When a crime wave struck a gated community, says Chris Francescani at Reuters, one resident took a stand — and found himself at the center of a national firestorm
A PIT BULL named Big Boi began menacing George and Shellie Zimmerman in the fall of 2009. The first time the dog ran free and cornered Shellie in their gated community in Sanford, Fla., George called the owner. The second time, Big Boi frightened George's mother-in-law's dog. Zimmerman called Seminole County Animal Services and bought pepper spray. The third time he saw the dog on the loose, he called again. An officer came to the house, county records show.
"Don't use pepper spray," he told the Zimmermans, according to a friend. "It'll take two or three seconds to take effect, but a quarter second for the dog to jump you," he said. "Get a gun."
In early December, the couple, trained and licensed, bought guns. George picked a Kel-Tec PF-9 9mm handgun, a popular, lightweight weapon.
By June 2011, Zimmerman's attention had shifted from the loose pit bull to a wave of robberies that rattled the community, called the Retreat at Twin Lakes. The homeowners association asked him to launch a neighborhood watch, and Zimmerman began to carry the Kel-Tec on his regular, dog-walking patrol.
On Feb. 26, George Zimmerman shot and killed unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin in what Zimmerman says was self-defense. The furor that ensued has consumed the country and prompted a re-examination of guns, race, and self-defense laws enacted in nearly half the United States. Zimmerman's detractors defined him as a vigilante who had decided Martin was suspicious merely because he was black. After Zimmerman was arrested on a charge of second-degree murder, more than six weeks after the shooting, prosecutors portrayed him as a violent and angry man who disregarded the authorities by pursuing the 17-year-old.
But a more nuanced portrait of Zimmerman has emerged from a Reuters investigation into his past and a series of incidents in the community in the months preceding the Martin shooting.
The 28-year-old insurance-fraud investigator comes from a deeply Catholic background and was taught in his early years to do right by those less fortunate. He was raised in a racially integrated household and himself has black roots through an Afro-Peruvian great-grandfather.
Though civil-rights demonstrators have argued that Zimmerman should not have prejudged Martin, one black neighbor of the Zimmermans said recent history should be taken into account. "Let's talk about the elephant in the room. I'm black, okay?" the woman said. She leaned in to look a reporter directly in the eyes. "There were black boys robbing houses in this neighborhood," she said. "That's why George was suspicious of Trayvon Martin."
GEORGE MICHAEL ZIMMERMAN was born in 1983 to Robert and Gladys Zimmerman, the third of four children. Robert Zimmerman Sr. was a U.S. Army veteran who served in Vietnam in 1970. Zimmerman Sr. also served two tours in Korea, and spent the final 10 years of his 22-year military career in the Pentagon, working for the Department of Defense, a family member said. In his final years in Virginia before retiring to Florida, Zimmerman Sr. served as a magistrate in Fairfax County's 19th Judicial District.
Gladys came to lead a small but growing Hispanic enclave within the All Saints Catholic Church parish in the late 1970s, where she was involved in the church's outreach programs. Gladys would bring young George along with her on "home visits" to poor families, said a family friend, Teresa Post. Post recalls evening prayers before dinner in the ethnically diverse Zimmerman household, which included siblings Robert Jr., Grace, and Dawn. "It wasn't only white or only Hispanic or only black — it was mixed," she said.
Zimmerman's maternal grandmother, Cristina, who had lived with the Zimmermans since 1978, worked as a baby-sitter during his childhood, caring for two African-American girls who ate their meals at the Zimmerman house. "They were part of the household for years," Post said.
Zimmerman diligently served as an altar boy at All Saints from age 7 to 17, church members said. At 14 he became obsessed with becoming a Marine. At 15, he worked three part-time jobs to save up for a car. After graduating from high school in 2001, he moved to Lake Mary, Fla., a town neighboring Sanford. His parents purchased a retirement home there in 2002, in part to bring Cristina, who suffers from arthritis, to a warmer climate.
On his own at 18, George got a job at an insurance agency and began to take classes at night to earn a license to sell insurance. He grew friendly with a real estate agent named Lee Ann Benjamin, who shared office space in the building, and later her husband, John Donnelly, a Sanford attorney. "George impressed me right off the bat as just a real go-getter," Donnelly said. "He was working days and taking all these classes at night, passing all the insurance classes, not just for home insurance, but auto insurance and everything. He wanted to open his own office — and he did."
In 2004, Zimmerman partnered with an African-American friend and opened up an Allstate insurance office, Donnelly said.
Then came 2005, and a series of troubles. Zimmerman's business failed, he was arrested, and he broke off an engagement with a woman who filed a restraining order against him. That July, Zimmerman was charged with resisting arrest, violence, and battery of an officer after shoving an undercover alcohol-control agent who was arresting an underage friend of Zimmerman's at a bar. He avoided conviction by agreeing to participate in a pretrial diversion program that included anger-management classes.
