But the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin left the boy’s family and attorneys convinced that the volunteer developed a twisted sense of entitlement, one that gave him a false sense of authority to enforce the rule of law in his tiny gated community. Trayvon’s family’s attorneys believe that led to racial profiling and murder.
Zimmerman called police 46 times since Jan. 1, 2011 to report disturbances, break-ins, windows left open and other incidents. Nine of those times, he saw someone or something suspicious.
Calls to 911 alerted police to a scuffle and someone crying for help. In one, the chilling howl stopped after the clear, crisp blast of a bullet. Trayvon was lying face down on the ground near a pathway that runs through the townhouse community.
Zimmerman told police that was him crying for help and that Trayvon started the fight. He claimed self-defense and was not charged, flaring deep-seated racial tensions between blacks and police, who have a long history of distrust. On at least two prior occasions, the Sanford Police Department was accused of giving favorable treatment to relatives of officers involved in violent encounters with blacks.
“Zimmerman felt he was one of them; he felt he was a cop,” said Trayvon’s family attorney, Natalie Jackson, who accuses the police of protecting him. Many residents — black and white — question Zimmerman’s judgment and wonder why he would have engaged the teenager at all.
The answer may lie in police records, which show that 50 suspicious-person reports were called in to police in the past year at Twin Lakes. There were eight burglaries, nine thefts and one other shooting in the year prior to Trayvon’s death.
“He once caught a thief and an arrest was made,” said Cynthia Wibker, secretary of the homeowners association. “He helped solve a lot of crimes.”
Problems in the 6-year-old community started during the recession, when foreclosures forced owners to rent out to “low-lifes and gangsters,” said Frank Taaffe, a former neighborhood block captain.
“Just two weeks before this shooting, George called me at my girlfriend’s house to say he saw some black guy doing surveillance at my house, because I had a left a window open,” Taaffe said. “He thwarted a potential burglary of my house.”
Taaffe sounded chagrined when he noted that the complex is now majority-minority. Census figures show Retreat at Twin Lakes is 49 percent white, non-Hispanic, 23 percent Hispanic, 20 percent African-American and 5 percent Asian.
As for Zimmerman’s past legal blemishes, he was once arrested for battery on a law enforcement officer when he interfered in a friend’s arrest. The charge was reduced to simple battery, and he entered a plea that allowed him to have a clean record and qualify for a concealed weapons permit.
Police volunteer program coordinator Wendy Dorival said she met Zimmerman in September at a community neighborhood watch presentation.
“I said, ‘If it’s someone you don’t recognize, call us. We’ll figure it out,’ ” Dorival said. “‘Observe from a safe location.’ There’s even a slide about not being vigilante police. I don’t know how many more times I can repeat it.”
Police Chief Bill Lee said that although police do not encourage watch program volunteers to carry weapons, he recognizes a citizen’s constitutional right to do so. No arrest was made, Lee said, because there was no evidence to disprove Zimmerman’s account.
police 46 times since Jan. 1, 2011 to report disturbances, break-ins, windows left open and other incidents. Nine of those times, he saw someone or something suspicious.
“Hey, we’ve had some break-ins in my neighborhood, and there’s a real suspicious guy at Retreat View Circle. This guy looks like he’s up to no good,” Zimmerman told a dispatcher on Feb. 26, the night of Trayvon’s death.
According to 911 recordings released late Friday by Sanford police, Zimmerman said the person was walking slowly, looked drugged and appeared to be looking at people’s houses. Police would later learn that Trayvon had gone to 7-Eleven during the NBA All Star game halftime to get Skittles and Arizona iced tea.