Drug-planting probe intensifies, people shared their stories
MARIANNA, Fla. (AP) — They were heading down the back roads of Jackson County in their beat-up old Camry when they passed a Sheriff’s Office patrol car coming from the other direction.
On their way to a wedding, Jeffrey Helms and his girlfriend April Middleton watched from rear view mirrors as the deputy turned around and accelerated behind them with lights flashing.
When the deputy got out of his car, Middleton recognized him instantly from her days waiting tables in Marianna. It was Zachary Wester, a 26-year-old Jackson County deputy who happened to come from a prominent law enforcement family.
Middleton and Helms weren’t too worried. They’d had run-ins with the law over drugs before, but they knew they didn’t have anything on them at the time. There were scales in the car, but nothing more, she said.
They pulled over in someone’s driveway. Wester ordered them to get out of the car and onto the ground. It was the afternoon of Sept. 23, 2017. A small crowd of onlookers began to gather and gawk.
Wester said he smelled marijuana, which gave him probable cause to search the car without consent. After rifling around in the front and back seats, he went to his own vehicle for a few moments before coming back to search their car again.
Not long after that, he held up a clear film canister he claimed he found under the driver’s seat.
“He said, ‘Oh, what do we have here? You all need to be a little more careful,’ “Middleton said. “And I said, ’Yeah, of who pulls us over. At this point I looked at (Helms) and he looked at me. And he was like, ‘That’s not ours.’ And I said, ‘Oh, I know. Believe me, I know.’ ”
The crystal substance from the baggie tested positive for methamphetamine and weighed more than 3 grams. Wester handcuffed Middleton and Helms and put them both in the back of his patrol car.
“I said, ‘This is crazy,’ ” Middleton recalled. “This is just bull----. And (Helms) said, ‘I’m about to go to prison.’ ”
After complaints about Wester surfaced in courthouse circles, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement opened an investigation Aug. 1. The probe is ongoing, and no charges have been filed. Prosecutors have said they’re waiting for a final report from FDLE.
The allegations are that Wester was pulling over drivers — some with records, many unable to afford their own lawyers — and planting drugs in their cars before hauling them to jail. A number of the encounters were captured on Wester’s own body camera, but it’s unclear how many.
As the investigation unfolded, FDLE investigators briefed State Attorney Glenn Hess of the 14th Judicial Circuit. He was shown body camera footage in which Wester can be seen holding what appears to be a baggie in his hand before starting a search.
“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,” Hess said in an interview with the Tallahassee Democrat.
Over recent days, a torrent of motions filed by Hess and Public Defender Mark Sims have been filed in Jackson Circuit Court. Charges have been dropped in at least 48 cases that were initiated by Wester or hinged on his testimony.
A Jackson County judge ordered sentences vacated for at least eight people locked up in prisons and other state correctional facilities across North Florida. He demanded at least five be returned to Jackson County and released immediately. In all, some 263 cases spanning a two-year period are under review, Hess said.
Betsy White, a noted civil rights and criminal defense attorney from Jacksonville, said Wester could face charges from official misconduct, a third-degree felony, to perjury, drug possession and even conspiracy if more people were involved. Under any scenario, if he’s charged and convicted, he could face substantial time, she said.
She said there’s been “great reluctance” among many law enforcement agencies to embrace body cameras, devices she said are key in exposing officer misconduct.
“Bad police officers do more damage to the community than we can ever know,” White 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.”
Sitting in the back of Wester’s squad car, Middleton decided she’d take the fall for her man. He had a record, and she figured another drug charge would send him back to prison. She told Wester that he knew full well the film canister wasn’t theirs.
“But since somebody has to take this charge,” she said, “it was mine.”
Wester arrested both on possession of methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia, according to court records. Helms was slapped with additional charges, including felony fleeing and eluding and reckless driving.
In arrest reports, Wester wrote that he pulled them over after noticing Helms wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. He said he had to go more than 90 mph to catch up with the couple. But Middleton, in an interview, said none of that was true.
Wester also wrote in reports that Helms told him he was trying to “get away” because he had an unregistered tag and didn’t want to get pulled over. Middleton conceded the car had an illegal plate.
The arrest report says Wester’s body camera was running when he made the arrest. But it’s unclear whether it still exists in evidence. Middleton went down to the Sheriff’s Office to ask for the video and the reports and was told she’d get them.
Helms and Middleton were taken to the Jackson County jail after their roadside arrest. During their time behind bars, they each heard from other inmates who claimed Wester set them up, too.
“Their stories are exactly like ours,” Middleton said.
On Feb. 15, Wester pulled a pickup truck over in the median of Highway 231 in Cottondale. He seemed friendly enough as he approached the truck and spoke with the driver, Teresa Odom. He engaged in affable chit chat with her and allowed her to answer her cell phone after it rang.
