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Day 5 in trial of former Jackson County deputy Zach Wester

"I am testifying to the jury today that the drugs were there, that I did not put them there."
Posted at 9:44 AM, May 14, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-14 16:51:44-04

JACKSON COUNTY, Fla. (WTXL) — Zach Wester, the former Jackson County Deputy fired for planting evidence during traffic stops, faces his fifth day on trial with witness testimony from those charged and backup officers.

Wester is expected to testify Friday.

Jeffrey O'Pry, defense's second witness. He's been with Florida Highway Patrol for 6 years but was with JCSO for 12 years before that.

DEFENSE WITNESS 2: Jeffrey O'Pry. He's been with Florida Highway Patrol for 6 years.

O'Pry served as a backup officer for some of Wester's stops, including Joshua Emanuel who testified earlier.

O'Pry says Emanuel was still inside the car when he arrived as backup back in 2018. He says he was positioned to see Wester for safety reasons but also watching Emanuel.

O'Pry says he never saw Wester with a syringe in his hand while walking to the car. He says he never saw Wester reaching towards his pockets either. He says Wester's full-body never entered the car.

When asked if it was jarring to hear Emanuel deny the syringe and drugs found, O'Pry said, "Not at all. We hear that daily."

O'Pry says he never went into the car and can't say definitively if the drugs and paraphernalia were planted or not.

"I would've arrested somebody if I thought they were planting drugs," said O'Pry.

Defense's third witness, Trevor Lee who used to work with JCSO. He assisted Wester during the Fears traffic stop.

DEFENSE WITNESS 3: Trevor Lee. He used to work with JCSO. He assisted Wester during the Fears traffic stop.

Lee says he saw the vial Wester says he found during the Fears search. He says he never saw Wester plant drugs or do anything unusual during the search.

Deputy Lee says he assisted Wester in multiple stops and never saw anything unusual.

Zach Wester takes the stand in his own defense.

Zach Wester

Wester started as a deputy in Liberty County. He did a year there and then moved to Jackson County in 2016.

He says he left Liberty because he had some disagreement with leadership but also because he wanted to come back to his hometown.

"I wanted to serve the people of Jackson County," said Wester.

"I was sitting in the parking lot of the Sheriff's Office," he said when he learned of his suspension. "I was processing evidence from a call that I had received earlier in the day."

He says that day, he responded to a call of a suspicious bag at a public park and said he saw narcotics and paraphernalia in the box.

"It appeared that maybe it was a drop for an inmate work crew," Wester said.

He says there was a traffic crash, so he suspended the drug call to go to the nearby crash within eight or nine minutes to "render aid."

He says another crash with possible injuries came in after that call. He responded to it as well, then headed back to the Sheriff's Office.

Zach Wester, 
Fourteenth Judicial Circuit of Florida

"I was beginning to process and separate the evidence from the Alford Park," Wester said. "With this call, it was considered abandoned property. There wasn't really a sequence I would follow in terms of numbering the items."

He says the drugs that were found inside his patrol car immediately following his suspension.

Wester said he left some of the evidence on the center console before going to meet with Captain Arnold. He says he was unaware the conversation would be about his suspension.

He said he never had access to his car and never finished processing the evidence from the recovered drugs.

"Captain Arnold told me not to worry about it," said Wester. "Everything would be there when I got back. Unfortunately, I never got that opportunity."

Fourteenth Judicial Circuit of Florida

Per the Emmanuel arrest, Wester says Trooper O'Pry arrived as backup almost immediately. He says Emanuel's driver's license was suspended. Wester went to get Emanuel's handgun from the console and he noticed what looked like a syringe.

"I could've continued searching, but I went back to Mr. Emanuel and told him what I saw. He seemed shocked," said Wester.

Emanuel told him he had nothing to worry about in regards to a search.

Wester answered questions on Reginald Williams, who was pulled over on August 30, 2017. This stop does not have body camera footage.

Wester confirmed he stopped Williams and his girlfriend, who was driving because of a cracked windshield. He says he smelled weed when he approached the car.

He said Williams' lunchbox had a hidden compartment. The defense asks if Wester planted evidence in the lunchbox, he says he did not.

Fourteenth Judicial Circuit of Florida

Questioning turned to the Steve Vann stop. The video shows Vann saying he had a girl named Crystal in his car. Davis hinted during openings that that could have been true or it could have been a joke. Wester says the Crystal who Vann referred to is known for doing drugs. The defense asks if Wester planted evidence in Vann's console, he says he did not.

