(WJBK) - Richard Wershe Jr., known since the late 1980s by his street sobriquet of White Boy Rick, claims he got his start in the drug trade as a 14-year-old informant for the FBI. The trouble came when the east side hustler morphed from stool pigeon to dope man, riding in private jets, splurging on cars and jewelry and even shacking up with the niece of Coleman Young, who was then Detroit's mayor.
Some would say that's not bad for a kid with an 8th grade education, but as his legend grew, so did the stakes. A criminal career that had looked like a shooting star soon revealed itself to be merely a roman candle, the last fire ball fading as Wersche was charged under one of the toughest anti-drug laws in America.
After four days of deliberation, he was found guilty of possession with intent to distribute more than 650 grams of cocaine. The punishment is mandatory life in prison. Law enforcement officials hailed the verdict.
Wersche's attorney claimed his client didn't get a fair shake. He said the presence of the media, and "the presence of a lot of kids in the courtroom created the atmosphere of almost like being a circus" every time they left the court.
The rest of Detroit was meant to feel a little better, even though Wersche's conviction meant only one enemy had been taken out in the increasingly futile war on drugs. Once in prison, Wersche returned to his roots as an informant, this time helping the FBI bust dirty cops.
"These police officers, ladies and gentlemen, committed a breach of trust to the community that can ill afford such a breach. Despite their sworn commitment to do everything within their powers to protect this very beleaguered community, they have contributed directly to the forces that have undermined further security," said then-U.S. Attorney Stephen Markman.
As before, Wersche the friend of law enforcement soon found himself on the wrong side of the law. While behind bars, he got caught up in a scheme to sell stolen cars that resulted in a criminal conviction in Florida. Since Wersche's conviction, Michigan repealed its lifer law for major drug dealers and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that life sentences for juveniles were unconstitutional. Yet Wersche remained in prison.
Deadline Detroit Editor Allan Lengel believes Wersche's nickname has worked against him.
"You see a lot of other drug dealers, much bigger than him, who got convicted in the federal system who are out after 10 years," he said. "A name like that, it sort of makes him stand out."
Former Fox 2 Investigative Reporter Vince Wade thinks Wersche's problem runs deeper than a notorious nickname.
"I essentially think that Richard Wersche is a political prisoner, because he told on the wrong people," he said.
Veteran reporters aren't the only ones who have advocated for Wersche's release over the past 30 years. At his parole hearing last year, two retired FBI agents traveled hundreds of miles to support his bid for freedom.
"Rick Wersche played a pivotal role in introducing the undercover agent, which led to the arrest and conviction of a number of corrupt police officers," said Herman Groman.
"I don't know of anybody that I've dealt with over the years - and I've been in now, associated with the FBI for I'm going on 46 years - I've never seen anybody cooperate like Richard Wersche. He literally had the safety of undercover agents in the palm of his hand and he always did the right thing," said Gregg Schwarz.
Wersche's family said after his parole hearing that he is a changed man.
"I think he's very remorseful for the crimes that he's committed, especially while incarcerated. And I can tell you, he won't be back. He wants a new start, he wants his family, he wants his kids," said his sister Dawn.
"He will be good," said his mother, Darlene McCormick. "I know he will."
Wersche won parole in Michigan, but Florida officials brought him down south to serve out his term on the car racket. But before Wersche and his family got the good news that he would one day be free, one of his former FBI allies told me we have nothing to worry about if Richard Wersche Jr. returns to the mean streets where he made his name.
"I would bet my life on it, that he will be an asset to the community and I think he has an awful lot to offer to the youth of America to say: Look what happened to me, and you don't want that to happen. So, do that right thing," said Schwarz.