MARIANNA, Fla. – Fired Jackson County Deputy Zach Wester was arrested on racketeering and numerous other charges for allegedly planting meth and other street drugs on unsuspecting motorists before hauling them off to jail.
Agents with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, who have been investigating Wester for more than nine months, arrested him Wednesday. Wester, expected to make his first court appearance on Thursday, invoked his right to remain silent and declined to speak with investigators.
He was arrested on 52 counts in all. Aside from the racketeering count, he was charged with a number of other felonies, including official misconduct, false imprisonment, fabricating evidence and possession of a controlled substance. He was also charged with misdemeanor charges of perjury, possession of a controlled substance and possession of drug paraphernalia, FDLE said.
Jackson County Sheriff Lou Roberts, State Attorney William “Bill” Eddins of the 1st Judicial Circuit and Chris Williams, special agent in charge of the FDLE’s Pensacola, Florida office, discussed the case in an afternoon news conference. One of Wester’s alleged victims, Teresa Odom, wept as they discussed details of the case.
“I’m overwhelmed,” she said afterward, adding she was proud of one of the FDLE agents who worked with her during the investigation.
‘Something we’re not proud of’
Roberts said Wester’s alleged crimes were “disheartening.” He thanked the community for its patience during the investigation, which got sidetracked after Hurricane Michael hit Oct. 10.
“This is something we’re not proud of,” said Roberts, who plans to retire and not seek re-election next year. “No agency wants to go through this kind of situation and face the embarrassment of the public. This is a very serious matter. We’re supposed to set higher standards, and the allegations that were made in this case will be tried.”
Eddins and Williams offered new details in the case, including a large amount of drugs found in Wester’s vehicle during an internal affairs probe that began last August. But investigators declined to give a possible motive for Wester’s alleged actions.
“You’re never certain of the ways of the heart of man,” Eddins said. “We have some ideas and some theories, and we’ve talked about that a lot. But I do not feel that it would be appropriate to go into it in any detail at this time.”
Williams emphasized that the case was still open, and he asked the public to call FDLE’s Pensacola office if they have any information about Wester.
“A significant investigation has been and is being conducted,” Williams said. “FDLE has assigned a team of 10 special agents and two crime analysts who have logged over 1,400 hours on this case already. And it’s still ongoing today.”
Eddins, who was assigned the case after Glenn Hess, state attorney for the 14th Judicial Circuit recused himself, said he was prepared to go to trial now if Wester demands a speedy trial. And he said he will not allow a plea bargain in the case in part because it involves a public employee. He added that so far, no evidence has been found that any other deputies or other Sheriff’s Office personnel worked in concert with Wester.
“It’s been my experience in monitoring this investigation that the law enforcement community in Jackson County is honest, professional and they do not condone or support illegal activity,” Eddins said. “I cannot overstate how complete and how well (the Sheriff’s Office) cooperated with us.”
‘His actions put innocent people in jail’
FDLE began its investigation last August at the request of the Sheriff’s Office after whispers of misconduct by Wester began to surface around the courthouse. He was suspended Aug. 1 and fired a month later. During the internal investigation, deputies searching his patrol car found 42 pieces of drug paraphernalia, ten baggies of methamphetamine and five baggies of marijuana concealed in an unmarked and unsecured evidence bag in the trunk.
“The items located within Deputy Wester’s patrol car were not maintained as required of legitimate evidence, items for safe keeping or items for destruction,” the arrest affidavit says. “The multiple items located were consistent with, and similar in appearance to, items believed to have been used to fabricate evidence during (his) traffic stops and arrests.”
The investigation found Wester routinely pulled over citizens for alleged minor traffic infractions, planted drugs inside their vehicles and arrested them on fabricated charges. It also found that Wester misused his body camera, sometimes turning it off before drugs were located or turning it on just after they were found.
“There is no question that Wester’s crimes were deliberate and that his actions put innocent people in jail,” Williams said in a news release. “I am proud of the hard work and dedication shown by our agents and analysts on this case to ensure justice is served.”
Christina Pumphrey, a former assistant state attorney in Marianna who helped bring Wester’s alleged misdeeds to light, said she was “incredibly surprised” to learn of his arrest because she didn’t think he’d ever get charged.
“I’m glad he’s off the road,” she said. “I’m glad he’s obviously facing charges. It doesn’t change what the rest of the people went through because of him. It doesn’t give them their time back. It doesn’t give them their money back. It doesn’t expunge their records — they still have at least arrest histories. But it’s still something.”
‘Our investigation is ongoing’
The allegations prompted prosecutors in to review nearly 300 cases involving Wester. They ultimately dropped charges in nearly 120 cases. But Eddins said there’s no indication Wester planted drugs or fabricated arrests in all of those cases. He noted that the charges against Wester are based on his arrests of 11 different people.
“Our investigation is ongoing,” Eddins said. “There’s a substantial amount of work to be done. But I have no belief that there’s anywhere near 100 victims. We may have identified most of the victims, we may (have) not.”
Odom, pulled over last year by Wester in Cottondale, was among the victims listed in arrest documents. Wester’s own body camera footage appeared to show him with a baggie in his hand before he put on his gloves to begin searching her pickup truck. Hess told the Democrat last year that the footage caused him to lose confidence in the deputy. Odom’s charges were eventually tossed.
Another of his alleged victims, Benjamin Bowling, was arrested in 2017 on charges of possession of methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia, according to the arrest affidavit.
Wester claimed he smelled marijuana in the vehicle, though Bowling, a passenger, and the driver denied doing drugs. After Wester announced he’d found drugs in the car, Bowling swore he’d been clean since an earlier DUI arrest. At the time, he was being tested regularly after gaining custody of his daughter.
“Furthermore, Bowling voluntarily took a drug test after he was arrested and it was negative,” the arrest report says. “Bowling contacted the Sheriff’s Office and requested that the drugs were tested for DNA and fingerprints. Bowling also requested the body camera video but never received it. Bowling lost custody of his daughter because of the arrest.”
The racketeering charge against Wester carries a maximum penalty of 30 years in state prison. The other felonies carry maximum sentences of five years. Eddins said that under Florida’s sentencing guidelines, Wester could face 13 and a half years in prison if convicted on all charges, though a judge could opt to give him more time behind bars.
Follow Jeff Burlew on Twitter: @JeffBurlew.
This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Florida: Former deputy arrested in drug planting probe