Florida Deputy Arrested For Drug Planting Scheme, Hundreds of Cases Reviewed
“There is no question that Wester’s crimes were deliberate and that his actions put innocent people in jail.”
Jackson County, Florida Deputy Zach Wester was arrested Wednesday on 52 counts including racketeering, false imprisonment, fabricating evidence, and possession of a controlled substance in the culmination of a nine-month-long probe into whether Wester planted drugs on victims at traffic stops.
Over 300 cases involving Wester were reviewed after which charges were dropped in 119. Florida officials announced the investigation is still ongoing but stressed that the charges against Wester were based on 11 cases and they didn’t believe there were hundreds of victims.
“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,” State Attorney William “Bill” Eddins said in a press conference.
The Tallahassee Democrat profiled one of Wester’s victims, Benjamin Bowling, who Wester arrested in 2017 on charges of possession of methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia.
“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,” the Democrat wrote.
“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.”
Another victim profiled by the Democrat, Teresa Odom, wept during a press conference discussing the charges against Wester and told reporters she was overwhelmed.
Odom was pulled over and arrested on drug charges last year by Wester. However, Wester’s own body camera shows him with some kind of baggie in his hand before he puts gloves on to search Odom’s truck. All charges were ultimately dropped against Odom.
According to the Tallahassee Democrat, the investigation into Wester stemmed from “whispers of his misconduct around the courthouse.” The investigation found 42 pieces of drug paraphernalia, ten baggies of methamphetamine and five baggies of marijuana concealed in an unmarked and unsecured evidence bag in his patrol car.
“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 ultimately discovered that Wester routinely pulled over victims for traffic stops and planted drugs on their vehicles, then arrested them for false drug charges.
“There is no question that Wester’s crimes were deliberate and that his actions put innocent people in jail,” Florida Department of Law Enforcement special agent Chris 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.”
However, as Christina Pumphrey, a former assistant state attorney who helped investigate Wester, told the Democrat the charges against Wester bring a measure of justice but they don’t give the victims back their lost time.
“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.”
Wester faces a maximum of 30 years in state prison for the racketeering charges. The other felony charges have maximum sentences of five years which could result in a 13-year sentence, but a judge could opt to increase the sentences.