MARIANNA, Fla. – Jackson County MP Zach Wester has been arrested for racketeering and numerous other charges for allegedly planting methamphetamine and other illicit drugs on unsuspecting motorists before driving them to jail .
Officers from the Florida Law Enforcement Department, who have been investigating Wester for more than nine months, arrested him on Wednesday. Wester, who was due to make his first appearance Thursday, invoked his right to remain silent and refused to speak to investigators.
He was arrested under 52 counts in total. In addition to the charge of racketeering, he has been charged with a number of other crimes, including official misconduct, illegal imprisonment, fabrication of evidence and possession of a controlled substance. He was also charged with perjury, possession of a controlled substance and possession of drugs, FDLE said.
Jackson County Sheriff Lou Roberts, Attorney General William "Bill" Eddins of the 1st Circuit Judiciary and Chris Williams, Special Agent in charge of the FDLE Office in Pensacola, Florida, discussed the case at 39, a press conference in the afternoon. One of Wester's alleged victims, Teresa Odom, cried while discussing the details of the case.
"I am overwhelmed," she then said, adding that she was proud of one of the FDLE agents who had worked with her during the investigation.
"Something we are not proud of"
Roberts said Wester's alleged crimes were "disheartening". He thanked the community for its patience during the investigation, which was hijacked after Hurricane Michael struck on October 10th.
"It's something we're not proud of," said Roberts, who plans to retire and not run for reel next year. "No agency wants to go through this kind of situation and deal with public embarrassment. It is a very serious matter. We are supposed to set higher standards and the allegations that have been made in this case will be judged. "
Eddins and Williams gave new details in the case, including a large amount of drugs found in Wester's vehicle during a domestic affairs investigation that began last August. But the investigators refused to give a reason for the acts alleged against Wester.
"You are never sure how the heart of man is acting," said Eddins. "We have ideas and theories, and we've talked a lot about them. But I do not think it would be appropriate to go into detail at this point. "
Williams pointed out that the case was still open and he asked the public to call the FDLE office in Pensacola when he had information about Wester.
"An important investigation has been and is ongoing," said Williams. "FDLE has assigned a team of 10 special agents and two crime analysts who have already recorded more than 1,400 hours of work on this case. And that continues today. "
Eddins, who has been summoned after the recusal of the 14th Judicial Circuit's general counsel, Glenn Hess, is said to be ready to go to court now if Wester demands a speedy trial. And he said that he would not allow a plea bargain in the case in part because it involves a public employee. He added that to date, there is no evidence that other deputy ministers or sheriff's office staff were working with Wester.
"That's what I learned in the follow-up to this investigation when Jackson County law enforcement is honest and professional and does not condone or support illegal activities," said Eddins. "I can not exaggerate how much (the sheriff's office) cooperated well with us."
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"His actions put innocent people in prison"
FDLE began its investigation last August at the request of the sheriff's office after rumors of Wester misconduct began to surface around the courthouse. He was suspended on August 1 and returned a month later. During the internal investigation, police searched his patrol car and found 42 drug accessories, ten bags of meth and five bags of marijuana hidden in an unmarked and unsecured bag of evidence in the trunk.
"The objects located in MP Wester's police car were not maintained, contrary to the requirements of legitimate evidence, elements to be kept in a safe place or objects to be destroyed", states the affidavit relating to the arrest. "The multiple items found corresponded and resembled objects that would have been used to produce evidence during his stoppages and arrests."
The investigation revealed that Wester regularly arrested citizens for allegedly minor offenses, introduced drugs into their vehicles and arrested them for fabricated crimes. He also found that Wester had misused his body camera, sometimes turning it off before the drugs were located or lighting it right after their discovery.
"There is no doubt that Wester's crimes were deliberate and that his actions put innocent people in jail," Williams said in a press release. "I am proud of the hard work and dedication our agents and analysts have shown in this case for justice to be done."
Christina Pumphrey, a former Assistant Attorney at Marianna who helped to publicize Wester 's alleged wrongdoing, said that she was "incredibly surprised" to learn of her arrest because she did not think that she was going to be arrested. he would never be pursued.
"I'm happy that he's off the road," she said. "I'm happy that he's being blamed, it does not matter what the rest of the population has been because of him, it does not give them their time, it does not give them back their money. change nothing. " Do not erase their records – they still have at least a history of arrest. But it's always something. "
"Our investigation is in progress"
The charges prompted prosecutors to review nearly 300 cases involving Wester. They eventually dropped the lawsuits in almost 120 cases. But Eddins said there was no indication that Wester would have planted drugs or made arrests in any case. He noted that the charges against Wester were based on the arrest of 11 different people.
"Our investigation is ongoing," said Eddins. "There is a lot of work to be done. But I do not think there are nearly 100 victims. We may have identified most of the victims, we may not have done so. "
Odom, intercepted last year by Wester at Cottondale, was among the victims listed in the arrest documents. Wester's own body camera was shown showing him with a bag in his hand before putting on his gloves to start searching his van. Hess had told the Democrat last year that these images had made him lose confidence in the MP. The Odom charges were finally thrown away.
Another of her alleged victims, Benjamin Bowling, was arrested in 2017 for possession of methamphetamine and drug abuse equipment, according to the affidavit for her arrest.
Wester claimed to have smelled marijuana in the vehicle, although Bowling, a passenger, and the driver denied being drugged. After Wester announced that he had found drugs in the car, Bowling vowed that he was clean since his previous arrest. At the time, he was regularly tested after getting custody of his daughter.
"In addition, Bowling voluntarily passed a drug test after his arrest, which turned out to be negative," says the report of his arrest. "Bowling contacted the sheriff's office and asked that the drugs be tested for DNA and fingerprints. Bowling also asked the body video, but never received it. Bowling lost custody of his daughter because of his arrest. "
The racketeering charges against Wester result in a maximum penalty of 30 years imprisonment. Other crimes are punishable by up to five years. Eddins has stated that Florida's sentencing guidelines allow him to be sentenced to 13 ½ years in prison if convicted of all charges, although a judge may choose to leave him more time in prison.
Follow Jeff Burlew on Twitter: @JeffBurlew.
This article originally appeared in Tallahassee Democrat: a Florida deputy arrested for planting methamphetamine, other drugs in nearly 120 cases: what we know