You may be familiar with the urban legend of “White Boy Rick,” the 17-year-old drug “kingpin” who — as the story goes — singlehandedly rose to the top of Detroit’s cocaine business shortly before he was sentenced to life in prison. The movie White Boy Rick, starring Matthew McConaughey and Richie Merritt, added to the legend. But the 2017 documentary White Boy, which recently landed on Netflix, digs deep into the true story of what happened to Rick Wershe Jr.
So was Rick ever the “kingpin” that newspapers touted him to be?
The definition for “kingpin,” according to Google, which uses Oxford Language’s dictionary, is “a person or thing that is essential to the success of an organization or operation.” Merriam-Webster defines the term as “the chief person in a group or undertaking.”
The doc contends that Wershe was neither of those things.
According to White Boy, the real kingpins of Detroit were people like Johnny Curry. The doc says that federal agents estimate Curry’s group sold between $150 and $2oo million in drugs during the 1980s.
“We started letting him do little errands, and then he started knowing a few people that figured, you buy from a white boy so the dope is good,” Curry says of Wershe in White Boy. “So he started doing his thing. He didn’t play a really major role. Nobody would mess with him though, ’cause they knew he was coming from us.”
The doc also explains how Wershe was hired by the FBI as an informant when he was just 14 years old.
MovieMaker spoke with Andy Hale, a civil rights attorney specializing in wrongful convictions who hired Wershe to work at his law firm, Hale & Monico, after Wershe was released in 2020. Hale was an executive producer on White Boy and was on the legal team that helped Wershe finally get released after serving nearly 30 years of his life sentence.
“Rick would be the first to tell you that was all blown way out of proportion,” Hale told MovieMaker of Wershe’s “kingpin” moniker. “Rick was not this big drug kingpin, you know? Rick was selling drugs after the FBI kind of kicked him to the curb. But I think this legend grew… this story just got embellished. It just kind of became the myth, but it really wasn’t so.”
Real kingpins were able to control drug distribution in entire sections of Detroit. And although Wershe was very successful at infiltrating drug groups — he famously had an affair with Johnny Curry’s wife, the niece of Mayor Coleman Young — he was never a leader.
At best, Rick became Johnny Curry’s “protégé,” Scott Burnstein, a reporter for Gangster Report and producer of White Boy, says in the doc. He adds that Wershe did what the FBI told him to do.
“He was actually instructed to infiltrate the Curry boys’ gang and start hanging out with the Currys pretending that [he wanted] to learn the drug game to start making controlled buys,” Burnstein says.
Nate Boone Craft, a former hitman for the Best Friends gang who confessed to 30 murders, agrees that Wershe was no kingpin.
“Ain’t nobody ever heard of him being no drug lord until they print that shit in the newspaper,” Craft says in the doc.
But still, no one, not even the FBI, expected him to be so successful at befriending notorious gang members. Thanks to the information he was able to supply, Wershe recalled one instance in 1985 when law enforcement was able to make at least 11 arrests in a single day.
“It’s funny to me how people always talk about what criminals will do to make a dollar. But you know, in the same regard, you’ve got to look at what the FBI will do to make an arrest,” Seth Ferranti, author of books including The Supreme Team and Street Legends, says in White Boy, which he co-wrote.
One day, Wershe says in the doc, FBI agents just stopped calling him. They had already secured the indictment against Johnny Curry using Wershe’s information, and Wershe believes FBI agents wanted to wash their hands of him before something bad happened on their watch.
And just like that, “White Boy Rick” was on his own — still dealing cocaine and making large sums of cash that put him at risk of arrest. But little did he know that his years of working as an informant would not protect him from doing hard time.
One of Rick’s problems that he would not come to understand until years later was that he had unknowingly irritated some very powerful men in Detroit politics. One of them was Gil Hill, the former president of the Detroit City Council and former head of the Detroit Police Department’s homicide division, who famously played Inspector Todd opposite Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop.
