'White Boy Rick'

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Attorney/true crime author serves as movie consultant

By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

Writing extensively about the saga of Richard Wershe Jr. – better known  as “White Boy Rick” – for more than a decade led Scott M. Burnstein to serve as a technical consultant on the biopic.

“Working my first consulting job on a Hollywood film was an experience I will never forget. It taught me a lot and showed me quite a bit (about filmmaking). I’m proud of being asked and felt honored to participate,” said Burnstein, referencing “White Boy Rick,” opening September 14.

An alumnus of The Roeper School in Bloomfield Hills, Indiana University, and John Marshall Law School in Chicago, Burnstein has written about Wershe since 2007 for The Oakland Press, his own website called “The Gangster Report,” and in his book “Detroit True Crime Chronicles.” He is working on an untitled book about Wershe, but no release date has been set. His expertise about the case has landed him as a guest on numerous TV and radio shows, including FOX 2’s “Let it Rip” and Local 4’s “Flashpoint.”

“I was the first journalist to confirm Rick’s work as an underage federal informant,” said Burnstein, who’s written several true crime books. “It was alluded to in the 1980s but dismissed by the FBI. I changed the narrative when I came onto the scene.”

Wershe’s story began in the 1980s. Growing up in Detroit, Wershe became the youngest FBI informant ever at age 14 during the crack epidemic, where he was paid to snitch on neighborhood drug dealers. When the FBI no longer needed him, he began selling cocaine and became a drug kingpin at age 16. In 1987, he was arrested for possessing and intent to sell more than eight kilos of cocaine worth about $5 million. He was sentenced in 1988 to life in prison – the longest sentence for any non-violent offender in Michigan history. Wershe was finally paroled in 2017 after being denied parole in 2003, 2007, and 2012.

Despite being paroled in Michigan, Wershe, who turned 49 on July 18, is currently serving time in Florida regarding a separate case. In 2006 – while serving his sentence – he pleaded guilty to charges of racketeering and conspiracy to commit racketeering. These crimes occurred while he was incarcerated in Florida under the federal witness protection program. Wersche still has approximately 2-4 years of time to serve in prison, but he and members of his family have stated in various interviews they hope he’s released sooner, claiming he is a changed man.

Burnstein agreed with that latter statement. On his website, he wrote: “White Boy Rick is no longer alive. He died years ago. The person that inhabits his former body today is simply Rick Wershe… a political prisoner of war in some ways, fighting for his life from behind bars. The nickname is his cross to bear and he knows it. If he was just Rick, he’d be a free man right now.”

Burnstein’s article also attributed the following quote to Wershe:  “White Boy Rick is who I was when I was 17 years old. I was a punk – who isn’t when they’re 17? I haven’t been White Boy Rick in 25 years, but that’s how people still see me.”

Burnstein met Wershe 11 years ago with the intention of writing a “where are they now?” story. He recalled being fascinated with the case as a kid as Wershe’s notoriety dominated newscasts.

“The story that I came to report on and the story I left with to pen were diametrically opposed,” explained Burnstein. “The entire situation was far more dire, reprehensible, and under-reported than I ever expected. I felt compelled to get what was an almost unfathomable story out to the masses, shout it from the rooftops, and expose the sheer tragedy of such a conspiracy in which our government callously corrupts a child and then when they sucked him dry of usefulness, discard him in a cage and toss the key away. This kind of stuff happens in third-world nations, countries run by dictators; it’s not supposed to happen here in the United States. But it did and it needed a spotlight shined on it. Rick’s his own best advocate. He’s incredibly self-aware, articulate, and easy to like. I think I brought the real story of White Boy Rick to the people who were able to bring it to the people that could and eventually did effect change and finally remedy the situation.”

Wershe’s story was the focus of “White Boy,” a documentary that debuted at the 2017 Freep Film Festival, directed by Shawn Rech. Burnstein served as an executive producer. This documentary portrayed Wershe as more of a pawn than a major player in the war on drugs, who was caught up in a conspiracy of cover-ups and police corruption that accuses the late Gil Hill – the head of the Detroit Police Department’s homicide unit, president of the Detroit City Council, and who played Eddie Murphy’s boss in all three “Beverly Hills Cop” movies – of allegedly hiring a hitman to assassinate Wershe. However, those allegations against Hill, who died in 2016, are unsubstantiated.

Wershe’s story will also be chronicled in the aforementioned “White Boy Rick,” which stars Matthew McConaughey as Richard Wershe Sr., Rick’s father ; Bruce Dern as Ray Wershe, Rick’s grandfather; Piper Laurie as Verna Wershe, Rick’s grandmother; Jennifer Jason Leigh as an FBI agent; and newcomer Richie Merritt as White Boy Rick himself.

“The movie takes some creative liberties, but the bulk of the story is an accurate portrayal of events,” said Burnstein. “Richie Merritt was very authentic casting. McConaughey is a superstar, and took preparations for his role as Rick’s dad incredibly seriously.”

Burnstein shared his insights on why Wershe’s story has been such an engaging one over the past 30 years. “Plain and simple—you could’'t make this story up if you tried. It defines the saying ‘truth is stranger than fiction,’” said Burnstein. “Everything about Rick’s life is like something out of a movie or TV show. As a kid on the street, it was ‘21 Jump Street’ meets ‘Miami Vice.’ From the time he got locked up, it’s been ‘Serpico’ meets ‘The Hurricane.’ People are drawn to his plight today just as much as they were drawn to the story during his crazy teen years when he was bopping around Detroit on the government payroll in a fur coat while dating the mayor’s niece and getting chased by TV news cameras.”

 

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