The story of a teen drug dealer and federal informant seems like the stuff of fiction. Richard Wershe Jr., better known as White Boy Rick, probably wishes his story wasn’t true.
Wershe was infamous as a power player in the late ’80s Detroit drug scene. His story goes from the streets of East Side Detroit to cooperation with the FBI, to decades in prison. It’s a frightening story of power and corruption linked to the war on drugs.
The film White Boy Rick will tell his story on September 14, with Richie Merritt as Richard Wershe Jr. Matthew McConaughey stars as his father, and Bel Powley, Bruce Dern, and Jennifer Jason Leigh also appear. Before the movie arrives, here’s the true, troubled, and ultimately tragic story of White Boy Rick.
In the late ‘80s, when crack was the dominant street drug, crack was the great urban epidemic of the decade. It powered corruption and led to desperate efforts to contain the drug trade.
The young Rick Wershe Jr. lived in a poor neighborhood on the east side of Detroit, where the loss of auto plant jobs created skyrocketing unemployment and crime. Parts of the area were little more than husks scarred by arson and violence. Money was status.
After a time bouncing between life with different family members, Rick settled in with his father, who was entrenched in the neighborhood. They were among the few white residents still around. Rick seemed to idolize the local drug kingpins, and soon joined their lifestyle.
A Young Dealer
Around 1984, Rick befriended big-time local gangsters the Curry Brothers. Johnny Curry was known in Detroit papers as the “cocaine king of the East Side.”
Eventually, Wershe started dealing large amounts of cocaine to other dealers. He drove a white Jeep with “the Snowman” written on the side. After the Curry brothers were arrested, Rick started dating Johnny Curry’s wife. She was 24, seven years older than he was at the time.
In 1987, when he was 17, Richard Wershe Jr. was arrested on cocaine charges. With over eight kilos of the drug in his possession, Wershe was ultimately sentenced to life in prison. (A Michigan statute passed in 1978 mandated an automatic life sentence for possession of more than 650 grams of cocaine. Wershe had more than ten times that amount.)
But there was a huge secret behind White Boy Rick’s story.
The FBI’s Boy
Wershe had a far more complicated background than most drug dealers. Against the backdrop of the terrible East Side neighborhood, where people sold drugs to make money, the young Rick Wershe started working for the FBI.
In 1984, before young Rick was tight with the Currys, the FBI tried to recruit Rick’s father. He was already selling guns on the East Side; they thought he might know some things about the dealers. Even in their first conversation, the agents found that the teen knew far more about criminals than his father.
The two Wershes started getting paid by the FBI, with Rick Sr. on paper as the informant. Rick Jr. really did the work. They split the money. It was a good source of income.
Informing on the Currys and other figures meant getting close to them, and that meant being part of the drug trade. White Boy Rick started his dealing as part of his work for the FBI. When they stopped paying he and his father for information, Rick dealt full-time.
Eventually, Rick’s reports helped the feds take down Curry and his gang on drug and murder charges. Wershe also gave the FBI information that led to the exposure of corruption amongst Detroit officials and police. He revealed obstructions of justice, and a murder cover-up. One of the people he informed on was Johnny Curry’s wife, who Rick had started dating. She was also the Mayor’s niece.
Exposing corruption did not endear “White Boy Rick” to the Detroit cops. After his arrest for cocaine possession, none of his work for the FBI was mentioned at his trial. Wershe says he was imprisoned for revealing the truth about Detroit officials. The details of his work as an informant weren’t corroborated for decades. Even now, some details are hazy, as people involved have died or refused interviews.
A Life Sentence
Richard Wershe, Jr. was sentenced to life for a non-violent crime and spent 31 years in prison. After being paroled in 2017, Rick was sent back to prison in Florida as punishment for a stolen car ring his sister had been involved in years earlier. Rick pled guilty to orchestrating that ring while serving his original sentence.
Wershe says that plea was forced:
“They said, ‘Listen, this is what we’re going to do. If you don’t take this plea, we are going to arrest your mom and your sister. It was a forced plea. I don’t agree I committed the crime that I was convicted of.”
Wershe is currently set to be released in April 2021. He may be eligible for parole earlier.
White Boy Rick opens on September 14.