Wershe Sr. wasn’t of much help, apparently, but Ricky was. The teenager named most of the people in the agent’s photos. He knew them because they were his classmates and friends from the neighborhood. They’d all grown up together on the east side of Detroit.
The meeting at that McDonald’s was the start of a 37-year chain of events that led to Wershe Jr., now 52, filing a $100 million lawsuit on Tuesday against the city of Detroit, two former FBI agents, two former Detroit police officers and two former federal prosecutors.
In the lawsuit, Wershe alleges that FBI agents and Detroit police officers spent years working him as an undercover confidential informant. In doing so, they had him buy and sell drugs from dealers around Detroit — even after he’d been shot — in what amounted to a years-long campaign of “government grooming and indoctrination into criminality,” court documents state.
And when Wershe was arrested, the FBI agents and police disappeared, hanging the teenager out to dry, he alleges in his suit.
“The justice system hasn’t been fair to me over the last 33 years,” Wershe said at a news conference the day he filed his lawsuit, which he wants to be his last clash with the justice system. “But I think this needed to be done. … The people who did this to me need to be held accountable.”
A spokeswoman for the FBI’s Detroit office declined to comment to the Detroit News about Wershe’s allegations, and a Detroit Police Department deputy chief said the agency hadn’t seen the lawsuit.
The Detroit News reported that Dixon died in 2018.
Within a few days of the McDonald’s meeting, Dixon drove up alongside Wershe as he walked home from school and told him to get in the vehicle, the lawsuit claims. The teenager did.
Dozens of unannounced visits from the FBI agent followed over the next several months, according to the suit. In that time, Dixon introduced Wershe to another FBI agent as well as officers in the Detroit Police Department, all members of a joint task force. The law enforcement officers forbade the teenager from telling anyone about his work as a confidential informant but also gave him money to keep him from talking.
In his lawsuit, Wershe claims that Dixon and other task force members knew they were endangering a child, which is why they replaced his name on official files with his father’s to cover up their misconduct.
Around August 1984, Dixon introduced Wershe Jr. to a colleague, fellow FBI agent Herman Groman, who then took the lead role in dealing with their teenage informant, the suit alleges. Like his predecessor, according to the lawsuit, Groman would “accost” Wershe while he walked to or from school, the store, friends’ houses or the basketball court.
But Groman escalated things. While Dixon just pumped Wershe for information, Groman pushed him into a more active role — that of drug user and dealer, according to the suit. Groman and Detroit police officers “demanded” that Wershe go into drug houses, sometimes in unfamiliar parts of the city to buy drugs from people he didn’t know.
They assured them if things went wrong, they “would be right there,” the lawsuit states, even if they could not. After Wershe bought drugs, the task force members let him take “a small sampling” and told him to sell the rest.
Groman told the Detroit News that he was “disappointed by [Wershe’s] ‘buy in’ into the fictional Hollywood version of his life story.” In 2018, a movie came out about Wershe’s life, titled “White Boy Rick” and starring Matthew McConaughey as his father. Relative newcomer Richie Merritt plays Wershe Jr.
Groman told the newspaper that he advocated for Wershe’s release at three parole hearings and helped place him in federal witness protection. “I look forward to straightening out the record,” he said.
In November 1984, someone shot Wershe at point-blank range with a .357 magnum in “an attempted assassination,” cutting his intestine in half, he said in the suit.
Groman and two Detroit police officers visited Wershe in the hospital. They told him it would be “better for everyone” if Wershe said he had been shot by accident while he and the man who shot him were horsing around.
“I see now they meant themselves,” Wershe said in an affidavit. “I still have nightmares about being shot, where I remember laying on the floor bleeding out.”
Instead of stopping his undercover work as a confidential informant once he recovered, agents and officers on the task force pushed him to keep going, the suit alleges, and even increased his workload. They gave Wershe, then 15, a fake ID and sent him to Las Vegas with thousands of dollars to go undercover.
After several years, it all came crashing down. On May 22, 1987, Wershe was arrested for having eight kilograms of cocaine worth $5 million at the time. The media was all over the story of a 17-year-old drug lord. Wershe was dubbed “White Boy Rick” and tarred as a notorious drug kingpin peddling kilos of cocaine in a city “ravaged by drug warfare,” according to the lawsuit. Prosecutors called him one of Detroit’s biggest drug dealers.
Groman and the other law enforcement officers stopped contacting Wershe, “likely to save themselves from legal action should they have been caught using a 14/15-year old as a drug dealer-informant,” Wershe’s lawsuit claims.
Later in 1987, Wershe was sentenced to life in prison without parole. He was 18.
From prison, Wershe kept helping police and prosecutors over the years, according to his lawsuit.
In 1991, Groman introduced him to Lynn Helland, a federal prosecutor also named in the suit. Helland persuaded Wershe to play a key role in Operation Backbone, a sting that led to the arrest of 13 police employees and public officials. In 1992, he testified before a grand jury against the “very dangerous and deadly” Best Friends gang.
In exchange, another federal prosecutor, James King, agreed to do everything in his power to have Wershe’s sentence commuted.
Then in 1998, Michigan lawmakers reformed the state’s “lifer law,” which had mandated a life sentence for anyone convicted of possessing more than 0.65 kilos of cocaine or heroin. The new law made Wershe eligible for parole after serving 15 years. He hit that mark in 2002 and in early 2003 received notice that the Michigan Parole Board would hear his case.
Wershe called in his chips, asking the people he’d helped over the years to hold up their end of the bargain. He started with Helland, the prosecutor he worked with on Operation Backbone, which would not have happened without him, according to his lawsuit.
Helland delivered the “devastating” news, according to the lawsuit: The deal was off and he wouldn’t advocate for Wershe at his parole hearing. Higher-ups in the federal prosecutor’s office told Helland and King that they couldn’t advocate for Wershe and sent a letter to that effect to the parole board.
The “utter betrayal” caused Wershe “a worse heartbreak and suffocating sense of hopelessness than he felt when he was first convicted of life without parole,” according to the lawsuit. The parole board denied Wershe, sending him back to prison for “another 17 years of hell.” He fell into “deep depression and despair” that lasted many years, the lawsuit claims.
Helland told the Detroit News that he had no immediate comment on the new lawsuit.
Wershe was granted parole in 2017 and, after serving another sentence for an unrelated crime in Florida, was released on July 20, 2020.
A year later — exactly — he filed his lawsuit.
Throughout the years, Wershe considered taking legal action against the FBI agents, police officers and federal prosecutors he’s now accusing of wronging him, he said in his suit. But his lawyers always persuaded him not to, fearing that those in power might retaliate while he was still in prison.
Wershe “was terrified of his captors,” the lawsuit adds.
What neither the lawsuit nor $100 million can do is rewind back to 1984 when a 14-year-old walked into a Detroit McDonald’s with his father. It can’t return Wershe to his childhood, his youth or the ability to go back and raise his children.
“I lost 33 years of my life. My father’s not here. A lot of my family members aren’t here. I didn’t get to see my kids grow up,” he said at the Tuesday news conference. “It’s almost like being dead. You see the world evolve around you … but you play absolutely no part.”