A former Florida sheriff’s deputy was arrested Wednesday after an almost year-long investigation alleged he routinely planted drugs on drivers he pulled over for minor traffic allegations.
Zachary Wester allegedly cost one man custody of his daughter.
The former deputy is accused of frequently stopping drivers for minor traffic infractions, planting drugs inside their vehicles and arresting them on “fabricated drug charges,” Florida officials say in a news release.
They also say in the release that Wester circumvented the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office’s body camera policy and “tailored his recordings to conceal his criminal activity.”
Wester was taken into custody in Crawfordville, about 20 miles south of Tallahassee, after the Florida Department of Law Enforcement launched an investigation Aug. 1, 2018 at the request of Jackson County Sheriff’s Office.
The investigation led prosecutors to drop charges in almost 120 cases that occurred between 2016 and 2018, according to NBC News.
Although only 11 people are listed in the arrest affidavit for Wester, “our case remains active, so more information may be forthcoming,” Florida Department of Law Enforcement spokeswoman Jessica Cary said.
Wester worked for the Jackson sheriff’s office from May 18, 2016, to Sept. 10, 2018, when he was terminated.
In one of the cases he is accused in from October 2017, authorities say Wester falsely charged and arrested Benjamin Bowling for possessing methamphetamine while riding with someone to pick up diapers from the store, according to an arrest warrant.
Wester told the pair during a traffic stop that their vehicle’s tag lights were dim and that mud on the tires showed the driver was swerving.
The incident caused Bowling, a white man released from prison on a DUI conviction, to lose custody of his daughter, Carey said.
In another incident, Wester is accused of planting methamphetamine and marijuana in the car of a Black man March 24, 2018.
Maurice Elder said, according to the arrest affidavit, that he knew his car didn’t have anything in it because he had just cleaned it on a trip back from vacation with Cassandra Davis, a passenger in the vehicle who was also arrested.
Elder was initially stopped on allegations he changed lanes without signaling.
“There is no question that Wester’s crimes were deliberate and that his actions put innocent people in jail,” FDLE Pensacola Assistant Special Agent in Charge Chris Williams said in the news release.
Ten special agents and two crime analysts with the FDLE analyzed more than 1,300 minutes of recorded video and logged more than 1,400 working hours in their investigation of Wester.
He is now being held without bond at Wakulla County Jail.
He faces felony offenses including one count of racketeering, nine counts of official misconduct, nine counts of fabricating evidence, nine counts of methamphetamine possession in the third degree and five counts of false imprisonment in the third degree.
Wester was also charged with misdemeanors including nine counts of official misconduct, nine counts of perjury, one count of marijuana possession in the first degree and nine counts of drug paraphernalia possession in the first degree.