Methamphetamine seemed to come out of nowhere.
Benjamin Bowling could not understand. He had been in good health since being released from prison following a DUI conviction, but a member of the Sheriff's County of Jackson County, Florida, accused him of possession of a tiny amount of methamphetamine.
It was in October 2017 and Bowling was going to the store to go get some diapers with her friend Shelly Smith when they saw the flashing lights swirling in the rearview mirror. He had been out of prison for less than a year, doing everything in his power to restore his life. He has passed all his drug tests. He had recently obtained custody of his daughter. But MP Zachary Wester mounted a traffic stop for having crossed a white line and embarked on the search for illicit drugs.
Bowling and Smith, convinced that they had nothing to hide, told Wester to go ahead and search the car after he claimed to be smelling marijuana. , letting him know that he would not find any.
He emerged with methamphetamine.
Now, almost two years after Bowling lost custody of the girl he had just recovered, after he was convicted of possession of methamphetamine, he knows exactly how it happened there. State investigators now declare that Wester planted it himself – and Bowling was far from the only casualty.
Wester, who was fired last September, was arrested on Wednesday and charged with 52 counts of racketeering, unlawful imprisonment, official misconduct, evidence-gathering and possession of controlled substances, between other counts. He is accused of targeting innocent drivers indiscriminately and taking them to prison after planting methamphetamine or marijuana in their vehicles while feigning a "search".
"There is no doubt that Wester's crimes were deliberate and that his actions put innocent people in jail," said Chris Williams, deputy special agent in charge of the Florida Law Enforcement Department, said in a press release.
Bowling, which has since been cleared, is only one of 11 known victims named in the affidavit, although the Florida Law Enforcement Department said Wednesday that There may be more unidentified victims and the case remains under investigation. At least 119 cases involving Wester have been filed, said the Tallahassee Democrat. In addition to the charges dropped, circuit judge Christopher Patterson has ordered that at least eight inmates be released from penitentiaries last fall, 263 cases still under review.
Investigators said at a press conference on Wednesday that there appeared to be no rhyme or reason for Wester drivers, 26, accused of false arrests for drug possession. Some were parents with a diaper bag in the back seat. Others were young men and women, some crying saying that they had never touched drugs, let alone methamphetamine, in their lives.
Asked by reporters about why Wester would do this, Attorney General William "Bill" Eddins of the Florida Judicial Circuit said it was a good question. The investigators were still trying to get out of it themselves, he said.
"You are never certain of what is in the heart of man," he said.
Eddins said he was not planning to negotiate a plea and that Mr Wester was risking up to 30 years in prison. Wester's defense lawyer could not be contacted immediately for a comment.
Wester, who joined the Jackson County Sheriff's Office in 2016, was suspected last year by an attorney who had noticed inconsistencies in what Wester had written in his reports and what had been captured on his camera if he turned it on. The problem was that he seemed to leave the camera turned off most of the time, recording only after drugs had already been "found" in a vehicle. In most cases, as in Bowling, he usually hired someone for a minor offense before asking if he smelled marijuana.
Yet even after reporting on affidavits that he felt or thought he had seen marijuana, he usually came out of it when he discovered methamphetamine. According to the affidavit, methamphetamine, marijuana and 42 drug accessories were found in Wester's vault.
One case, that of Teresa Odom, was illuminating – seemingly capturing Wester holding an unknown object in his left hand shortly before "discovering" methamphetamine in his truck, in the rare cases where his body camera had remained lit.
"Hi, how are you?" Wester asked him in a friendly voice as he turned to his window, according to pictures released to the media. "The reason is that, uh, your brake lights: they work a minute, then the next minute they do not work."
He took his driver's license, left for a while and came back to ask if he could search his vehicle. She said it was not a problem with a shrug, as long as she could take her phone with her. "Hold on, Mrs. Odom," he took a pair of gloves in his cruiser – then he seems to hold a tiny plastic bag in his left hand, according to the video and the affidavit.
The affidavit describes it as a sleight of hand for a magician: "Without putting on the glove, Deputy Wester's left hand fell to the front of the driver's seat and, after a brief pause, she came back empty.
Shortly after, Wester pulls out a tiny plastic bag from Odom's handbag: "Oh, Mrs. Odom, why not that?" Asked Wester, confronting Odom with the drugs.
"It's not mine," she says. "No sir, no sir, what is it?" While another deputy arrived at the backstage teases her that she is about to go in prison, she replied curtly, "This is really not mine.
This was not the case. The Democrat reported that Odom had cried at Wednesday's press conference, announcing that she felt "overwhelmed".
In a few cases, some drivers were already suspected of other crimes, such as driving with a suspended license or having a warrant waiting, or even admitting that there was marijuana in the car – and yet Wester had still planted there meth, according to the affidavit. .
But most of the time, the drivers were guilty of nothing. Erika Helms – whose brother, Lance Sellers, sued the sheriff's department alleging a false arrest – told the Democrat that Mr. Wester "ruined lives". She should have spent a year in rehab after being arrested for keeping methamphetamine. The charges were later dropped. Besides the sellers, more than a dozen people have filed notices of intent to sue, reported the Democrat.
"People are losing their lives, their freedom, their children, their marriage – all because of this man," Helms told the Democrat. "These are not just innocent men. They are innocent children. It goes much further than everyone else realizes.
It is unclear whether Bowling has regained custody of his daughter since his arrest or whether other relatives have suffered the same fate.
According to the affidavit, at least one innocent mother was scared.
Kimberly Hazelwood and her husband, Jeremy, were arrested in June 2018 with their grandchildren in the back seat, as Wester alleged that Hazelwoods auto insurance had lapsed. Wester found a bottle of Excedrin that he had seen in his possession. He told the couple that he was calling the K-9 unit to search the vehicle.
Soon, Wester declared that the bottle of Excedrin pills contained methamphetamine, leading Jeremy to the side to tell him that he was going to arrest his wife for possession. "Jeremy seemed shocked and stated that Kimberly had never used drugs one day in his life," says the affidavit.
Wester told the distraught father that he could tell Kimberly that he had used methamphetamine "by the way his face was sunk and his teeth. . . Jeremy said that his wife has always been like that. "
On the way to the prison, Kimberly cried in the back of Wester's vehicle, asking if she would lose custody of her children.
We do not know if she did it. According to the affidavit, months later, Wester stopped again on Jeremy, asking where Kimberly was this time. "It upset Jeremy," says the affidavit, "and he told MP Wester that it was not his business."
Wester let him go.
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