When Jeffrey and his girlfriend April headed out on the back roads of Jackson County on their way to a friend’s wedding, the last thing they needed was to be pulled over by a cop. They were already running late and needed to hurry if they were to make it in time for the wedding ceremony.
As the couple passed a Sheriff’s Office patrol car coming in the opposite direction they thought nothing of it. When that car did a sudden U-turn and pulled them over, the couple wasn’t sure what they’d done wrong. They certainly had no idea they were about to be set up for a drug bust even though neither of them had any drugs.
As soon as the cop started walking towards the couple’s car, April immediately recognized him as 26-year-old Jackson County deputy, Zachary Wester. He was known to come from a prominent law enforcement family and seemingly took his job very seriously. Neither Jeffrey nor April were overly concerned though, as they knew they were clean at the time.
No sooner was the couple pulled over by Wester that he approached the car and ordered them to get out and lay on the ground. Wester claimed he could smell Marijuana even though there was none in the vehicle, but that gave him probable cause to search the car without consent. He fumbled around in the back seat for a while and then returned to his car.
It seemed strange that the officer had gone to his car and then returned for a second search just a few minutes later. “Oh, what do we have here?” he said. “You all need to be a little more careful,” he added. The couple knew they had nothing illegal in the car and also knew that the officer had just planted a small bag of a crystal-like substance in the back.
The officer cuffed the couple and put them in the back of his patrol car. He had a 3-gram bag of methamphetamine in his hand, but the couple knew it didn’t belong to them and that this was a setup. ‘This is crazy,” April said to the officer, receiving a smirk in return. But what happened next was even worse.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement was right to initiate an investigation into Wester. He has been accused of framing drivers and planting drugs in their cars before hauling them off to jail. As many of the incidents were caught on Wester’s bodycam, there was plenty of evidence to initiate a probe against him.
Caught on Camera
Wester wasn’t the smartest cop at the station as he incriminated himself on numerous occasions. One recording from his body cam shows him holding a baggie of something in his right hand before he initiated a search of a vehicle he had stopped. State Attorney Glenn Hess of the 14th Judicial Circle was briefed on the details of the investigation, and he had many questions for Wester.
Nobody likes a bent cop and investigators do what they can as quickly as possible to take them off the streets before they ruin more innocent people’s lives. As Hess told the Tallahassee Democrat in an interview, “I saw a video, and I saw still photographs that caused me to do a whole lot of things that state attorneys usually don’t do.”
The fallout from the situation is massive as the cops were forced to drop charges in at least 48 cases where Wester was involved. No one knows how many innocent people this man set up for disaster and that fact has put additional pressure on the police. A Jackson County judge also ordered sentences vacated for at least eight people locked up in prisons thanks to Wester.
According to Betsy White, a civil rights and criminal defense attorney from Jacksonville, Wester will likely face charges of official misconduct to perjury and even for drug possession and conspiracy. If he is charged and convicted, noted White, he will face a long stint behind bars for his crimes.
White explained that police departments have traditionally shown “great reluctance” when it comes to officers wearing working body cams. They know that this video evidence implicates them in things they shouldn’t be doing while putting heavy pressure on them to comply with various rules and procedures which they feel often hinders an arrest.
According to White: “Bad police officers do more damage to the community than we can ever know,” she said. “They poison police/community relations and create distrust. So we should be glad that these types of events are coming to light. There can be no justification for this crime.”
Even though she was innocent, April knew that her boyfriend would be sent to jail if he admitted to the planted drugs being his. This was due to a previous criminal record he had, and April was happy to take the fall for him. She knew full well that Wester had planted the drugs but pointed out, “since somebody has to take this charge,” she said, “it was mine.”
Not only were both April and her boyfriend arrested on possession of methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia, but Jeffrey was also slapped with additional charges that were trumped up, including felony fleeing and eluding and reckless driving. The cop claimed he had to drive at 90 mph just to catch the couple, but that also turned out to be a fabrication.
Soon after the innocent couple was taken downtown, they were put into a holding cell with other inmates. While inside, the couple were told by some people that they had also been set up by Wester in a similar fashion and were completely innocent of the charges leveled against them. “Their stories are exactly like ours,” April said.
When investigators looked into Wester’s personnel file, they saw that he had graduated from Sneads High School in 2010. He even made the Dean’s lost and was an active member of Future Farmers of America. Apart from a lone traffic ticket, Wester had a completely clean record, leading investigators to question his motives for setting innocent people up for drug busts.
Having worked part-time at Verizon Wireless stores in Marianna and Tallahassee, Wester enrolled at the Chipola Law Enforcement Academy in 2014 and was certified the following year. He followed in his father Robbie’s footsteps as he was a Jackson County Sheriff’s Office captain. Two high-ranking sheriff’s officials even said they knew Wester well and “highly recommended” him for the job.
For her part, April spent a couple of weeks in jail before she posted bail. The charges against her were minimal in any event and were consolidated after she pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor paraphernalia charge. Just recently, prosecutors apologized to her and told her that the charges against her would all be dropped.
Jeffrey spent more than a month behind bars before pleading no contest to the charges against him. He had some kind of criminal record, so he was sentenced to 18 months in prison, according to the Florida Department of Correction records. However, the charges from Wester’s arrest were later dropped.
April also spoke to reporters about the case, telling them about the incident: “It’s unexplainable,” she said. “Because you see it in the movies. You see it in TV shows. And you don’t think it’s going to happen in your hometown.” As April said, “He’s ruined lives.”
April concluded that “People are losing their lives, their freedom, their children, their marriages – all because of this one man. It’s not just innocent men. It’s innocent children. It goes a lot deeper than everyone realizes,” she said. The probe in Wester’s conduct is ongoing pending a full and final report from the FDLE.