Focus turned to the Trevor Day stop. He was pulled over for driving with no headlights. Day told Wester there were weed "roaches" in the car prior to May 2018 search that led to another one of Wester's meth arrests.

"I saw the driver and front-seat passenger make several movements back and forth," Wester said.

"In the ashtray, I recovered a green leafy substance," said Wester. "I was able to identify as marijuana. In the center console, I retrieved a black pouch with a white substance... on the floor, I saw shards of a crystalized substance scattered in that area... Mr. Day denied any knowledge of the meth as well as Ms. Wood. Mr. Day did state that his mom previously owned the vehicle. I can't remember if he told me his mom was currently or previously a meth user."

The next focus is on the Richard Driggers stop. Wester says he doesn't know why his body camera stopped in the middle of the Driggers stop.

Joshua Clenney was pulled over in March of 2018. Wester says he turned off his body camera partially through that search because an undercover approached.

"The conversation we were going to have about Clenney was possibly positioning him to a confidential informant," said Wester.

Fourteenth Judicial Circuit of Florida

After a brief recess, Wester's testimony resumed, detailing the Bowling arrest.

February 2018, the Teresa Odom stop is next for discussion. As the courtroom watches the video, Wester goes from watching to thumbing through his notes, to glancing around the courtroom.

When asked if there was something in his hand, Wester said, "Absolutely." When asked if it was meth, Wester said it was not.

Wester says he saw a baggie in the space between Odom's door latch. He says he grabbed it, and that's why the body cam shows a baggie in his hand before he fully enters the car.

"At the time, it didn't strike me as having evidentiary value," said Wester.

Wester says the meth that he found was in the bottom of Odom's purse, not the baggie he found in the door.

Fourteenth Judicial Circuit of Florida. Wester testifies as a picture of the baggie found during the Odom stop is shown.

"There is a grey hair sealed in the bag and wrapped around the bag as well," Wester testifies as a picture of the baggie found during the Odom stop is shown.

"I also find a silver spoon in the driver's side floorboard," Wester said. "In that spoon appears to be a dried, crystallized substance."

"Did you plant that bag of methamphetamine in the vehicle," asked Davis.

"No," West answered.

"Where did you get that bag," Davis asked.

"In the void space behind the door," Wester said.

Questioning moved on to the Derrick Benefield traffic stop.

"Under the front driver seat, there was a little snap style case, almost in the case, there was a clear plastic jewelry style case," said Wester.

He says it had the appearance of an illegal narcotic.

Zach Wester testifies

Moving on to the Fears stop. Deputy Lee and Wester both searched the car. Deputy Lee asked Wester to check the back seat because they saw the passengers moving around inside.

"That's one of the disadvantages of being 6'5"," Wester says of the bodycam footage. "I leaned in, I guess my camera came in contact with the seat. My arm went under the passenger seat."

Wester says he never found an angle for the body cam that would always capture every view.

He said something similar happened during the Vann search. His attorney asks if drugs were found in the same spot. Wester says no.

Wester says Deputy Lee found the drugs.

Moving on to the Kimberly Hazelwood arrest in June 2018. Wester says she crossed the double line and then the tag came back uninsured. Jeremy Hazelwood was the driver.

A positive alert from a k-9 gave probable cause for a search of a yellow bag with an Excedrin bottle. Wester says a white crystallized substance.

"I remember this one because it was so quick," Wester said. "It was an immediate presumptive positive."

He says he saw her put the bottle in the bag.

"That is one traffic stop that sticks with me to this day," said Wester. "I never want to arrest someone in front of their children, but with a felony charge, I couldn't. I wish I could've given an NTA [Notice to Appear]."

Fourteenth Judicial Circuit of Florida

Moving on to Maria Turner. Wester says he smelled a faint odor of burnt weed and she didn't seem surprised.

He says he found a plastic container with a crystallized substance in the driver-side door panel and there was a plastic bag with a green leafy residue he recognized as weed.

Turner's probation officer testified that her drug test came back negative but Wester says he stopped her a month prior to that test.

He says he was proactive to get drugs off the street, but also because when people saw blues lights, property crimes went down.

"I've seen personally the effect meth has had on the community," Wester said. "I wouldn't want to sit around and wait for the meth to come to me."

