When a rash of burglaries and other crimes broke out in and around a gated community in Sanford, Fla., residents wanted some form of protection. Someone raised the possibility of a neighborhood watch group. But only one resident seems to have come forward for the duties: George Zimmerman.
Zimmerman, 28, is the focal point for national outrage over the fatal Feb. 26 shooting of an unarmed teen, Trayvon Martin. The 17-year-old was returning from a sugar run -- he’d bought a bag of Skittles and an iced tea at a local convenience store -- and was reportedly talking on a cellphone to his girlfriend when he crossed paths with Zimmerman. Zimmerman, meanwhile, had spotted the teen and called police to report a young black male acting suspiciously, according to phone logs.
What happened next is a matter of debate, and will ultimately be up to a Seminole County grand jury to decide when it convenes next month. The teen’s girlfriend said she could hear someone confronting Martin. But Zimmerman said that Martin was the aggressor -- and that he opened fire in self-defense. He was not arrested.
The case has taken on racial overtones as it has captured public attention.
Police identified Zimmerman as white, but his family says he’s Hispanic. Critics of how authorities have dealt with the case have launched marches, petitions and demonstrations, and civil rights leader the Rev. Al Sharpton was expected in the area Tuesday night. Earlier in the day Tuesday, black leaders hand-delivered a letter to Florida Gov. Rick Scott expressing their concerns and displeasure with how the case has been handled so far.
According to local media reports, Zimmerman took seriously his volunteer role as captain of the neighborhood watch group in the diverse community. He had aspirations of being a police officer at one point in his life, and had called 911 to report suspicious activity in the neighborhood nearly 50 times in the last year, according to the Miami Herald.
“He once caught a thief and an arrest was made,” Cynthia Wibker, secretary of the homeowners association, told the Herald. “He helped solve a lot of crimes.”
But others apparently felt uneasy with Zimmerman’s zealousness.
One African American resident, Ibrahim Rashada, told the Herald that Zimmerman seemed friendly and helpful, but Zimmerman also circulated a description of a suspect that pulled Rashada up short. “I fit the stereotype he emailed around,” Rashada said. That realization led Rashada to drive downtown whenever he wants to take a walk and stretch his legs. “I don’t want anyone chasing me,” he said.
Zimmerman’s father wrote a letter to the Sun Sentinel that insists that his son is neither a racist nor guilty of being the aggressor in the deadly encounter. The statement was published in full on the newspaper’s website. It reads in part:
“George is a Spanish speaking minority with many black family members and friends. He would be the last to discriminate for any reason whatsoever.... The media portrayal of George as a racist could not be further from the truth.”
The statement goes on to suggest that the public should be outraged over the “extremely misleading” portrayal of Zimmerman, and hinted that there are key facts that have yet to be made public.
“The events of February 26 reported in the media are also totally inaccurate. Out of respect for the on-going investigation, I will not discuss specifics. However, the media reports of the events are imaginary at best. At no time did George follow or confront Mr. Martin. When the true details of the event become public, and I hope that will be soon, everyone should be outraged by the treatment of George Zimmerman in the media.”
ABC News has also been delving into what it suggested were irregularities with the investigation to date. For one, ABC reported, Zimmerman was not tested for drugs or alcohol on the night of the shooting, something that the news organization says is routine in many homicide cases. Moreover, a narcotics detective -- and not a trained homicide detective -- took Zimmerman’s statement in the wake of the shooting, ABC said.
Tracy Martin, the father of the slain teen, said police told him that Zimmerman’s background was “squeaky clean.” However, ABC News reported, public records show that Zimmerman was charged with battery against on officer and resisting arrest in 2005, a charge that was later “expunged” from his record. That allowed him to legally obtain the weapon he was carrying the night of the shooting.
Zimmerman and his father have temporarily left their home, after they were the subject of death threats, according to media reports.