TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- A former sheriff's deputy in the Florida Panhandle was arrested Wednesday on charges that he routinely pulled over drivers for minor traffic infractions, planted drugs and then arrested them on made-up drug charges, including one victim who lost custody of his daughter because of the arrest.
Former Jackson County deputy Zachary Wester was arrested in Crawfordville, Florida, after a nearly year-long investigation, according to a statement from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. An arrest warrant detailing the case showed a pattern of Wester pulling drivers for minor offenses or because he said he smelled marijuana coming from the vehicles. He would then search the cars and plant methamphetamine in the vehicles, investigators said. During most stops, he violated department policy by not turning on his body camera during the search.
"There is no question that Wester's crimes were deliberate and that his actions put innocent people in jail," Chris Williams, an assistant special agent in charge for the FDLE in Pensacola, said in a statement.
Prosecutors had to drop charges in nearly 120 cases that occurred between 2016 and 2018. Jackson County is located about 40 miles (64 kilometers) northwest of Tallahassee along the Georgia and Alabama borders.
Wester faces felony charges of racketeering, official misconduct, fabricating evidence, possession of a controlled substance and false imprisonment. He also faces misdemeanor charges of perjury, possession of a controlled substance and possession of drug paraphernalia.
Benjamin Bowling, who was a passenger in one of the cars Webster pulled over, was arrested and charged with possessing methamphetamine in October 2017. Florida's child welfare agency had recently awarded Bowling custody of his daughter after being released from prison on a DUI conviction. One of the conditions of his release was to be routinely tested for drugs, according to the arrest warrant. After his arrest, he took another drug test and it was negative. He asked to see body camera video, but never received it.
Bowling lost custody of his daughter because of the arrest.
In another case, Wester planted a used syringe with traces of methamphetamine in Joshua Emanuel's car, according to the arrest warrant. Emanuel told investigators Wester was smirking and telling him he was going to jail and there was nothing he could do about it. But a Florida Highway Patrol trooper who stopped while Wester was searching the car realized Emanuel was a distant relative whose mother worked for two prominent local attorneys and father worked in the federal prison. Wester's demeanor changed, and he told Emanuel he would write in his arrest report that the syringe may have belonged to someone else, authorities said.
The FDLE began investigating Wester last August at the request of the sheriff's office. He was fired last September.
Online court records showed no attorney listed for Wester. He was booked into the Wakulla County Jail and was being held without bond.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly named the town where the arrest occurred. It occurred in Crawfordville, Florida, not Crawford.