At 14, Richard Wershe Jr. infiltrated the Detroit drug trade for the FBI. He then turned his street knowledge into a lucrative cocaine business, until he was busted at 17 and sentenced to life in prison. Due to the journalism of Seth Ferranti, also sentenced to a long prison term for drug dealing, and director Shawn Rech’s documentary White Boy, Rick may be free soon…
By Chris Simunek
In the coming months, you will be hearing a lot about White Boy Rick, which is the street name of Richard Wershe Jr., who, while still a teenager, managed to be sentenced to life for cocaine distribution. A large part of the reason people are now being hipped to Rick’s story is due to the journalism of Seth Ferranti, who himself did 21 years in prison on a drug conspiracy charge when he was a young man. And while the two have never met in person, a correspondence Wershe and Ferranti began while both were still in prison over a decade ago has culminated in the documentary, White Boy, a film directed by Shawn Rech and produced by Ferranti, which tells the true story of a kid who was taken advantage of by police, befriended by gangsters, and then railroaded by a corrupt political machine worried about its exposure.
Richard Wershe Jr., aka “White Boy Rick,” was recruited by the FBI in the mid-1980s as an informant on Detroit’s drug trade when he was 14 years old. Encouraged by the feds, he became something of a mascot for one of the city’s drug lords, learning the cocaine trade while at the same time getting paid to provide information. Rick kept working undercover, even after he got shot. His handlers, worried what the fallout would be from using a teenager to infiltrate a violent drug crew, dropped him.
Using the skills he’d acquired during his gangland apprenticeship, Rick entered the cocaine game, moving weight up from Miami to Detroit, until he was busted with 8 kilos. Portrayed at trial and in the press as the white juvenile mastermind behind an otherwise black crime organization, he was convicted in 1988 and sentenced to life in prison at the age of 17.
Seth Ferranti was a teenage pot and acid dealer who set up a network that supplied colleges along the Eastern Seaboard in the late-80s and early-90s. At the peak of his drug career, Ferranti was making $20-30,000 a week, had a different girlfriend in every city along his route, and partied with the hippie drug dealer elite in private suites in the stadiums that dotted the Grateful Dead’s tour route. It was a lifestyle he had no desire to give up, not even after some of the acid he’d sold made it into the bloodstream of a teenager who, in the midst of a naked lysergic freakout, grabbed a gun from a cop and shot him with it.
Seth had been flooding the Fairfax, Virginia area with LSD for some time. It wasn’t long before a task force followed all those squiggly psychedelic lines back to him. Turning down an offer to snitch, he pleaded guilty to running a continuing criminal enterprise (CCE), then faked his suicide at Great Falls, Virginia, a popular final destination for the terminally distraught. When a drag of the river failed to produce a body, the US Marshals put Seth at the top of their most wanted fugitive list in 1991. Two years later, he got popped in a Burger King parking lot in St. Louis while doing a weed delivery. Having already pleaded guilty to the CCE charge, Seth Ferranti got 25 years. He was 22.
Both Richard Wershe Jr. and Seth Ferranti were young men sucked into the undertow of a wave of antidrug hysteria which swelled in the 1980s and reached tsunami heights towards the end of the 1990s. Ronald Reagan’s Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1984 expanded the use of mandatory minimum sentencing against drug offenders, while Bill Clinton’s 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act supersized drug penalties, instituted the “Three Strikes” law, and earmarked $9.7 billion for the building of new prisons. In 1980, there were 50,000 nonviolent drug offenders in American prisons; by 1997, there were 400,000—among them Wershe and Ferranti.
Once the thundering V-8 heart of mechanized America, Detroit was in ruins by the 1980s due to the cumulative impact of race riots, the collapse of the auto industry, and the city’s designation as the murder capital of America. The machinists and ironworkers of the Motor City’s gilded era had been replaced by the skilled laborers of its newest rapid-growth industry—the crimelords, street dealers, contract killers, drug agents, prosecutors, judges and criminal attorneys who made their living around cocaine. This is the world that Rick Wershe Jr. grew up in and this is the place where the myth of White Boy Rick was born.
While he was doing his time, Seth Ferranti launched a career as a journalist, writing about prison and its more notorious denizens for magazines like Don Diva, FEDS, and Vice. One oft-told legend was that of the Baby Face Nelson of cocaine.
