An article published by the Reuters news agency paints a image of George Zimmerman, a Florida man who is alleged to have shot to death 17-year-old Trayvon Martin on February 26, that is much more nuanced and informative than other mass media reports on the controversial and divisive case. Reporter Chris Francescani spoke with residents of the Sanford FL neighborhood where the shooting took place and who were able to put the tragic death of the unarmed teen into context.
Emotions have run hot since the confrontation between Zimmerman and Martin, as political and community leaders have lined up along ethnic and/or ideological lines. For some, Zimmerman is seen as a vigilante. For example, an article at the leftist website Indeypendent declared, “When George Zimmerman stalked Trayvon Martin because the African American teenager looked "suspicious," it was racist vigilantism, pure and simple. Even conservative politicians and pundits have been forced to concede that Zimmerman was wrong to single out Trayvon for no other reason than his hoodie and the color of his skin.” Even so, others have noted that Zimmerman was legally permitted to carry a firearm under Florida law enabling self-defense.
Francescani’s article gave details of incidents leading up to the February shooting.
A neighbor’s pit bull got loose in the area during the fall of 2009, on at least two occasions, and once cornered Shellie, Zimmerman’s wife, in her own yard. Zimmerman then queried a police officer about buying pepper spray. In response, the officer recommended that he purchase a firearm. Zimmerman then bought a Kel-Tec PF-9: a 9mm pistol.
The Twin Lakes area of Sanford, where Zimmerman lived, "was experiencing a rash of burglaries and break-ins" by the summer of 2011. Witnesses said that robbers in the neighborhood, in several cases, were young black men. For example, a black teen stole a bicycle off the Zimmermans' porch that summer. That summer, Olivia Bertlan – who also lived in the neighborhood – was the victim of a home invasion in which two black men came into her house. Hiding in an upstairs room, Bertalan called police who came only to see the perpetrators flee. One of them escaped through the Zimmermans’ property.
(A Kel-Tec 9mm pistol, similar to the one owned by George Zimmerman)
Following the home invasion, Zimmerman visited Bertalan and gave her his card that had his name and telephone number. Zimmerman told Bertalan that should she feel frightened in the future that she should visit his wife Shellie. When police suggested that Bertalan purchase a watch dog, she instead moved out of the neighborhood. Zimmerman, who already had one dog, purchased another dog.
In one of the interviews about Zimmerman, a neighbor sought to make the reporter understand the gravity of the crime and ethnic strife in the area. "Let's talk about the elephant in the room. I'm black, OK?" said the unidentified woman who anticipated a backlash because of her skin color. "There were black boys robbing houses in this neighborhood," she said. "That's why George was suspicious of Trayvon Martin."
According to Francescani, Zimmerman is the product of the marriage of a Vietnam War veteran and a Peruvian immigrant. Zimmerman’s father, Robert, served tours in Vietnam and Korea over his 22-year career and also served as a magistrate in Virginia courts. He is a Baptist. Robert married Gladys Mesa, a Catholic from Peru who was active in her parish and frequently visited poor people in the suburbs of Washington DC. Zimmerman’s maternal grandmother, Cristina, took care of her grandson and also two black girls from the neighborhood who took meals in the Zimmerman home.
Following his parents’ example, Zimmerman also became active in his church. He served as an altar boy and also worked at the rectory of All Saints Catholic parish in Manassas, Virginia. During his high school years, he took a job at a Mexican restaurant, washed cars, and also became a member of the high school ROTC program with the intention of joining the Marine Corps. Since he speaks both Spanish and English, Zimmerman was often asked at the age of 10 by the principal of his grade school to interpret for Spanish-speaking students. Teresa Post, a Peruvian immigrant who lived for a time with the Zimmerman family, said of their family values "It was part of their upbringing to know that there are people in need, people more in need than themselves."
Zimmerman graduated high school in 2001 and moved to Lake Mary, a town near Sanford FL. His parents moved to Lake Mary the next year, and brought with them Zimmerman’s grandmother. Taking night classes, Zimmerman earned his insurance license and opened an Allstate insurance business with a black friend. That business failed in 2004.
In 2005, Zimmerman was arrested for "resisting arrest, violence, and battery of an officer" when he pushed an under-cover alcohol control agent who was attempting to arrest an underage friend of Zimmerman. In August of that year, Zimmerman and his then-fiancée Veronica Zuazo broke off their engagement. Zuazo had filed a restraining order against Zimmerman, to which he responded with his own request.
Zimmerman met and married Shellie Dean, a cosmetologist, in 2007. Together they rented a house in Twin Lakes, which is approximately 50% white, 20% Hispanic, and 20% black. In 2009, Zimmerman enrolled in Seminole State College and took courses towards becoming a law enforcement officer.
Following the rash of break-ins in their neighborhood, Zimmerman and other neighbors asked the local neighborhood association to create a neighborhood watch. They requested that Zimmerman run the watch. A newsletter issued by the community reminded fellow neighbors to report crimes to the police and to call “George Zimmerman, our captain."
On February 2, 2012, Zimmerman saw a black man peering into the windows of an empty house in the neighborhood, a gated community called The Retreat at Twin Lakes. Calling the police, Zimmerman said "I don't know what he's doing. I don't want to approach him, personally," officers came but the suspect left by the time they arrived. Just four days later, there was another break-in. In that case, witnesses said that two of the suspects were black. One of them was apprehended and found with a computer that had been stolen from the house. He already had burglary convictions.
It was two weeks later that Zimmerman spotted Travyon Martin walking through the same neighborhood wearing a hoodie and carrying a bag of Skittles and a soft drink. What happened thereafter remains in dispute, other than the fact that the 17-year-old high school football player was to die at the hand of George Zimmerman.
Since March 20, the Justice Department has been investigating the incident. In view of the loss of life, President Barack Obama told reporters days later "When I think about this boy, I think about my own kids, and I think every parent in America should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this," and, "If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon." The FBI is also conducting an investigation into whether Trayvon Martin's civil rights were violated, and interviewed witnesses and looked into Zimmerman's background.
As to Zimmerman’s background, his Florida voter registration lists him as a Democrat, and Hispanic. He has been charged with second-degree murder and is now free on bail. The homeowners association at Retreat at Twin Lakes did ask him to go on his fateful dog-walking patrols of the neighborhood, but he carried his Kel-Tec pistol against neighborhood guidelines. Trayvon Martin died following the discharge of that pistol.