Corrections & clarifications: This story has been updated to reflect that additional charges were brought against the former deputy in January 2020.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A former Florida deputy accused of planting drugs on unwary drivers during bogus traffic stops while being recorded by his own body camera is scheduled to go on trial next month.
Zachary Wester, a former Jackson County deputy whose career in law enforcement came crashing down in 2018 after the allegations came to light, was indicted in 2019 on a total of 52 counts, including charges of racketeering, official misconduct, perjury, fabricating evidence, false imprisonment and possession of drugs. The charges stemmed from Wester’s arrests of 11 different people.
Prosecutors filed amended information Jan. 14, 2020, charging Wester with two dozen additional counts involving five more of his alleged victims. The charges stemmed from traffic stops in 2017 and 2018 in which drivers or passengers were arrested on drug charges including possession of methamphetamine and marijuana.
Wester’s trial is scheduled to begin May 10 and run through May 28 at the Jackson County Courthouse in Marianna, Florida. The judge presiding over the trial in March denied a request by Wester’s lawyer, Ryan Davis, to delay proceedings because of the coronavirus pandemic.
During one of the arrests cited in the indictment filed in January 2020, Wester sang, “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” as he searched a Chevrolet Tahoe he pulled over in the Lowe’s parking lot in Marianna.
The entire 40-minute traffic stop, which culminated in the arrest of the driver, happened while Wester’s body camera was running.
“Man, I am in the Christmas spirit,” he said as he rifled through the SUV. “I mean, I like to hum a tune in case something ever goes to the jury, you know, so they’re not just sitting somewhere … chilling.”
In another of the cases, Wester stopped a woman with two kids in the car because one of her brake lights was broken, according to arrest reports. After a search of the vehicle, Wester claimed several baggies with suspected meth were found on the front console under her wallet. She denied it was hers. But Wester arrested her for felony possession and — because kids were present — child endangerment.
Previously:Florida deputy arrested for planting meth, other drugs in nearly 120 cases
Four of the identified victims arrested by Wester had their charges tossed before sentencing. In one case, however, a woman was sentenced to nearly a year in county jail after pleading no contest to possession of a controlled substance. Several months later, a judge ordered her sentencing and plea set aside, and prosecutors dropped the charges.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement began investigating Wester in August 2018 after rumors of shady arrests began rippling through the courthouse. The Jackson County Sheriff’s Office fired him a month later after an internal investigation.
Live COVID-19 updates:US to share its stock of AstraZeneca vaccines; bills that would ban vaccine passports circulate state legislatures
During the internal probe, his coworkers searched his vehicle and found a wealth of unmarked evidence, including 42 pieces of drug paraphernalia, 10 baggies of meth and five baggies of marijuana. The items were similar to those he planted on drivers, investigators said.
After a nearly year-long investigation, FDLE agents arrested him in July 2019 at his home in Crawfordville. He pleaded not guilty and later denied the accusations through his attorneys. Ryan Davis, a Tallahassee attorney representing Wester, declined to comment.
Prosecutors reviewed nearly 300 cases involving Wester, ultimately dropping charges against roughly 120 defendants.
Population shift:5 visuals explain the shifting House seats and how the changes could affect the 2022 midterm elections
‘I do not do drugs’
Wester broke into Christmas song after stopping Chris Fears on June 3, 2018, in Marianna. He and another deputy searched his vehicle, supposedly finding a plastic container with meth inside, while Fears and his wife stood next to a patrol car.
“Looky there,” Wester said.
“What the hell?” said Fears, clearly stunned by the discovery.
“I’ll explain that in just a minute, man, just put your hands behind your back for me,” Wester said as he cuffed him.
“I do not do drugs,” Fears said. “I do not do drugs.”
Using a field kit, Wester tested the substance, which came up positive for meth.
“Man, this is (expletive),” Fears said. “I didn’t do nothing. All I do is take my ass to work.”
Fears was arrested for possession of a controlled substance and held in jail overnight, bonding out the next day. Then-Assistant State Attorney Christina Pumphrey, who helped bring the Wester allegations to light, dropped the charge against him.
Fears acknowledged Wester’s arrest completely upended his life.
“When he arrested me, I lost my job and I had to pretty much sell everything I had that was worth anything to keep a roof over my head,” Fears said. “I couldn’t find a job because nobody wanted to hire somebody with a fresh meth arrest. Me and my wife split up for a while over that because it was just so damn stressful.”
Follow reporter Jeff Burlew on Twitter: @JeffBurlew
For subscribers:State lawmakers opposed to COVID vaccine mandates have filed a flurry of bills this session. Some worry about the message they send.