While the trailer for Matthew McConaughey’s next cinematic venture might feel like just another drug-fueled thriller, the story behind White Boy Rick packs way more punch than your average genre offering rooted in cliché. The film is based on the real-life trials and tribulations of Richard Wershe Jr., whose life became a complex web of crime and deceit at a very young age, and whose fate showed the worst failings and politicking of the criminal justice system.
Although it’s yet to be seen how faithful the movie adaptation will be to Wershe Jr.’s experiences as a teenage FBI informant in ’80s Detroit, the ingredients for an outstanding thriller have been handed to the filmmakers on a plate. For starters, his story is packed with characters — both those working with and against Wershe — who might appear at first glance to embody archetypes, but whose nuances layer this story into one single astronomic clusterfuck.
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bruce Dern, Rory Cochrane, and Atlanta’s Brian Tyree Henry, directed by Yann Demange — the Parisian mind behind stunning TV series Top Boy and Dead Set, as well as Northern Ireland-set debut film ’71 — and with involvement from Danny Brown and YG, too, we know this movie has the bones to be one of the best drug films in recent memory.
Before we get into the nitty-gritty, here’s a spoiler warning for you: If you’d rather go into the movie blind, it’s best you show yourself out now as everything that follows will (or should) form the film’s narrative.
The true story of ‘White Boy Rick’
One of the things that fascinated me about White Boy Rick — whose story I discovered thanks to a brilliant National Magazine Awards-nominated article in the Atavist Magazine — is the strange circumstance of his arrest and punishment. You see, while it’s true that Wershe Jr. wound up in court in 1987 on charges of cocaine possession, he was sentenced under one of the “harshest drug statutes ever conceived in the United States,” as the Atavist report called it.
That statute was Michigan’s 650 Lifer law, which delivered a life term without parole if you were found to be in possession of a minimum 650 grams of cocaine. One would think that the mandatory sentence — harsh as it was — would at least be different for minors. But it wasn’t and Wershe Jr. was sent down.
The 650 Lifer law was rolled back in 1998, 10 years after Wershe Jr. was convicted. The governor behind it, William G. Milliken, called the law the worst mistake of his career. In 2010, sentences of life without parole for juveniles in cases of non-homicide were ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. After the rollback of the law, those sentenced started to become eligible for parole and released. Of those sentenced under the 650 Lifer law, by 2017 White Boy Rick was the last one still serving time for a crime committed as a juvenile. Since his eventual parole in Michigan last year, he has been transferred to a Florida prison for his part in a stolen-car scheme while behind bars, pleading guilty to protect his mother and sister. He has now been in prison for 30 years.
Coming back to Detroit and the exploits that will form the story of White Boy Rick, it’s the how and why that make White Boy Rick’s story so intriguing, offering a stomach-churning insight to the lengths the authorities are willing to go to hold on to their piece of the pie. They are, to quote retired FBI agent Gregg Schwarz, “a classic example of abuse of power and political corruption.”
Detroit in the ’80s: guns, crack & the Currys
Having been incarcerated at such a young age, Wershe Jr. is spoken of in almost mythical terms, despite being very real and very much alive. However, it’s not hard to see how a chubby white teenager knee-deep in the drug scene in predominantly black Detroit would stick in people’s memories — he stood out like a sore thumb.
He was like Nicky Barnes by way of Beavis and Butthead. He’d don mink coats and a diamond-encrusted Rolex, he stepped out with the wife of a jailed kingpin on his arm and cruised around town in a white jeep with “THE SNOWMAN” emblazoned on the rear. He turned heads. Before long, everyone knew who he was. He’d earned himself respect. And then he disappeared.
Yet as Evan Hughes — the author of the Atavist investigation — eventually discovered, the myth of White Boy Rick was quite different from the reality. Wershe Jr. wasn’t the outrageous drug-peddling “hood rat” one Detroit police officer dubbed him — although it’s quite easy to see how he gave off that impression.
At the time, Detroit was on a slippery slope. Unemployment was high, cheap cocaine was starting to seep through society’s cracks, and people began taking up illegal means of making money. After being handed a gun for the first time at the age of eight by his father, Richard Wershe Sr. (played by McConaughey in the movie), Rick (as we’ll call him from now on for the sake of clarity) got a taste for the criminal underworld at an incredibly young age. The fact his father peddled firearms as a side job didn’t help matters either, as it meant Rick had mastered the tricks of black-market trading before he’d left high school. It also added to his unquenchable thirst for cash.
Brothers Johnny and Leo Curry were the reigning drug lords in Detroit’s East Side, having gone from selling marijuana in the late ’70s to heroin and cocaine in the ’80s. Aspiring to every facet of the Currys’ lives — the girls, the cash, the swagger — a 14-year-old Rick started out by befriending their younger brother Boo and following the gang around. Thanks to his confidence and swag, it wasn’t long before he was invited along to “business trips” in Las Vegas and other such activities that placed him in the circle of trust.
Elsewhere, Rick continued to attend gun shows with his dad, getting better and better at his sales tactics. After a while, he used his gift of the gab to convince the Currys to sell him crack to peddle.
The rest, as they say, is history: fast forward a few years and Rick’s sitting in a jail cell on charges of possession. However — and here comes plot twist number one — according to Rick, this situation wasn’t so black and white. He claimed he’d been working for the FBI the whole time. And they, together with local law enforcement, had massively screwed him over.
But nobody bought that.
So you think you’re an FBI informant?
