MARIANNA — Prosecutors are dropping charges in at least two dozen cases initiated by a former Jackson County Sheriff’s Office deputy who’s under investigation for allegedly planting drugs on people during traffic stops.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement confirmed Wednesday it opened an investigation Aug. 1 into Deputy Zachary Wester at the request of the Sheriff’s Office, located in Marianna. The investigation into allegations of official misconduct is still open, and no charges have been filed against Wester.
The Sheriff’s Office fired him Sept. 10 for violating agency policy, according to FDLE records.
State Attorney Glenn Hess of the 14th Judicial Circuit said FDLE briefed him and senior prosecutors about the Wester investigation several weeks ago. He formed his own opinion about Wester after seeing a body camera video of his arrest of a Cottondale woman earlier this year on charges of possession of methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia.
“The investigation is not complete,” Hess said in an interview with the Tallahassee Democrat. “However, I saw a video and I saw still photographs captured from that video that caused me to lose confidence in the cases that the deputy has made.”
Wester, 26, of Marianna, could not be reached for comment. Neither could his attorney, Steve Meadows of Panama City. Jackson County Sheriff Lou Roberts declined to comment and referred questions to FDLE.
Wester was hired in May 2016 and worked as a patrol deputy. He worked as a Liberty County Sheriff’s Office deputy from August 2015 until he joined JCSO.
After learning of the investigation, Hess said he notified the defense bar in Jackson County. He said he did so to comport with pretrial discovery rules that require prosecutors to disclose information that may exonerate a defendant.
“It is an unfortunate situation,” Hess said. “However, as the state attorney, I have a responsibility to make it right.”
Hess sent letters to lawyers with clients in 15 cases involving Wester, he said. The Democrat obtained a copy of one of the letters, which was sent Sept. 6.
“Please be advised that our office has information that an investigation into the professional conduct of Deputy Zachary Wester is underway,” Hess wrote. “No conclusions have been reached, nonetheless, you should be aware of its existence.”
On Tuesday, prosecutors asked Circuit Judge Christopher Patterson in open court to vacate the sentence of Teresa Odom, the woman whose drug possession arrest was caught on body camera video. Patterson agreed.
According to court records, Odom was on pretrial release from an earlier stolen property charge when Wester arrested her on Feb. 15. The new arrest prompted a judge to revoke her bail, which kept her behind bars until resolution of the drug case. She pleaded no contest to the drug charges March 6 and was sentenced to four years of probation.
Hess said that after notifying defense attorneys of a potential problem with Wester, his office began reviewing dozens of cases involving the deputy that were opened since Jan. 1. He said he’s waiting for a final investigative report from FDLE.
“We felt like we had to do something pending receipt of that report,” he said. “When we get that report, we will read the report, and we’ll see if there are other things we need to do.”
It wasn’t immediately clear how many other defendants may be in jail or prison as a result of alleged misconduct by Wester.
“Basically, we’re dealing with possession of controlled substances,” Hess said. “So I would expect that the people affected would at worst be on probation. Nevertheless, we are looking at all of the cases and their outcomes.”
Prosecutors also dropped charges last week against Monica Willis, who was arrested by Wester on March 28 after a traffic stop. Wester’s arrest report says he found two silver colored spoons in her purse along with a baggie that field-tested positive for meth. She said she was two weeks pregnant at the time of the arrest, Wester noted.
She also was on probation for earlier charges in both Jackson and Calhoun counties, said her lawyer, Robin Myers of Bristol. He was able to arrange her release from jail Wednesday morning.
“The M.O. seems to be that there’s a traffic stop in which either a request to search the car is made or the deputy determines probable cause to search the car,” Myers said. “And then upon searching the car, narcotics are located. At which point the deputy gives the defendant the choice to either work as a confidential informant or go to jail.”
Myers contends the traffic stop itself was illegal. He said he isn’t sure whether Wester planted evidence in Willis’ case. But, he said, “That’s what appears to be happening in multiple cases.”
A former prosecutor himself, Myers said he believes law enforcement officers play by the rules, by and large.
“The foundation for our system is the integrity of our law enforcement officers,” he said. “So I sure hope he’s just a (single) bad apple. And I believe that. The sad part is you wonder how many people were arrested by him and just took a plea to get out of jail when they had done nothing wrong.”
An unknown item can be seen in Wester’s left hand around the 4:53 minute mark. Tallahassee Democrat