US officer 'pulled random people over and planted meth inside their cars, causing them to lose their freedom, their children, their marriages'

Zachary Wester charged with 52 counts of false imprisonment, racketeering, fabricating evidence and possession of illegal drugs

Zachary Wester's colleagues accuse him of planting drugs on dozens of innocent people seemingly at random
Zachary Wester's colleagues accuse him of planting drugs on dozens of innocent people seemingly at random

The meth seemed to appear out of thin air.

Benjamin Bowling couldn’t figure it out. He had been clean ever since his release from prison on a DUI conviction, but now a Jackson County, Florida, sheriff’s deputy was accusing him of possessing a minuscule amount of methamphetamine.

It was October 2017 and Mr Bowling was on his way to the store to pick up diapers with his friend Shelly Smith when they saw the flashing lights swirl in the rearview mirror.

He had been out of prison for less than a year, doing everything he could to get his life back on track.

He passed all his drug tests. He had recently been awarded custody of his daughter. But deputy Zachary Wester was escalating a traffic stop for swerving over a white line into a search for illicit drugs.

Mr Bowling and Ms Smith, confident they had nothing to hide, told Mr Wester to go ahead and search the car after he claimed to smell marijuana, assuring him he wouldn’t find any.

He emerged with meth.

Now, nearly two years after Mr Bowling lost custody of the daughter he had just gotten back, after he was convicted of felony meth possession, he knows exactly how it got there.

Mr Wester, state investigators now say, planted it himself – and Mr Bowling was far from the only victim.

Mr Wester, who was fired last September, was arrested on Wednesday and charged with 52 counts of racketeering, false imprisonment, official misconduct, fabricating evidence and possession of controlled substances, among other charges.

He is accused of indiscriminately targeting innocent drivers and hauling them off to jail after planting meth or marijuana in their vehicles while feigning a search.

“There is no question that Wester’s crimes were deliberate and that his actions put innocent people in jail,” Chris Williams, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s assistant special agent in charge, said in a news release.

Mr Bowling, who has since been cleared, is just one of 11 known victims named in the affidavit, although the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said on Wednesday there may be more victims who have not yet been identified, and the case remains under investigation.

At least 119 cases involving Mr Wester have been dropped, the Tallahassee Democrat reported.

In addition to the dropped charges, Circuit Judge Christopher Patterson ordered at least eight inmates released from correctional facilities last Autumn, as 263 cases remained under review.

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Investigators said at a news conference on Wednesday that there did not appear to be any rhyme or reason to the drivers Mr Wester, 26, singled out for false arrests on drug possession.

Some were parents with a diaper bag in the back seat. Others were young men and women, some crying as they insisted they had never touched drugs, let alone meth, in their lives.

Asked by reporters why Mr Wester would do this, State Attorney William “Bill” Eddins of Florida’s first Judicial Circuit said that was a good question. Investigators were still trying to figure it out themselves, he said.

“You’re never certain of what lies in the heart of man,” he said.

Mr Eddins said he does not plan to offer a plea bargain, and that Mr Wester faces up to 30 years in prison. Mr Wester’s defence attorney could not immediately be reached for comment.

Mr Wester, who joined the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office in 2016, fell under suspicion last year after a prosecutor noticed inconsistencies in what Mr Wester wrote in his reports and what was captured on his body camera – if he turned it on.

The problem was he seemed to leave the device off most of the time, conveniently only recording after drugs were already “found” in a vehicle. In most cases, as in Mr Bowling’s, he typically pulled someone over for a minor traffic infraction before asking if he smelled marijuana.

Yet, even after reporting on affidavits that he smelled or even thought he saw marijuana, he typically emerged finding meth.

According to the affidavit, meth, marijuana and 42 pieces of drug paraphernalia were found in the boot of Mr Wester’s car.

One case, that of Teresa Odom, was illuminating – appearing to capture Mr Wester holding an unknown object in his left hand shortly before “discovering” meth in her truck, in the rare case his body camera was left on.

“Hi, how are you?” Mr Wester asked her in a friendly voice as he rolled up to her window, according to footage released to the news media. “The reason for is, um, your brake lights: They work one minute, and then the next minute they don’t work.”

He took her license, left momentarily, and returned to ask if he could search her vehicle.

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She said it was no problem with a shrug, as long as she could take her phone with her. “Hang tight, Ms Odom,” he said.

He grabbed a pair of gloves from his cruiser – then appeared to be holding a tiny plastic baggie inside his left hand, according to the video and affidavit.

The affidavit describes it like a magician’s sleight of hand: “Without putting on the glove, Deputy Wester’s left hand dropped out of view, down towards the front of the driver’s seat, and after a brief pause, reappeared empty.”

Shortly thereafter, Mr Wester pulls a tiny plastic bag out of Odom’s purse: “Oh, Ms Odom, how about this?” Mr Wester asked, confronting Ms Odom with the drugs.

“That is not mine,” she said. “No, sir. No, sir. What is it?” As another deputy who arrived for backup teased her that she was about to go to jail, she responded tersely: “It damn sure ain’t mine”.

It wasn’t. The Democrat reported that Ms Odom wept at the news conference on Wednesday announcing, saying she felt “overwhelmed”.

In a few cases, some drivers were already suspected of other crimes, such as driving with a suspended license or having an outstanding warrant, or even admitting to having marijuana in the car – and yet Mr Wester still planted meth on them, according to the affidavit.

But mostly the drivers were guilty of nothing.

Erika Helms – whose brother, Lance Sellers, has sued the sheriff’s department alleging false arrest – told the Democrat that Mr Wester “ruined lives”.

Mr Sellers, she said, had to spend a year in residential rehab after his arrest for possession of meth. The charges were later dropped. In addition to Mr Sellers, more than a dozen people have filed notices of intent to sue, the Democrat reported.

“People are losing their lives, their freedom, their children, their marriages – all because of this one man,” Ms Helms told the Democrat. “It’s not just innocent men. It’s innocent children. It goes a lot deeper than everyone realises.”

It’s unclear if Mr Bowling regained custody of his daughter since his arrest, or whether other parents faced the same fate.

At least one innocent mother feared she would, according to the affidavit.

Kimberly Hazelwood and her husband Jeremy were pulled over in June 2018 with their small children in the back seat, as Mr Wester alleged the Hazelwoods’ car insurance had lapsed.

Mr Wester zeroed in on a bottle of Excedrin he saw in her possession. He told the couple that he was calling in the K-9 unit to search the vehicle.

Soon enough, Mr Wester claimed the Excedrin pill bottle contained methamphetamine, pulling Mr Hazelwood aside to tell him that he was going to arrest his wife for possession.

“Jeremy appeared shocked and said Kimberly had never done drugs a day in her life,” the affidavit says.

Mr Wester told the distraught father that he could tell Ms Hazelwood used meth “by the way her face was sunk and her teeth...Jeremy stated his wife has always been like that”.

On the way to jail, Ms Hazelwood cried in the back of Mr Wester’s cruiser, asking whether she was going to lose custody of her children.

It’s unclear whether she did. According to the affidavit, months later, Mr Wester pulled over Mr Hazelwood again, asking where his wife was this time.

“This upset Jeremy,” the affidavit says, “and he told Deputy Wester that it was none of his business.”

Mr Wester let him go.

Washington Post

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