Whenever they needed something, our police and government, the FBI, they made all these big promises: You do this and we’re going to give you this. But when it came down to it, nobody was there for Rick.
When Rick Wershe was 14 years old, his older sister Dawn didn’t live at home. She was shacked up with her boyfriend smoking crack. She remembers the day her dad came over to tell her that Rick had been shot. They rushed to the hospital where Rick was in a bed, hooked up to all these wires and monitors. Dawn just lost her mind. She was hysterical and the nurses had to give her a Valium to calm her down.
The .357 bullet entered Rick’s stomach and came out his back, just barely missing his main artery and blowing his large intestine in half. After Rick was discharged, Dawn moved back home to take care of him. His recovery was long and slow, and Dawn didn’t understand why he was so paranoid. Later she found out that Rick had been informing on local drug crews to the FBI, DPD and Prosecutor’s Office.
You’ve probably heard of White Boy Rick. His odyssey has been covered in magazine, newspaper, and internet articles, a feature documentary, and a major motion picture with Matthew McConaughey. But while the injustices of his case have been widely profiled, the collateral damage to Rick’s family has received less attention.
As Rick remained in the public eye, Dawn faced her own problems, including battling a 30-year addiction to crack cocaine. The Fix sat down with Dawn to discuss her drug use, how she’s dealt with her brother’s continued incarceration, how it felt to be portrayed on the big screen, and what it will be like to finally have him home.
The Fix: When did you get involved with using drugs and do you recall the first time you experimented with drugs?
Dawn Wershe: The first time I’d ever smoked crack cocaine was actually at my father’s house when he was in California. It was my girlfriend and these two guys. They’re like, “Hey, we’re going to go get this stuff. We want you to try it.” I think I was 15 years old. After that I smoked it now and then. When I was 17, I had a boyfriend who used to go rob people. Then we would go smoke. It was crack, but back in the 80s they called it freebase.
When we were freebasing in the 80s, it was pure cocaine. It was an unbelievable high. I became addicted. My boyfriend ended up going to jail when I was 18 and I struggled with my addiction for probably a good year until my family said it’s either rehab or we don’t know what to do with you, so I checked myself into rehab. It was over on Michigan Avenue. I met a lot of strange characters there. I got clean and had my daughter. I stayed clean for a long time. I had a relapse when she was two.
You battled addiction off and on for close to thirty years, what was that like?
I got clean and had my second daughter. Another relapse, got clean, and had my third child, my son. Another relapse, got clean, and had my fourth child. It was a vicious cycle. Sometimes I’d only relapse for a
day or two. After I had my fourth child, another son, I just said enough is enough and I was clean for over ten years. But after he turned ten, I relapsed again. My relapses were like daytime trips: going places I
shouldn’t have been. Soon my relapses started becoming more frequent, and some longer than day trips. They became two-day trips, three-day trips, depending on how much money I had to spend. Always crack cocaine, that was my drug of choice.
My addiction started spiraling again, I was using more frequently. I would disappear for a day or two back then. Maybe I went a month without crack, maybe I went a week. It depended on the situation, but it all was bad looking back. I can’t think of one time that I was happy and smoking crack or freebasing. Most of the time I was paranoid and worried my family was going to know; it was like how am I going to deal with this? I have to get back home. The streets are ugly. I saw and heard things that nobody wants to see or hear.
How do you think your addiction hurt and affected you and your family?
My addiction crushed my family. It was horrible. Now that I look back and see things I did, and what the outcome of them was, it mortifies me that I’ve put them through that. Especially my kids when they were younger. It’s something I would never want to put anyone through again. The biggest regret I have is putting my family through that. Something [would] happen in my life, let’s say my husband cheated on me and I found out. I’d be off to the races. Bam, I’m gone. Because I’m going to show him, I’m going to pay him back. But in actuality I was hurting myself and I was killing my family.