As the story goes, three years before Rick’s arrest, there was knock on the door of the Wershe house. Two FBI agents were on the steps outside and asked to come inside. Assuming it was something to do with his firearms sales, which the FBI knew about and had let slide, Wershe Sr. allowed the agents in. It turned out the line of questioning had nothing to do with guns but rather was about identifying people in photographs. And as the agents started to ask questions, it turned out Rick knew more about the people in the pictures — and the crew they ran in — than his father.
The Wershes’ help was rewarded a week later in the shape of an envelope full of cash and the invitation for Wershe Sr. to become a confidential informant. Wershe Sr. would collect payment for the work and told his son they’d split the cash. Rick was only 14 at the time and juveniles couldn’t be used as informants, so only Wershe Sr.’s involvement went on record.
According to Rick, he’d meet with the FBI regularly, giving tip-offs on leading crime figures, the whereabouts of stolen goods, and where to find punch bowls full of cocaine. Wershe Sr. claims these meetings were held behind his back. Rick would be paid cash in hand for every nugget of information he palmed over; in total, he estimates he received around $30,000 for his work (FBI records suggest it was less than $10,000). Rick also claims that he didn’t start dealing until after he became an informant.
“We brought him into the drug world,” former FBI agent Schwarz told Hughes for the Atavist story. “And what happened? He became a drug dealer. And we’re surprised by that?”
As Hughes dug deeper, he was confronted with more and more evidence backing Rick’s claims. Not only did Hughes meet with a number of FBI agents who corroborated the story, but he unearthed another truth that helped explain why Rick has spent most of his life behind bars. And it has nothing to do with touting crack.
Leon Lucas, a small-time dealer and Curry-brother affiliate had messed up — not massively, but enough for the brothers to want to teach him a lesson. So they showered his house in bullets. They didn’t know that two of Lucas’ nephews were inside. One of them, 13-year-old Damion Lucas, was shot in the chest and killed. Fearing the repercussions, the Currys urged silence from everyone. But Rick snitched — and that move appeared to seal his fate.
Why? Because when FBI special agent Herman Groman (who was handling Rick at the time) checked Johnny’s phone logs (the bureau had set up a pen register to monitor the numbers Curry was dialing), he discovered the first two calls Johnny had made after the shooting were to members of the Detroit Police Department: Sergeant Jimmy Harris and his supervisor, Commander Gilbert R. Hill.
Gil Hill, as he was more commonly known, was tight with Detroit’s then mayor, Coleman Young, and had been enlisted to look out for Young’s niece, Cathy Volsan, whom the mayor was exceptionally close to. The problem was Volsan was wrapped up in Detroit’s seedy underbelly, marrying Johnny Curry first, and dating Rick later. Every time she’d get involved in a sticky situation, round-the-clock protection paid for using taxpayer money would try to get her out of it. Days after the killing, the FBI started listening in on Curry’s calls, with Groman passing on information incriminating Curry and his crew to Detroit P.D. — but no charges were ever filed.
By snitching, Rick opened the door to a story that was more complex than the activities of a mere drug gang. Error number one. Later, while he was awaiting his own trial, the FBI offered Rick a get-out: snitch on everyone involved in the Detroit drug scene in open court and the federal government could offer him assistance. Fearing certain death, Rick declined. Error number two. Now Rick was on his own, with no documented proof of his involvement with the feds, and nobody to back him up.
After Rick had been in jail for two years, Groman paid him a visit. The homicide cover-up was still playing on his mind, so he asked Rick if he’d be willing to help blow the whole thing open in return for protective custody. And should Rick ever become eligible for parole, Groman would testify on his behalf. Rick was desperate, so agreed. That cooperation formed part of Operation Backbone, an FBI anti-corruption investigation that eventually ensnared 11 cops and a number of civilians.
The plan hung on Cathy Volsan. Rick and Volsan were still in contact and he told her of an influential friend, Mike Diaz, who was in town from Miami and having dinner with Rick’s sister, Dawn. He suggested Volsan join them. At the restaurant, Diaz told Volsan that he was looking to launder money moved from Miami to Detroit and that there would be money in it for those who could protect the shipments of cash. Volsan boasted of her police connections, Diaz suggested they work together.
In reality, Diaz was an undercover FBI agent, Mike Castro, and he’d recorded the whole meeting. A couple of months later, he was introduced to Willie Volsan — Cathy’s father, and the mayor’s brother-in-law — and Sergeant Jimmy Harris, one of the Detroit cops involved in the homicide cover-up. They helped Castro to move suitcases containing $1 million in cash through Detroit Metro Airport security without questions.
More cops of different rank got involved and the jobs got bigger: a machine gun was slipped past security with the understanding it was to be used in a homicide in Chicago and other deliveries were guarded. More and more officers were implicating themselves unwittingly.
Operation Backbone’s big finale took place on the runway of Detroit City Airport, with Harris transferring 100 kilograms of white powder from a small plane into the trunk of his car before passing it on to someone else. Later that day, Harris met Castro at a hotel to receive his paycheck, only to be met by a SWAT team, which arrested him — with the others involved to follow. The mission was a success, and none of it would have happened if it wasn’t for Rick, who had reassured Volsan of Castro’s credibility throughout.
This time, Rick’s role as an informant wouldn’t go unnoticed — and if there’s one rule in the world of bent cops, it’s “do not rat.” Thus, when Michigan began rolling back its 650 Lifer law and Rick became eligible for parole, cops from Detroit P.D. turned up to tarnish his record and make the case against his release. And as the other 650 Lifers began to taste freedom, Rick remained in prison. And there he stays — for now.