JACKSON COUNTY, Fla. (WTXL) — Zach Wester, the former Jackson County Deputy fired for planting evidence during traffic stops, faces his third day on trial with witness testimony from those charged and backup officers.
Maria Thompson is the She was pulled over by Wester in 2017 because he said he smelt marijuana.
“I told him there was no way," said Thompson. "That I had not been smoking marijuana. The only thing I had been smoking was a cigarette.”
Thompson told Wester during the stop that she was on drug probation. She says he then detained her and put her in the back of his patrol car. He then began searching her car.
Thompson says she watched Wester go to and from his patrol car during the search. After going to his car, he tells her he found suspected crystal meth.
Thompson says she watched him perform a field test kit. She says he did not show her the test, but from her vantage point she didn’t see it change color. When he saw me watching “he dumped it out”.
“I was clean and sober when he pulled me over,” Thompson said.
Thompson has filed a civil suit.
The next witness is Kathy Shelton, a Senior Probation Officer with DOC. She was Thompson’s probation officer and tested Thompson for drugs prior to arrest and it was negative.
Witness Billy Benton took the stand for the second time. He was present during Lt. Hodges’ search of Wester’s patrol car. He confirms nothing was discovered when the camera shut off.
Captain Kevin Arnold, a helicopter pilot for the Jackson County Sheriff's Office testified next.
Arnold said Wester received complaints about planting evidence.
Quinton Hollis, the fifth witness of the day, was in charge of JCSO’s warrants and equipment inventory among other things. He inventoried Wester’s patrol car.
When searching Wester’s first aid kit, he found unlabeled marijuana and alerted Lt. Hodges.
Thursday's sixth witness, Diana Chase took the stand for the third time. She took over the evidence Lt. Hodges seized from Wester’s patrol car.
Chase identified and listed the details of 68 pages of pictures of evidence seized from Wester’s patrol car for the jury.
Chase said a Fossil watch box containing marijuana residue as well as small plastic ziplock bags were found in Wester's patrol car. They also seized two plastic canisters, a metal smoking pipe, two plastic knives, and a syringe.
The photos show drugs and paraphernalia seized from Wester’s patrol car. None of it is labeled or contains info as to where it came from.
Chase questioned why drugs were being kept in Wester’s patrol car.
The state originally planned on calling the defendant's father, Robert Wester, to the stand, but instead released him and called Kevin Arnold back to discuss the patrol division and CAD reports.
Arnold said Wester diddn’t responded to any drug-related incidents the day his car was taken to be searched and confirmed Wester hadn’t responded to any drug seizures that entire month prior. Arnold also said Wester did not respond to any abandoned property incidents.
Nikki Finch, the Sgt. over dispatch at JCSO took the stand next. She confirmed says there were no records of Wester responding to drug seizures prior to his car being searched.
Sam Catalani, a 21-year-veteran with FDLE’s seized drug department, tested the evidence in this case.
Catalani said the tests resulted in positive identification of meth and marijuana.
After recess, Diana Chase took the stand for the fourth time.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement began its investigation into Wester in August 2018 and believes his actions resulted in more than 100 people being wrongly charged. Wester entered a not guilty plea in July.
According to court records, Wester is looking at 76 charges that include official misconduct, perjury, fabrication of evidence, possession of drugs, and false imprisonment
In most of the incidents reported in the affidavit, Wester's body-cam was either not recording, or only recorded part of the stop, whether that was the initial connection with the driver, or after a search of the car had already started.
Investigators believe that Wester placed drugs and other paraphernalia inside at least 16 victims' cars when his camera was off.
"The investigation revealed 42 items of drug paraphernalia, 10 separately packaged quantities of methamphetamine, and five separate items of marijuana. All of those items were recovered in deputy Wester's patrol vehicle," said Chris Williams, Assistant Special Agent in charge of FDLE Pensacola region.
Details from day one of Wester's trial can be found by clicking here.
Details from day two of Wester's trial can be found by clicking here.
Details from day three of Wester's trial can be found by clicking here.
If Wester is found guilty of all charges, he could face about 13 and a half years in state prison.
The jury consists of two female jurors and seven male jurors. The trial is anticipated to last roughly three weeks.