“Hi, how are you?” he said through the driver’s side window. “Deputy Wester with the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office. The reason for my stop is your brake lights — they work one minute and the next minute they don’t work.”
His body camera was on during the nearly 18-minute encounter. State Attorney Hess told the Democrat this month that the footage prompted him to “lose confidence” in Wester. The Democrat posted the video after obtaining a copy.
During the traffic stop, Wester asked whether there was anything in the car he should know about. “Absolutely nothing,” she said before agreeing to a search.
“Alrighty,” he said after opening the driver’s side door. As he fumbled to put a pair of black gloves on, he can be seen holding what appears to be a plastic baggie in his left hand. Moments later, he produced a tiny white baggie from Odom’s purse.
He didn’t announce the discovery right away, even as another deputy stood nearby. He rummaged around in the truck another few minutes before finally confronting her.
“Oh, Ms. Odom, how about this?” the 6-foot-4 Wester asked as he walked toward her.
“That is not mine,” she said emphatically. “No sir. No sir.” Visibly stunned, she asked, “What is it?”
“I have an idea,” Wester said. “We’re going to test it.”
“Oh, no,” another deputy said. “Teresa, you’re going to jail.”
Odom, back on her cell phone, told someone on the other end that the baggie tested positive for meth.
“I guess I’m gonna go to jail,” she said. “It damn sure ain’t mine. I’m under arrest, OK. I love you.”
Aside from the state attorney, few people are going on the record about the Wester case. Jackson County Sheriff Lou Roberts declined to comment. Public Defender Sims did not return a phone call.
The Democrat has been unable to reach Wester by phone or at his home off Highway 71 in Marianna. His lawyer, Steve Meadows of Panama City, who’s the former state attorney for the circuit, didn’t return a phone call either.
According to Wester’s personnel file, he graduated from Sneads High School in 2010. He made the dean’s list and was active in Future Farmers of America, he wrote on his job application. He had a clean record, aside from a traffic ticket.
He worked at Verizon Wireless stores in Marianna and Tallahassee and a Nissan dealership before enrolling at Chipola Law Enforcement Academy in 2014 and earning his certification the following year.
He followed in the career footsteps of his dad, Robbie Wester, a former Jackson County Sheriff’s Office captain who worked under Meadows when he was state attorney. The elder Wester, who ran for sheriff in 2008, declined to talk on the record when reached by phone.
Wester worked as a deputy in Liberty County for a few months before he was hired in Jackson County in May 2016. Two high-ranking sheriff’s officials said they knew him most of his life and “highly recommended” him for the job.
One local businesswoman wrote the Sheriff Office earlier this year to praise Wester and another deputy for their handling of a call about a threatening former employee.
“They left no stone unturned in their investigative efforts to determine the level of threat,” she wrote. “Please extend our gratitude and appreciation to both deputies for their exemplary performance.”
Wester described his skills on his job application, writing, “Ability to use good judgment and to problem solve, capacity for multi-tasking, ability to demonstrate courage and to take responsibility, ability to be resourceful and show initiative.”
Odom was charged with possession of methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia, according to court records. She eventually pleaded no contest and was sentenced to four years of probation. Her sentence was vacated on this month.
Middleton spent a couple of weeks behind bars before she posted bail. Her charges were consolidated and she pleaded no contest Jan. 16 to a misdemeanor paraphernalia charge, according to court records. Prosecutors told her this month that the charges will be dismissed.
Helms spent more than a month in jail before pleading no contest to his most serious charges, according to court records. He was sentenced last month to 18 months in prison for those charges and a previous one, according to Florida Department of Correction records.
His charges from Wester’s arrest were dropped this month. However, he remains incarcerated at the Hamilton Correctional Institution Annex in Jasper.
Middleton wants Helms released and Wester arrested. She said few people believed them when they proclaimed their innocence.
“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.”
Wester lives next door to Helms’ father. Helms’ brother, Grady Helms, said Wester often made small talk with his dad when they were outside.
“The guy has been my dad’s ‘friendly’ neighbor right next door and did this to his neighbor’s son,” he said. “Ain’t that something? My dad — he didn’t want to believe all this. He’s believing it now. He knows now he was planting stuff on people.”
Wester’s alleged misdeeds wreaked havoc on the lives of others. Erika Helms, Grady Helms’ wife, said her younger brother, Lance Sellers, spent a year in residential rehab in Crawfordville after Wester busted him for meth. His charges were recently dropped, too.
“He’s ruined lives,” she said. “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.”
Information from: Tallahassee (Fla.) Democrat, http://www.tdo.com