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Zachary Wester takes stand in day 5 of drug-planting trial

Published: May. 14, 2021 at 9:33 AM CDT|Updated: May. 14, 2021 at 11:13 AM CDT
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JACKSON COUNTY, Fla. (WCTV) - The former Jackson County deputy accused of planting drugs on people during a dozen minor traffic stops over a three-year period has taken the stand in his own defense.

Friday is the trial’s fifth day, and defendant Zachary Wester is the last witness on the list.

You can watch Wester take the stand on the WCTV Facebook page or below.

The judge spoke directly to Wester before calling the jury back into court.

He asked Wester if it was his choice to testify.

“Is that correct, sir?” the judge asked.

“That is correct,” Wester said.

6 p.m. update

Wester is facing felony charges accused of planting drugs in a dozen traffic stops between 2017 and 2018.

The defense opened and rested its case in just one day after four days of witnesses by the state. Their key testimony coming from Wester himself, who denied ever planting drugs or falsifying records.

Wester gave the same response for each arrest as defense attorney Ryan Davis walked through each of the 12 witnesses testifying against the former deputy.

“I’m testifying to this jury today that the drugs were there, I did not put the narcotics there,” said Wester.

Prosecutors also brought up concerns about missing body camera footage in some of the arrests.

Again, Wester denied planting drugs on any drivers.

The trial is expected to wrap next week.

1 p.m. update

The jury continued to watch body cam videos of the 12 stops in which Wester is accused of planting drugs and falsifying arrest records.

One of the body camera videos played in court showed the Feb. 2018 stop of Teresa Odom.

Odom was stopped along Highway 231, after Wester said her brake lights weren’t working properly.

In the video, Wester asked Odom “Is there anything in the vehicle I need to be concerned about?”

Odom said no. Wester then told her that a K9 would be coming to the scene, unless she gave him permission to search the car, which she did.

Body camera footage shows Wester walking up to the white pickup truck and putting on black gloves before starting his search.

Wester testified that he found a spoon on the driver’s side floorboard with what appeared to be “a dried, burned crystallized material” on it. He testified he also found a baggie of meth at the bottom of Odom’s purse.

Wester said he arrested Odom and took her to jail.

Wester said he later was informed Odom accepted a plea deal in the case.

The jury also watched a video of the June 2018 stop of Jeremy and Kimberly Hazelwood. Wester said he stopped them because there was no insurance on the vehicle. The couple told him they had recently moved to Jackson County.

Wester told the motorist that the stop was being recorded on audio and video.

Another deputy, who was a K9 handler, was also on the scene and Wester testified that the K9 alerted to the presence of narcotics in the vehicle.

Wester says he found a pill bottle with a white crystallized substance inside and arrested Kimberly Hazelwood for it.

Wester said he did not want to handcuff the woman in front of her children, so he put her in the back of his patrol car without handcuffing her. Wester said he wished he could have given her a notice to appear, but he “had no discretion” on the felony charge.

“I never wanted to arrest someone in front of their children,” Wester said.

Wester is being questioned by his own attorney as the defense presents its case.

It comes after four days of witness testimony put on by the state. Prosecutors will have an opportunity to cross-examine Wester Friday afternoon.

12 p.m. update

Wester is on the stand now testifying about the 12 traffic stops in which he’s accused of planting drugs.

In each case, Wester flatly denied planting any evidence or falsifying any arrest reports.

Defense attorney Ryan Davis went through the stops one by one, playing the videos for the jury and asking Wester to describe why he stopped the vehicles and what he found when he searched them.

The first stop Wester testified about was the April 2018 stop of Joshua Emanuel.

Wester said he stopped Emanuel after running his tag and discovering he had a suspended license. Wester said Emanuel told him he had a gun in the car and Wester asked to remove it. He testified that as he did so, he noticed a syringe and a sandwich bag with what appeared to be meth inside. Wester said a field test came back presumptive positive for meth.

Wester testified that when he arrested Emanuel and took him to jail, he got a call from LT Hodges inquiring about the traffic stop. Wester said LT Hodges told him he’d known Emanuel since he was a child and asked him to give Emanuel a notice to appear instead of booking him into jail.

“How many times did you issue a notice to appear when you arrested someone for a felony?” the defense attorney asked.

“Never,” Wester said.

“Did you plant that syringe in Mr. Emanuel’s car?”

“I did not,” Wester said.

Wester said his arrest report was a true and accurate account of what happened during the traffic stop and denied falsifying anything.

Wester described stopping other drivers for a variety of reasons, including a shattered windshield, straying from the lane and failure to wear a seatbelt.

Wester described pulling over one motorist because one of his headlights wasn’t working.

He said he smelled marijuana in Richard Driggers’ car.

Wester said inside the car, he found a container with a sticky residue, a syringe and piece of aluminum foil with a crystalized substance inside.

Wester said the substance tested presumptive positive for meth, which Driggers denied.

“It is very common for someone in possession of narcotics,” Wester said of that denial. Wester said every now and then people will admit to drugs being theirs, but “the majority of the time, they will deny that they knew about it.”

The judge called a 10-minute recess in the case at 11:45 a.m. Eastern Time.

The defense is expected to continue describing the stops one by one. The state will likely begin cross-examining Wester Friday afternoon.

10:30 a.m. update

He detailed his past law enforcement experience, telling the jury that he worked at the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office before taking a job with the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office.

When asked why he left the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office, Wester cited disagreements with the sheriff, but testified the main reason was “to come back to my hometown where I was born and raised and serve the citizens of Jackson County.”

Wester described his last day on duty with the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office. It was Aug. 1, 2018 — the day he was suspended.

Wester says when he was called into the sheriff’s office, he was actually parked outside JCSO, processing evidence that he had recovered from the Alford Recreational Park earlier that day.

Someone had discovered a suspicious package inside the restroom there. Wester says the box had a Crown Royal bag on top and was filled with drugs and paraphernalia. He testified that he photographed the box with his department-issued camera, but before processing the evidence he was re-routed and responded to two different traffic crashes.

The box of evidence, he testified, was in his trunk.

Wester said the items were still in his car when he was called into JCSO and suspended.

Wester testified that he had not finished processing the meth and marijuana that he had found in the recreation center bathroom and told his supervisor so. He claims the captain told him “not to worry about it, that it would be there when he got back.”

Wester testified that in light of his suspension and later arrest, he never got back into his patrol car or finished processing the drugs he found.

The defense called three witnesses to the stand Friday morning before Wester’s testimony.

A JCSO deputy who served as backup to Wester during a previous arrest took the stand. Jeffrey O’pry testified that he never saw Wester with a syringe before it was found during a search of Joshua Emmanuel’s vehicle.

O’pry also said on the stand Wester did not begin the search before he arrived. Emmanuel had told Wester he had a gun in the center console, which allowed Wester to search the vehicle.

The defense attorney asked O’pry if he saw anything suspicious during the arrest, and what he would have done if he had.

“I would have arrested someone if I thought they were planting drugs,” O’pry said.

The next witness on the stand was Trevor Lee, who worked at JCSO when Wester was first hired.

Lee testified that he responded to multiple traffic stops with Wester and never noticed anything unusual.

The prosecution asked Lee if he had any reason to think there was something suspicious.

“So, you weren’t watching him that closely?” The prosecution asked.

“No sir,” Lee responded.

Wester is accused of planting drugs during a dozen traffic stops and falsely arresting motorists on meth charges. Several of them later entered pleas to the charges, saying a judge and jury would never believe their word over a deputy’s word.

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