“I was with a lot of dudes from Detroit, playing sports, smoking pot or whatever. They were always talking about this dude, White Boy Rick,” says Ferranti. “Either they were giving him a lot of love, or were like, ‘He’s a snitch, fuck him.’ Then I started seeing pictures, and he looked like Opie Taylor or something. And you hear that he controlled the flow of coke in Detroit when he was 17, a little white kid running grown men, straight killers, in the violent eastside? It blew my mind.”
Seth’s first attempts to contact Wershe were unsuccessful because the feds had Rick in the witness protection program (WPP). Unbeknownst to Seth, Rick had participated in a federal corruption sting, Operation Backbone, aimed at taking down Detroit’s most famous politician, Coleman Young, the city’s first African-American mayor. While Rick helped put away Young’s brother-in-law Willie Volsan and the head of Young’s security detail, Detroit sergeant Jimmy Harris, Young remained untouched and some hypothesize used his pull to ensure that Rick was never paroled.
While in the WPP, Wershe got involved in some boondoggle where he tried to help his mother buy a car cheap from a stolen car ring. After they threatened to arrest his mom, he took a plea deal of more years on top of his life sentence and was returned to the general population where he began to correspond with Seth Ferranti. When Seth was finally able to hear Rick’s real story, it eclipsed the prison legend in fucked-up-ness.
“His dad was an FBI informant,” Ferranti explains. “He used to work gun shows, and as a side hustle, he’d sell silencers to the guys in the hood, right? But then his dad was double-dealing, putting a finger on them. The federal Detroit Narcotic Taskforce would roll in to the dad, and they were like, what’s up with these different crack dealing crews? And the dad didn’t really know, he wasn’t in the streets, but Rick was out there playing basketball with all the kids, so Rick knew everything, and started talking up. So they started using the dad’s informant number with the kid’s information, and eventually it turned into them sending Rick out on buys.”
Encouraged to ingratiate himself with the local gangstercenti, Rick made inroads with the notorious Curry brothers, Johnny and Leonard, whose coke business in the 1980s is estimated to have grossed between $150-200 million.
“Rick became Johnny Curry’s little protégé white boy drug dealer in the hood,” Ferranti says. “They walked around in matching mink coats. Crazy shit. But he was really snitching on Johnny Curry the whole time.”
Interviewed in the film, Johnny Curry describes the levels of corruption within Detroit’s political and law enforcement establishments that not only allowed his coke business to grow unhindered, but provided police escorts to and from the airport when his shipments came in. Key to this arrangement was Johnny’s wife, Cathy Volsan, who was Mayor Coleman Young’s niece and who enjoyed the protection of a security detail provided by her uncle. But that protection didn’t extend to the feds, who had used information provided by Johnny’s teenage apprentice to land him with a 20-year sentence.
“When Johnny Curry went to prison,” Ferranti says, “Rick, who was only like 17, started fucking his wife and moving in on his coke business.”
A federal raid on Cathy Volsan’s home found her in flagrante with her husband’s Caucasian Mini-Me. To all concerned it appeared that this teenage interloper was attempting to plant a flag upon the wet spot where far more established forces of crime, politics and law enforcement had chosen to fornicate. For Rick, being with Cathy was like “dating a movie star.” Others took a dimmer view towards the relationship.
Enter Nate Craft, notorious hitman and affable sociopath, who talks on film about the 30 gangland slayings he was responsible for like he was a day laborer who’d been hired to cut peoples’ grass. According to Craft, Gil Hill, the celebrity head of Detroit’s homicide division who had played Eddie Murphy’s boss in the movie Beverly Hills Cop, hired him to snuff White Boy Rick. Gil Hill wanted to run for mayor someday and Rick had some dirt on Hill regarding a conversation he’d overheard between him and Johnny Curry wherein Hill had agreed to cover up the murder of an 11-year-old kid killed in a drive-by shooting perpetrated by Johnny’s crew. Craft accepted the contract but botched the hit. Either way, Rick’s brief street reign would soon end.