In August, Zimmerman's fiancée at the time, Veronica Zuazo, filed a civil motion for a restraining order, alleging domestic violence. Zimmerman reciprocated with his own order on the same grounds, and both orders were granted. The relationship ended.
In 2007 he married Shellie Dean, a licensed cosmetologist, and in 2009 the couple rented a town house in the Retreat at Twin Lakes. Zimmerman had bounced from job to job for a couple of years, working at a car dealership and a mortgage company. He enrolled in Seminole State College in 2009, and was one credit shy of graduating when the shooting occurred.
BY THE SUMMER of 2011, Twin Lakes was experiencing a rash of burglaries and break-ins. Previously a family-friendly, first-time-homeowner community, it was devastated by the recession, and transient renters began to occupy some of the 263 town houses in the complex. Vandalism and occasional drug activity were reported, and home values plunged. One resident who bought his home in 2006 for $250,000 said it was worth only $80,000 today.
At least eight burglaries were reported within Twin Lakes in the 14 months prior to the Trayvon Martin shooting, said the Sanford Police Department. Yet in a series of interviews, residents said dozens of reports of attempted break-ins and would-be burglars casing homes had created an atmosphere of growing fear in the neighborhood. In several of the incidents, witnesses identified the suspects to police as young black men. Twin Lakes is about 50 percent white, with an African-American and Hispanic population of about 20 percent each, roughly similar to the surrounding city of Sanford, according to U.S. Census data.
But it was the August incursion into the home of Olivia Bertalan that really troubled the neighborhood, particularly Zimmerman. On Aug. 3, Bertalan was at home with her infant son while her husband, Michael, was at work. She watched from a downstairs window, she said, as two black men repeatedly rang her doorbell and then entered through a sliding door at the back of the house. She ran upstairs, locked herself inside the boy's bedroom, and called a police dispatcher.
Police arrived just as the burglars — who had been trying to disconnect the couple's television — fled. Shellie Zimmerman saw a black male teen running through her backyard and reported it to police. After the police left Bertalan, George Zimmerman arrived at the front door in a shirt and tie, she said. He gave her his contact numbers on an index card and invited her to visit his wife if she ever felt unsafe. "He was so mellow and calm, very helpful, and very, very sweet," she said. "People were freaked out. It wasn't just George calling police...we were calling police at least once a week."
In September, a group of neighbors including Zimmerman approached the homeowners association with their concerns, she said. Zimmerman was asked to head up a new neighborhood watch. He agreed.
POLICE HAD ADVISED Bertalan to get a dog. She and her husband decided to move out instead, and left two days before the shooting. Zimmerman took the advice. "He'd already had a mutt that he walked around the neighborhood every night — man, he loved that dog — but after that home invasion he also got a rottweiler," said Jorge Rodriguez, a friend and neighbor of the Zimmermans.
Less than two weeks later, another Twin Lakes home was burglarized, police reports show. Two weeks after that, a home under construction was vandalized. The Retreat at Twin Lakes e-newsletter for February 2012 noted: "The Sanford PD has announced an increased patrol within our neighborhood...during peak crime hours. If you've been a victim of a crime in the community, after calling police, please contact our captain, George Zimmerman."
ON FEB. 2, 2012, Zimmerman placed a call to Sanford police after spotting a young black man he recognized peering into the windows of a neighbor's home, according to neighbors. "I don't want to approach him, personally," Zimmerman said in the call, which was recorded. By the time police arrived, according to the dispatch report, the suspect had fled.
Then, on Feb. 6, the home of Tatiana Demeacis was burglarized. Two roofers working across the street said they saw two African-American men lingering in the yard at the time of the break-in. A new laptop and some gold jewelry were stolen. Police found Demeacis's laptop in the backpack of 18-year-old Emmanuel Burgess, police reports show, and charged him with dealing in stolen property. Burgess was the same man Zimmerman had spotted on Feb. 2.
Three days after Burgess was arrested, Zimmerman's grandmother was hospitalized for an infection, and the following week his father was also admitted, for a heart condition. Zimmerman spent a number of those nights on a hospital room couch. Ten days after his father was hospitalized, Zimmerman noticed another young man in the neighborhood, acting in a way he found familiar, so he made another call to police.
"We've had some break-ins in my neighborhood, and there's a real suspicious guy," Zimmerman said, as Trayvon Martin returned home from the store.
The last time Zimmerman had called police, to report Burgess, he followed protocol and waited for police to arrive. This time, Zimmerman was not so patient. "These assholes," he muttered in an aside, "they always get away."
After the phone call ended, several minutes passed when the movements of Zimmerman and Martin remain a mystery.
Moments later, Martin lay dead with a bullet in his chest.
©2012 by Thomson Reuters. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
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