A Florida man who routinely used his former position as sheriff’s deputy to frame and arrest drivers on fradulent drug charges, after planting drugs in their vehicles during traffic stops, has been arrested and charged this week.
The 26-year-old former Jackson County deputy, Zachary Wester, was arrested on July 10 in Crawfordville, Florida, after a nearly year-long investigation, according to a statement from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE).
Wester regularly pulled drivers over for minor traffic infractions, or claimed he could smell marijuana from drivers’ vehicles, according to an arrest warrant.
While searching the vehicles, Wester failed to follow his department policy of turning on his body camera, and would then plant methamphetamine in the cars, according to investigators.
“Wester circumvented JCSO’s body camera policy and tailored his recordings to conceal his criminal activity,” the FDLE said in a press release Wednesday.
Wester faces 52 felony charges of racketeering, official misconduct, fabricating evidence, possession of a controlled substance, and false imprisonment. He also faces misdemeanor charges of perjury, possession of a controlled substance, and possession of drug paraphernalia.
The 26-year-old reportedly joined the department in 2016, and was fired on Sept. 10 last year.
Bill Eddins, State Attorney 1st Judicial Circuit, said if Wester were convicted of all 52 charges, he could face around 13 1/2 years behind bars, reported WKRN.
Florida Panhandle deputy arrested for planting drugs on drivers https://t.co/03LFOo3y5D
— Joy Collins (@JoyCollinsMusic) 11 July 2019
“There is no other evidence that any other deputies or any other Jackson County personnel were involved with Mr. Wester,” Eddin added.
In October 2017, one of Wester’s 11 known victims, Benjamin Bowling, lost custody of his daughter after the former sheriff’s deputy planted methamphetamine in a car where he was a passenger.
At the time of the incident, Bowling had been released from prison on a DUI conviction for just under a year, when the vehicle was targeted by Wester, reported the Washington Post.
Before Wester pulled him over claiming to smell marijuana, Bowling had just been awarded custody of his daughter, and had a clean drug record, according to the report.
One of the conditions of Bowling’s release was to be routinely tested for drugs, according to the arrest warrant.
However, Wester planted methamphetamine in the vehicle, and accused Bowling of drug possession.
After his arrest, he took another drug test and it was negative. He asked to see body camera video, but never received it, and lost custody of his daughter because of the arrest.
— Jamira Burley (@JamiraBurley) 11 July 2019
“There is no question that Wester’s crimes were deliberate and that his actions put innocent people in jail,” Chris Williams, an assistant special agent in charge for the FDLE in Pensacola, said in a statement.
Jackson County Sheriff Lou Roberts said, “I would like to thank the citizens of Jackson County for their patience during the investigation and my staff for continuing to serve our citizens during this difficult time.”
“I also appreciate FDLE and the State Attorney’s Office for their commitment to this investigation.”
Prosecutors had to drop charges in nearly 120 cases that occurred between 2016 and 2018. Many of Wester’s young victims sobbed as they said they had never once touched drugs before, investigators said at a news conference on July 10.
Since the FDLE began their investigation into Wester’s misconduct, agents spent over 1,400 working hours on the case, analysing over 1,300 minutes of footage, reported WKRN. They are still uncertain of Wester’s motives for his actions.
“You’re never certain of what lies in the heart of man,” Eddins told reporters at the news conference.
The 26-year-old remains in Wakulla County Jail, where he is being held without bond.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.