Crawfordville, FL – A former Jackson County Sheriff’s Office (JCSO) deputy has been arrested on multiple counts for allegedly planting methamphetamine on random, innocent motorists while he was working as a law enforcement officer.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) began investigating 26-year-old Jackson County Sheriff’s Deputy Zachary Wester in August of 2018 at the request of his department, the DFLE said in a press release.
The JCSO requested the probe after a prosecutor noticed that the deputy’s reports were often inconsistent with what appeared on his bodycam – if he turned the recording device on at all, according to The Washington Post.
If his bodycam was activated, it was generally only turned on after he “found” methamphetamine inside of a suspect’s vehicle.
Wester, who comes from a prominent law enforcement family, began working as a deputy in May of 2016, the Tallahassee Democrat reported.
Over the course of the next two years, the rookie deputy “routinely pulled over citizens for alleged minor traffic infractions, planted drugs inside their vehicles and arrested them on fabricated drug charges,” the FDLE said.
“Wester circumvented JCSO’s body camera policy and tailored his recordings to conceal his criminal activity,” investigators noted.
He generally told the unsuspecting vehicle occupants that he smelled marijuana, which then led to a search of the vehicle, The Washington Post reported.
But instead of “finding” marijuana, he would come out of the vehicles with meth.
“A patrol officer just does not get lucky time and time again under the same circumstances without engaging in a pattern and practice of violating persons’ constitutional rights and/or framing people,” one federal lawsuit filed against the now-former deputy declared, according to the Tallahassee Democrat.
Some of the people Wester targeted were guilty of other offenses, such as outstanding warrants or traffic infractions, but many had done nothing wrong, The Washington Post reported.
One man was sentenced to a year in a residential rehabilitation center due to the deputy planting drugs in his car, and another man lost custody of his daughter.
“He’s ruined lives,” a family member of one of the people Wester arrested told the Tallahassee Democrat. “People are losing their lives, their freedom, their children, their marriages — all because of this one man. It’s not just innocent men. It’s innocent children. It goes a lot deeper than everyone realizes.”
At least 119 criminal cases that Wester either initiated or was heavily tied to have been dropped since the probe began, the Tallahassee Democrat reported.
Sentences for at least eight inmates were vacated, resulting in at least five of the inmates being immediately released from prison, WFAA reported.
Over a dozen people have filed notices of their intent to file lawsuits against the JCSO for their various arrests, according to the Tallahassee Democrat.
“There is no question that Wester’s crimes were deliberate and that his actions put innocent people in jail,” said FDLE Pensacola Assistant Special Agent in Charge Chris Williams said in the FDLE press release.
Wester was fired by the JCSO on Sep. 10, 2018, the Tallahassee Democrat reported.
On July 10, he was arrested on 52 counts of false imprisonment, racketeering, fabricating evidence, official misconduct, possession of controlled substances, possession of drug paraphernalia, and perjury, according to The Washington Post.
Wester is being held without bond at the Wakulla County Jail, the FDLE 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,” Jackson County Sheriff Lou Roberts said in the press release. “I also appreciate FDLE and the State Attorney’s Office for their commitment to this investigation.”
State Attorney William “Bill” Eddins said that investigators have been unable to determine why Wester carried out the crimes he’s been accused of, The Washington Post reported.
“You’re never certain of what lies in the heart of man,” Eddins said.
The prosecutor noted that Wester faces up to 30 years in prison, and said he has no intention of offering him a plea bargain.