On May 22, 1987, Detroit cops caught Rick driving around in a Thunderbird with $30,000 in cash. A subsequent tip led them to eight kilos Rick had stashed under a porch near his parents’ house. Tabloids pounced on the story of the teenage Scarface. Out on bail, Rick went to see the Detroit Pistons play at the Pontiac Silverdome and cameras zeroed in and put his face on the Jumbotron. After he was busted again with five kilos, Rick’s gangland shorty Cathy Volsan suggested he fire his lawyer and hire two attorneys that she knew, one of whom, Samuel Gardner, also worked for her uncle Coleman Young. Rick took her advice and caught a life sentence.
While the jury was deliberating, Rick Wershe Sr. lashed out at a couple cops on the task force that had busted his son and was arrested. Interviewed in the Wayne County Jail, he claimed that both he and his progeny had worked for the FBI. “They used me and they used my son,” Wershe Sr. told a reporter for Detroit Monthly. “And now they turn around and fuck us over.”
The Greek tragedist Euripides once wrote, “The gods visit the sins of the father upon the children.” Years would go by before anyone took Rick Sr.’s claims seriously and by then he was dead.
In 1991, Rick worked with the feds on Operation Backbone which put away 18 corrupt cops and politicians but failed to nab either Coleman Young or Gil Hill. In 1998, Michigan’s “650 lifer law” under which Rick had been sentenced was deemed “cruel and inhuman punishment” and repealed, yet he remained incarcerated. In 2003, at his one and only parole hearing, Kid Rock offered to give Rick a job if he was released. Opposing parties interpreted that as meaning Rick planned to become a gangster rapper. The prosecuting attorney’s office wrote a letter calling Rick a “notorious violent kingpin” who “needs to remain in prison for the rest of his life.” One of the names on the letter was Samuel Gardner, Rick’s former trial attorney, Coleman Young’s guy, who was now the chief assistant to the Wayne County Prosecutor. Denied parole, Rick felt like the fix was in once again, but nobody gave a shit what Rick thought. Another decade rolled by.
Seth Ferranti was paroled in 2014 after serving 21 years and got a job as a line cook in St. Louis. He continued to freelance as a journalist, and in 2015 interviewed Shawn Rech, co-director of the documentary, A Murder in the Park, which had led to the release of a man, Alstory Simon, who’d been wrongfully convicted for a double homicide in Chicago. Their conversation turned to White Boy Rick.
“The sheer injustice of Rick’s saga is what attracted me,” Rech says. “Also the fact that these FBI agents were telling the world what they saw and did, and still no one was listening. It wasn’t like anyone was putting forth a conspiracy theory. These agents were standing there saying it happened and they had been fighting for his release as well. Then I asked Seth if he’d ever heard of Rick. He said, ‘Heard of him? I talked to him Tuesday. He’s my dude.’ At that point there was no stopping us.”
While White Boy was in production, Gil Hill died, and Rech released to the press the interview he’d conducted with Nate Craft, wherein he claims Hill had hired him to whack White Boy Rick. The media attention caused Wayne County prosecutor Kym Worthy to withdraw her objection to Rick’s resentencing.
White Boy climaxes with Rick getting parole after 29 years. Rech’s cameras capture the Wershe family hugging each other and crying, but the news proves to be bittersweet, as Rick is subsequently shipped to Florida to begin serving the five-year sentence he caught trying facilitate the sale of a stolen car to his mom nearly 15 years before.
In the end, the most poignant thing in the movie is watching Rick Wershe Jr. age. You see him as a little tow-headed kid being pushed on a swing by his father. Then there’s White Boy Rick the teen felon, hair straight and chopped into a hesitant mullet, a post-pubescent mustache trying to fill the space above his upper lip. There are snapshots of grownup Rick in what should be the prime of his life posing with other prisoners. And finally there is present-day almost-50-year-old Rick, institutionalized, offering no expression to the camera that could be interpreted in any possible way. This is the person who provides the documentary’s opening line: “Being in jail for 25 years is like being dead.”
A feature film, White Boy Rick, directed by Yann Demange and starring Richie Merritt as Rick and Matthew McConaughey as Rick Sr., is slated for release in September.
Currently on work release in Florida, Rick has almost put in all of his time. He and Ferranti speak frequently.
“He wants to live his life, work a job, take care of his family and just enjoy the years that he has left,” Ferranti says. “I have been writing about his case since I was in prison. I know what it feels like to be unjustly sentenced. I know his story and what he is going through because the same thing happened to me.”
Chris Simunek website Paradise Burning