‘White Boy Rick’ is free, ex-Vassar mayor glad
Richard Wershe Jr. – “White Boy Rick” – may be notorious, but former Vassar mayor Dan Surgent Sr. is glad Wershe is out of prison.
“I am (glad), I really am,” said Surgent, 76, of Vassar, who became acquainted with Wershe – a Detroit drug dealer released Monday – while Surgent worked as a prison guard in Ionia.
Wershe, 51, released from a Florida halfway house, was Michigan’s longest-serving nonviolent offender. He was the subject of a 2018 movie, “White Boy Rick,” detailing Wershe’s youth as a Detroit street hustler, FBI informant and drug kingpin – all before he turned 16 years old.
Wershe spent 32 years behind bars, including almost 30 years in Michigan. Wershe was released early in Florida due to good behavior, which doesn’t surprise Surgent, who came to know Wershe while Surgent worked several years at the Michigan Reformatory prison in Ionia.
“He was a bad guy. He really was,” Surgent said. “But to talk to him, you’d think he just got out of Sunday school.”
Detroit newspapers occasionally carried articles about Wershe, sentenced to prison at age 18 under a controversial Michigan law – since overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court – requiring mandatory life in prison for possessing more than 1.5 pounds of cocaine.
Surgent became acquainted with Wershe when the inmate was still a teenager.
“I got so I knew him pretty well. I used to talk to him every day that I worked. I’d come by his cell and talked to him. He smoked, of course, but they weren’t allowed to have lighters or matches. So I’d light his cigarette for him.
“When I knew him, he was just a kid. He was the nicest, most polite kid – especially for a prisoner, but for anybody. He was always saying ‘Yes Sir’ and ‘No Sir’ and ‘Mr. Surgent this’ and ‘Mr. Surgent that.’”
Surgent said a woman whom Surgent presumes was Wershe’s wife – and the mother of Wershe’s children – would bring two young children with her when visiting Wershe at the Ionia prison.
“She would come visit and a lot of times I would work in the visiting room, and she and the kids would be in there, and I got to know them,” Wershe said. “She would come and stay all day, and the true fact is sometimes I would go over there and sit by the kids, and the little ones would sit on my lap.
“Everybody was just as pleasant as they could be. I never saw such a nice family.”
Prosecutors at Wershe’s 1988 Michigan trial claimed Wershe possessed 18 pounds of cocaine before his arrest, but alleged Wershe dumped it in a neighbor’s yard, according to an Associated Press report about the trial.
Defense lawyers argued the cocaine was found only after Wershe was beaten by police.
Wershe was paroled from Michigan’s prison system in 2017 but then transferred to Florida where he served time for pleading guilty to being involved in a car-theft ring.
Surgent said he never trusted a prisoner, even Wershe.
“You can’t trust none of them,” Surgent said. “And even though I got along with (Wershe), and even kind of liked him, I never trusted him for a minute.
“I enjoyed the movie, but I read his file, and he was responsible for a lot of stuff that went on but wasn’t even in the movie, but they couldn’t prove any of that.”
Surgent worked more than 20 years at several Michigan prisons.
“I drive school bus now,” Surgent said, “and the prison work was good training for that.”
Wershe plans to spend the 13 months of his parole back in his home state of Michigan, according to the Associated Press.
Surgent said he has no plans to look up White Boy Rick.
“I’d probably talk to him on the porch and offer him a glass of iced tea, but that would be it,” said Surgent. “I kind of wondered if he would ever get out, but I’m glad he did – as long as he’s going to behave himself.”
Tom Gilchrist is a staff writer for The Advertiser. He can be reached at email@example.com.