Wester said there was no bonus for drug arrests.

"Except for the nap part, some deputies would hang out in central locations and wait for their next call," said Wester. "That's totally okay but not what I wanted to do."

Prosecution cross-examines Wester

After a court recess, the prosecution began cross-examination of Wester regarding body camera footage.

Prosecutor Tom Williams questioned Wester about missing bodycam video. Wester at one point says completing the traffic stop is more important than troubleshooting a faulty body camera.

Wester confirms his body cam didn’t start for Emanuel’s search until he already began the search.

Wester says someone else deleted the bodycam footage from Reginald Williams' arrest from the server.

Wester said to the jury that when the server contained a high amount of content it was common for some content to be deleted. He said he wanted the jury to understand he wasn't accusing anyone of malicious intent.

Williams questions why Wester didn’t photograph where he found stuff in instances where his body cam went off.

“I’ve explained this to you 3 or 4 times,” Wester answered.

"You know you don't have to take someone to jail if it's not the right person," Williams asked Wester.

Wester becomes visibly angry and combative with the prosecution, turning questions on Williams about drug use and offenders.

"I am testifying to the jury today that the drugs were there, that I did not put them there," said Wester.

"We don't have a video of you searching the car," Williams said.

"That is correct," said Wester. "The glitch I experienced happened after a written warning."

Wester says he had to get a new body camera issued due to continuing technological issues.

Williams questions Wester on someone that flew out of Odom's truck during that stop.

Wester says he lost the baggie found on the doorway and theorizes a semi drove by and it blew out of the floorboard of the truck where he put it. He said he didn't want to look for something he wasn't sure would be evidence.

"Whenever I looked at the bag, it did not appear, as I said earlier, to have evidentiary value," Wester said of Odom's stop. "I found meth in a purse and I found the spoon. I was not going to walk across and shut down traffic to find something most likely was a piece of trash."

"I'm asking if there ever even was a second bag, different from the one you palmed and put in her bag," Williams said.

"What are you asking me," Wester answered.

"Your report doesn't document a second bag," said Williams.

"It does not," Wester said.

Williams says the grey hair found in the meth bag Wester says he found in Odom's car will contain DNA.

"What you just presented to this jury is absolutely absurd and not true at all," Wester tells the prosecutor when asked if there were ever two bags found in Odom's truck.

"Did you put that hair into evidence," Williams asked.

"I want to make it clear, I did not see the hair during the traffic stop.," said Wester. "It wasn't until after when we were reviewing the video that I saw the hair."

Wester says he took photographs but they're not inside the case report.

"I believe as I'm placing the spoon, I believe into the evidence bag, on the video you can see the black marks on the bottom," said Wester.

On the subject of k-9s, Williams and Wester agree they were only alerted to scent.

"You put it back in a trash bag, closed the lid, and at that time considered admitting it for evidence," Williams asked of the meth Wester said he found in an Excedrin bottle in Hazelwood's arrest.

"Yes, I did," Wester answered.

Williams asked why Wester didn't do an investigation or follow-up onto Hazelwood's sister or Daniel if they were the ones with the [drug] problem.

"It's very common when someone denies narcotics for them to blame it on someone else," Wester answered.

"You didn't notate in any report when suspects asked for DNA, finger-printing or roadside drug tests," Williams asked.

"I did not," said Wester. "I was told at the time that the FDA crime lab was limited on what they accept. When we had homicides they even limited what they accepted for homicides."

Wester said he didn't want Hazelwood's children to see their mother arrested for drugs and create a spectacle. Williams asked why Wester didn't give her a field drug test when Hazelwood was in his patrol car.

Wester said at the time he wasn't thinking about whether or not children knew what a field test looked like.

The defense rests. The prosecution calls Mike Hodges, one of two rebuttals.

Mike Hodges

Hodges says Wester did not tell him he was in the process of admitting evidence [when it was found during a search of his patrol car].

Captain Kevin Arnold is called back to the stand.

Captain Kevin Arnold

Captain Arnold says Wester did not tell him he was in the process of admitting evidence [when it was found during a search of his patrol car].

Both Hodges and Arnold said they did not make note of it the day of.

The judge advises the jury they have heard all testimony expected to receive in this case. On Monday, the judge says he will read final instructions, i.e. the law, and closing arguments will take place. The judge said he expects deliberations to begin mid-day Monday.

BACKGROUND

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.

Details from day four 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.