Wershe and Hill’s paths first crossed after 13-year-old Damion Lucas was murdered in 1985 during a drive-by shooting that targeted his uncle, Leon Lucas, former FBI special agent Herm Groman says in the doc. Groman explains that members of the Curry gang carried out the shooting without Curry’s permission, expecting to hit Leon, who wasn’t home at the time.
Johnny Curry would not answer questions about Lucas’s murder in the documentary, but Groman says he does not believe he was the one who ordered the hit. Curry told Detroit’s WDIV he “had no knowledge” of the killing and was not involved. He also says he has no ill will toward Wershe.
Wershe says in the doc that he overheard a conversation between Curry and Hill that put him at odds with Hill.
“I found out that Gil Hill was responsible for covering up the kid’s murder,” Wershe says in the doc.
“Ultimately, what happened is the Detroit Police Department, under the direction of Gil Hill, framed an innocent man: LeKeas Davis. I had information — part of it was from Richard Wershe Jr. and part of it was from the wiretaps that we had — that strongly suggested that they had the wrong guy locked up. And he’s facing a life term,” Groman says in the doc.
The case against Davis was later dropped and he was exonerated, Groman explains. But Hill was investigated for his role in the cover-up, Burnstein added in the doc. Hill denied the allegations at the time and was never charged, but the investigation came back to haunt him during his campaign for mayor of Detroit. He lost the bid.
Craft, the former hitman, says in White Boy that Hill hired him to kill Wershe because of his work as an informant. Hill died before Craft said that, so he never had the chance to refute Craft’s contention.
“I know after he did Beverly Hills Cop and all that he was trying to stay away from everybody, but he would meet you somewhere as long as he felt he was safe,” Craft says of Hill in White Boy. “He said that basically, he wanted us to make sure that we kill ‘White Boy’ Rick. ‘Make sure that boy is dead, but we gotta make sure that it don’t lead back to no one.'”
Craft says in the doc that he made multiple attempts to kill Wershe, but that he was unsuccessful.
In 1987, at the age of 17, Wershe was arrested for cocaine possession. The following year he was sentenced to life in prison under Michigan’s 650-Lifer Law which said that anyone in possession of cocaine or Schedule 1 or 2 narcotics in quantities of at least 650 grams would receive a mandatory life sentence without parole. After more than 30 years behind bars, Wershe was finally released from prison in 2020. He was the longest-serving Michigan inmate who was convicted as a juvenile of a non-violent crime.
In White Boy, Wershe explains that he believes the two attorneys he hired to represent him, Samuel Gardner and Edward Bell, were instructed by former Mayor Coleman Young to sabotage his case. (Remember that Young’s niece’s husband, Johnny Curry, was indicted in part due to information Wershe supplied to the FBI.)
“The only reason they were brought in was to watch me. It wasn’t to help me,” Wershe says.
Ralph Musilli, Wershe’s longtime attorney, said in the doc that Bell and Gardner agreed not to show the jury any evidence that Wershe had ever been an informant for law enforcement. Musilli believed that was fatal to the case.
“Basically I think the fix was in, and Coleman didn’t want me on the streets anymore. So them being my attorneys, I think they tanked the case,” Wershe says.
However, an obituary for Bell in the June 23, 1988 edition of the Detroit Free Press praises him highly as a trustworthy attorney.
“Whatever the accusations against his clients, Bell in court established a strong rapport with jurors. His cross-examinations were, by turns, as precise as a rapier or a blunt as a bludgeon and the final arguments were a showcase for his theatrical flair,” the story reads.
Bell, Gardner, Young, and Hill have all passed away. No charges were ever brought against them.
Musilli has also died since the doc was made.
Hill, who died in 2016, still has loyal supporters who refute Craft’s claims.
“That’s not the Gil Hill that I know,” William Rice, head of homicide for the Detroit Police Department, says in White Boy. “That doesn’t mean that, of course, people don’t have dark sides, because I do believe that all people have dark sides.”
White Boy is now streaming on Netflix. Main Image: A mugshot of Rick Wershe Jr., pictured in White Boy on Netflix.