TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A former Florida deputy accused of being a really bad apple during a time when bad policing is under a microscope is set to go to trial next month.
Zachary Wester, 26, a former Jackson County deputy, is accused of planting drugs on clueless drivers during bogus traffic stops while being recorded by his own body camera.
He is finally scheduled to go on trial next month on felony charges of racketeering, official misconduct, fabricating evidence, possession of a controlled substance and false imprisonment.
The one-time Jackson County deputy faces misdemeanor charges of perjury, possession of a controlled substance and possession of drug paraphernalia, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said.
He was arrested by FDLE agents and taken to the Wakulla County Jail, where he is being held without bail.
Wester lost his job in 2018 after allegations that he was framing unwitting drivers for drug crimes came to light.
He was indicted in 2019 on a total of 52 counts stemming from Wester’s arrests of 11 different people. Law enforcement officials and the FDLE says this is an isolated incident and no other deputies were involved in the alleged dirty cop’s false arrests. If convicted on all counts, Wester faces up to 13 years in prison.
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.
The jury is likely to hear about the alleged bizarre behavior of Deputy Wester who during one of the arrests was captured on his own body camera singing, “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” as he searched a Chevrolet Tahoe he pulled over in the Lowe’s parking lot in Marianna.
The officer can be heard saying, “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.”
The jury is also likely to hear from another alleged victim who was a mother of two children stopped by Wester for a broken taillight, according to arrest reports. After Wester searched her vehicle, with her two kids inside, he claimed he found several baggies with suspected meth on the front console under her wallet. She denied the drugs were hers but was arrested for felony possession and — because kids were present — child endangerment.
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.
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 whose lives were upended by the officers alleged misdeeds.