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Dodgy cop busted by own bodycam

For years deputy sheriff Zachary Wester would pull over motorists for minor traffic issues - only to emerge from a vehicle search with a bag of meth in hand.

The drivers always protested their innocence, but the evidence was clear - a US police officer had found drugs in their vehicle, after all.

The effects of the subsequent drug charges were catastrophic - some drivers lost their freedom, while others lost custody of their kids.

But it turns out many were innocent, and the drugs had been planted - by the officer himself.

CROOKED COP

Mr Wester was hired as a patrol deputy at the Jackson County Sheriff's Office in Florida in May 2016.

Over the years, he arrested hundreds of road users for drug possession.

But last September, it all fell apart when the 26-year-old was fired after footage captured on his own body camera raised suspicions.

Zach Wester was arrested last month after planting drugs in drivers' cars. Picture: Twitter/Wakulla County Sheriffs Office
Zach Wester was arrested last month after planting drugs in drivers' cars. Picture: Twitter/Wakulla County Sheriffs Office

Last week, he was also arrested on felony charges of racketeering, official misconduct, fabricating evidence, possession of a controlled substance and false imprisonment, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) revealed in a statement.

He was also charged with misdemeanour perjury, possession of a controlled substance and possession of drug paraphernalia.

He is facing up to three decades behind bars.

BUSTED BY BODYCAM

Suspicions were first raised last year after authorities noted discrepancies between the cop's written reports and what was actually seen on his bodycam footage.

Assistant state attorney Christina Pumphrey helped crack the case after she noticed a "seriously disproportionate" amount of drug arrests made by Mr Wester.

The usual pattern involved the former sheriff pulling over a driver for a petty offence, such as a broken headlight or an undone seatbelt.

Then, he would often claim to smell marijuana, prompting a vehicle search. However, his searches usually ended with him "finding" a bag of meth.

According to The Washington Post, he would leave his camera switched off most of the time, "conveniently only recording after drugs were already 'found' in a vehicle".

But one video helped end Mr Wester's crime spree.

That video showed his interaction with victim Teresa Odom, and unlike most other incidents, the camera was turned on the whole time.

Almost five minutes into the clip, Mr Wester leans inside her vehicle - with a mysterious object in his left hand.

A mysterious item in the deputy's left hand sparked a probe into his conduct. Picture: Tallahassee Democrat
A mysterious item in the deputy's left hand sparked a probe into his conduct. Picture: Tallahassee Democrat

Soon after, he "found" meth in the car.

"Without putting on the glove, Deputy Wester's left hand dropped out of view, down toward the front of the driver's seat and, after a brief pause, reappeared empty," his arrest affidavit states, according to The Washington Post.

Lance Sellers is one of Mr Wester's victims, and he has since announced plans to sue the sheriff's department.

His sister Erika Helms told the Tallahassee Democrat the former officer "ruined lives".

Her brother spent a year in residential rehab after being falsely arrested for meth possession, while another victim, Benjamin Bowling, lost custody of his young daughter.

"People are losing their lives, their freedom, their children, their marriages - all because of this one man," Ms Helms told the Tallahassee Democrat.

"It's not just innocent men. It's innocent children. It goes a lot deeper than everyone realises."

THE ARREST

State investigators began their probe last August after being tipped off by the Jackson County Sheriff's Office.

They found clear evidence Mr Wester's acts were "deliberate".

"There is no question that Wester's crimes were deliberate and that his actions put innocent people in jail," said FDLE Pensacola assistant special agent in charge Chris Williams.

"I am proud of the hard work and dedication shown by our agents and analysts on this case to ensure justice is served."

Mr Wester's search of Teresa Odom's car proved his undoing. Picture: Tallahassee Democrat
Mr Wester's search of Teresa Odom's car proved his undoing. Picture: Tallahassee Democrat

What is less clear is why he did it in the first place - something investigators are still trying to discover.

As is an obviously stumped state attorney William Eddins, who said in a recent news conference, "You're never certain of what lies in the heart of man."

THE VICTIMS

Only 11 victims were named in Mr Wester's arrest affidavit, but 119 cases involving the disgraced cop have been dropped.

At least eight inmates have been released from prison, with 262 cases still under review.

Dozens of victims are now expected to sue.

Continue the conversation @carey_alexis | alexis.carey@news.com.au


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