the house," Simon said.
Police said Wershe was carrying two bags, one filled with money, one filled with drugs.
"(We) found a paper bag with money, and I said, 'OK, give me that. That goes with me,'" Simon said.
Simon said the 8 kilos "filled up the front seat of my car."
For that drug bust, Simon said Wershe deserved a lengthy prison term, but nothing near the 29 years he's spent behind bars.
"He's part of that devastation, but there were people that did more, that provided the stupid kid with the dope and the money, and they're out," Simon said.
Prosecutors fight to keep Wershe behind bars
Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy was one of the most outspoken people working against Wershe during his long prison sentence.
When Wershe was in court to be re-sentenced by Hathaway, it all came to a screeching halt when Worthy objected, saying Hathaway didn't have the authority to release Wershe from prison.
The Court of Appeals agreed with Worthy and the Supreme Court refused to act, so Wershe still sits in prison.
"He has been sentenced to life in prison," said MDOC spokesman Chris Gautz. "And the Parole Board, after having considered all relevant facts and circumstances, has determined that paroling Mr. Wershe is not in the best interests of society and public safety."
"The Wayne County Prosecutor's Office has prevailed in the Michigan Court of Appeals and the defendant's original sentence remains in effect," said Assistant Wayne County Prosecutor Maria Miller.
Worthy reevaluates her position
Worthy announced last August that she would reevaluate her position on Wershe's parole.
"Having been deeply immersed in the Juvenile Life Without Parole murder cases for the last six months, I have noted parallels to the Richard Wershe case that have caused me to review the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office position in his case," Worthy said. "However, it is important to note that only the Michigan Parole Board determines who does or doesn't receive parole."
The United States Supreme Court has said the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment requires juvenile offenders sentenced to life in prison for non-murder crimes to have a meaningful chance to obtain parole.
Parole board grants new hearing
A parole board voted in April to grant Wershe a public hearing to discuss his potential release.
Wershe needed six votes from the 10-member board to receive a new hearing. After the hearing was granted, the parole board scheduled it for 9 a.m. June 8.
The hearing was set to determine if Wershe would be released from prison after serving more than 29 years of his life behind bars.
During the hearing, testified in front of parole board members, who also had an opportunity to question him. After questioning, Wershe's attorney, Ralph Musilli, had the right to call more witnesses, and the public was allowed to comment.
Parole board members could decide to approve or deny Wershe's parole or ask for more time and push the decision back to their August meeting.
What happened during parole hearing
In Wershe's first parole hearing in 14 years, and he admitted to pretty much everything police accused him of doing. But at the same time, he said he has been fully rehabilitated during his long prison stay.
"All I can do is try to be the best man I can be from this day forward," he said. "I can't look back."
However, Assistant Attorney General Scott Rothermel did look back.
"Tell the truth. We can see right through the lies," Rothermel said.
Wershe testified that on May 22, 1987, at the age of 17, he was in a car which was pulled over by Detroit police. Inside the car was a clear plastic bag with about $30,000. Wershe, now 47 years old, admitted the money was given to him in exchange for cocaine.
He said he ran from police to his grandmother's garage where the cocaine was hidden. He grabbed a box with 8 kilos of cocaine and hit it under a porch a few streets away. Then he apologized and insisted that today he despises drugs more than anyone.
"I know that the drugs I sold destroyed people's lives, destroyed the community, cost me 30 years of my life," he said. "I feel I have done the time and have been rehabilitated. I wouldn't return to that life."
Wershe told the parole board about raising money from behind bars for poor families in Detroit, and promised that if he's released, he'll never commit another crime.
"I feel positive that they are going to parole Rick, and I'm just going to have to keep my faith until they make that decision," Dawn Wershe, Rick Wershe's sister, said.
The Attorney General's Office warned the board to be wary of a man who committed serious drug crimes as a child and new crimes from behind bars.
The whole ordeal left Wershe's mother, Darlene McCormick, feeling nervous.
"He deserves to be out," McCormick said. "I've been to visit him many times and had compliments from guards on how good he is, and he needs to get out."
The meeting got heated when the attorney for the Attorney General's Office accused Wershe of being involved in trying to traffic cocaine from behind bars. Wershe vehemently denied the allegation and they almost had to take a break from the meeting.
Wershe 'cautiously optimistic
Wershe came out of the hearing feeling like he did the best he could to secure his release, and in the days leading up to the parole board's decision, he spoke with the Local 4 Defenders.
"I would say I'm cautiously optimistic," Wershe said. "I want to be overjoyed and overly optimistic about it, but at the same time, I want to be a little reserved and not get too excited about something that hasn't come to fruition yet."
Wershe's attorney, Ralph Musilli, said it's time for his client to be freed.
"Richard Wershe Jr. was never a major drug dealer," Musilli said. "Enough is enough. He's spent enough time for what he did. The proportionality is starting to overwhelm."
It's been a waiting game almost 30 years in the making. Wershe said he survives the time now just like he has from the beginning: with the encouragement of friends and family members.
"Without the family and the outside support I have, I don't know if I would be the person I am today," Wershe said. "I mean, they keep me up. They keep me going. They keep hope alive. They give me faith that things are going to turn out alright, and I just have to take it day by day."
He's received support from thousands of strangers who believe his ongoing incarceration is cruel and unjust.
"I mean, the people, I can't even thank everyone enough for all the letters of support I've received," Wershe said. "I try to answer them all back, but I can't, to be honest with you. But I appreciate every single one of them."
Potential prison time in Florida
As it stands, if Wershe is released in Michigan, he would go directly to a prison in Florida to serve another 22 months for a crime he committed behind bars.
His attorney is trying to have the crime forgiven, since Wershe has spent more than 29 years in prison for drugs and car theft. Attorney Ralph Musilli said Wershe should have been out several years ago, but unless he can convince Florida lawmakers to give his client a break, a Florida prison will be Wershe's next stop.
Wershe has been described as a model prisoner during his time behind bars, with one major exception. He pleaded guilty 11 years ago to racketeering and conspiracy to move stolen cars in Florida.
"I introduced somebody," Wershe said. "My sister was given $6,000, and that is the extent of it."
During a previous interview, Wershe said it was an easy decision because his plea spared his mother and sister, who bought cars.
"I was told, 'You take a plea bargain, or I'm going to arrest your mom and your sister,'" Wershe said. "So what did I do? I took a plea bargain against my attorney's wishes."
Wershe was sentenced to five years to be served after his release in Michigan. He still owes 22 months to the state of Florida after credit for his time served, but Musilli is going to ask Florida officials to change the sentence to concurrent instead of consecutive, which would mean his time in Michigan prison would count for the time owed in Florida.
"The prosecutors down there don't seem to have a big problem with it, so we again are cautiously optimistic," Musilli said.
It's a deal Martin County, Florida, State Attorney Bruce Colton and State Attorney General Pam Bondi would have to sign off on, because they won't be formally asked in court motions until after the Michigan parole board's decision. They have not commented publicly about the case.
"I don't want to be in prison any longer," Wershe said. "I've been in here more than enough time, but if Florida wants me, I've got to man up, and I'll go."
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