It didn’t hurt him, he didn’t care. I would leave and then I would feel so guilty. The guilt consumed me. As soon as you take that first hit, it’s like, “Oh my God. They’re going to know I’m high. They’re going to be so disappointed.” That was the worst thing I could’ve done. I never robbed anyone, I never stole anything, I never sold my body. I never did any of that. I would just leave and lie to everyone. I’d say, “I’m going to the gas station” and just not come back. It breaks my heart. I just thank God that my children have unconditional love for me.
When was your last relapse and how long have you been clean now?
I relapsed in March of 2017. Right after the documentary about my brother premiered in Detroit. I was clean 11 months prior to that. Right now I’ve been clean a little over two years. I don’t think I’ll ever relapse again at this point, because I hit the bottom of the barrel and that last time I had an epiphany. It wasn’t a good epiphany, it was me dying. And my children having to deal with that: having to deal with the way I died, where I died, how I died. And it devastated them. Nothing anyone says or does to me at this point in my life could make me want to use drugs. Not a boyfriend, not a man, not my kids, not a stranger. Not anyone could say or do anything to me that would make me say, “Well, I’m going to go get high. I’ll show them.” That Dawn is gone.
What’s it been like watching your brother go through his ordeal with the criminal justice system and the insane amount of time he’s been forced to remain incarcerated?
When Rick started selling drugs on his own, I was there with him. I told him it was going to be bad. He ended up going to jail not too long later. He was only selling for a year on his own after he wasn’t an informant. And when they sentenced him, I was mortified. I mean, I had just lost my little brother. Then the very next day they took my dad. They arrested my dad for threatening a federal officer at Rick’s trial. They ended up dropping that and charged him with components to make silencers. He got convicted on that.
In two days I lost the only family I had. The only one I had left was my grandmother, my dad’s mother who helped raise us. And she wasn’t good, she was in and out of the hospital and living in a nursing home. I wish back then we had home healthcare where I could’ve let her live with me, because she raised Rick and I with my dad. It was very devastating to lose my dad and my brother, and then nine months later, I lost my grandmother.
Every week I went to the prisons to see my dad and my brother. I would gather up my kids, sometimes go get Rick’s kids, sometimes pick up my mom and go visit them at the prison, which is an all-day thing. It killed me because I didn’t have my family. That was my whole support system — my brother, my dad, you know? It was the Three Musketeers, and now we’re no longer. I feel that they used Rick as a child. They took away his childhood from him.
People talk about them doing it in China and foreign countries, but our police and government, the FBI, they did it here. They did it to Rick. Whenever they needed something, they made all these big promises. You do this and we’re going to give you this. But when it came down to it, nobody was there for him. Nobody came to bat for Rick at his trial. Nobody came to bat for Rick at his parole hearings until 2003 and then more recently.
What was it like to see yourself portrayed on screen in a big Hollywood movie and be a part of the Shawn Rech documentary?
I was in the documentary, which I’m quite certain helped gain my brother his parole in 2017. And that was put together and orchestrated in the best way possible. It gives the solid answers and the truth. In the documentary we don’t talk about my drug addiction.
When the Hollywood movie came out, I saw it for the first time in public and cried the first 30 or 45 minutes. They had me on screen looking like I was a dope fiend. They had my dad — Matthew McConaughey — with greasy hair; the clothes he was wearing and the car he was driving were never anything that my father wore or had. I told everybody before it happened it wasn’t going to be real, it wasn’t going to be right. That movie just caused me so much grief, aggravation, and pain that it’s a wonder I didn’t relapse.
Rick got paroled from Michigan and now he actually has a date, what’s it going to be like having him finally come home?
He had to go to Florida to do a five-year sentence for something that happened while he was in prison involving a car theft ring. He was turned down for clemency in March 2019. But next year in 2020 he’ll come home. I can’t wait to stand there and watch him walk through that gate, because it’s going to be so surreal. I probably will pass out because I won’t believe it.
I can’t wait to be able to hug my brother. To have him home. To show him how different life is out here now from the life that he left. To be with us as a family. To be around his grandkids, my grandkids, and to just spend time together. It’s just going to be one good time after another. It will be dinners, barbecues, trips, just family time. It’s going to be family time for a long time with us when he comes home.
(Images of Dawn and Rick Wershe via author)