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Detroit's White Boy Rick to enter Hollywood while original Rick still behind bars

Film rolls.
Luca Nonato

His name is Richard Wershe Junior.

Doesn’t ring a bell?

Try the name the media slapped on him when he got a life sentence at the age of 17, after police busted him with 17 pounds of cocaine: White Boy Rick. It stuck. That was in 1988.

There are many unanswered questions about how Wershe got into dealing drugs, and why he’s still in prison even though the law he was convicted under is no longer on the books.

And Hollywood’s interested, with a casting call being held this Saturday in Ferndale. Movie producers are hoping to find an unknown from Michigan to play the baby-faced drug kingpin.

Scott Burnstein, an organized crime historian and writer for The Oakland Press, has known Wershe for about a decade. He says to Detroit’s media at the time, Wershe was “a force of nature.”

“The press fell in love with him in the same way that Hollywood has seemed to have fallen in love with him recently, and there’s a feeding frenzy to bring his story to the big screen in some ways akin to the way the media was – like a moth to a flame – drawn to him in the 1980s, when he was a 16-year-old dating the mayor’s niece who was 24, had risen higher than anyone ever his age or skin color in the Detroit underworld,” Burnstein said.

Burnstein went on to say that Wershe became a sort of figurehead for Detroit’s “crack era” days in the 80’s.

But all this attention was ironic, Burnstein said. Compared to other drug dealers’ business, Wershe did very little.

“I would guess that in his whole career he probably sold less than, I’d say between 50 and 100 kilos, and we’re talking about other dealers that were caught bringing in 100 kilos in a week,” Burnstein said.

But there’s more to Wershe’s story.

According to Burnstein, Wershe was recruited to drop out of high school when he was 14. He spent only two or three weeks at DenbyHigh School in Detroit before the government bid him leave.

“He was recruited by a federal task force made up of the FBI, DEA and DPD, and recruited to become a paid government mole – an undercover operative – and put into the drug underworld at 14, and was paid for the next two years,” Burnstein said.

His mission was to infiltrate drug gangs. But the mission went sour.

“It was like a Frankenstein,” Burnstein said. “They didn’t realize what they had built. He was so good at it that he rose higher than they ever expected.”

But at age 16, Wershe broke off his relationship with the government for the first time, and between ages 16 and 17, he began his non-government-funded drug-dealing business.

While his history is politically complicated now, at 46 years old, Wershe is still in prison for crimes he committed after entering the drug world at 14 years old on government work.

“It’s ridiculous at this point, and the politicians in Michigan, you know they don’t want to do anything about it,” Burnstein said. 

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