The people at the Retreat of Twin Lakes had been missing bikes, grills and a few times thought strangers were casing their town houses.
When the homeowners association wanted to start a neighborhood watch, only one man stepped up: George Zimmerman, the 28-year-old who admitted to shooting an unarmed Miami Gardens teenager and who is now the focal point of a race-related scandal of national proportions.
Interviews with neighbors reveal a pleasant young man passionate about neighborhood security who took it upon himself to do nightly patrols while he walked his dog.
Licensed to carry a firearm and a student of criminal justice, Zimmerman went door-to-door asking residents to be on the lookout, specifically referring to young black men who appeared to be outsiders, and warned that some were caught lurking, neighbors said. The self-appointed captain of the neighborhood watch program is credited with cracking some crimes, and thwarting others.
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.
“He would circle the block and circle it; it was weird,” said Teontae Amie, 17. “If he had spotted me, he’d probably ask me if I lived here. He was known for being really strict.”
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.
“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.
“These a--holes always get away,” Zimmerman complained.
What happened next is unclear, and has already reverberated nationwide. 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.
One 911 caller sobbed to the dispatcher over not having helped the young man who wailed.
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.
In 2010, police waited seven weeks to arrest a lieutenant’s son who was caught on video sucker-punching a homeless black man.
In 2005, two security guards — one the son of a longtime Sanford police officer and the other a department volunteer — killed a black man they said was trying to run them over. Black leaders complained of a lackluster investigation. The guards ultimately were acquitted.
“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.
The recent shooting raised troubling questions about whether the homeowners association knew its volunteer was armed with a Kel Tek 9mm semiautomatic handgun. 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.
In all, police had been called to the 260-unit complex 402 times from Jan. 1, 2011 to Feb. 26, 2012.
“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.”
Zimmerman told neighbors about stolen laptops and unsavory characters. Ibrahim Rashada, a 25-year-old African American who works at U.S. Airways, once spotted young men cutting through the woods entering the complex on foot, and later learned items were stolen those days.
“It’s a gated community, but you can walk in and steal whatever you want,” Rashada’s wife, Quianna, said.
They discussed the topic with Zimmerman when the watch captain knocked on their door late last year. Zimmerman seemed friendly, helpful, and a “pretty cool dude,” Ibrahim Rashada said.
“He came by here and talked about carrying guns and getting my wife more involved with guns,” he said. “He said I should have a weapon and that his wife took classes to learn how to use one.
“I do have a weapon, but I don’t walk around the neighborhood with mine!”
Actually, he does not walk around the neighborhood at all.
“I fit the stereotype he emailed around,” he said. “Listen, you even hear me say it: ‘A black guy did this. A black guy did that.’ So I thought, ‘Let me sit in the house. I don’t want anyone chasing me.’ ”
For walks, he goes downtown. A pregnant Quianna listened to her husband’s rationale, dropped her head, and cried.
“That’s so sad,” she said. “I hope our child doesn’t have to go through that.”
Travis Williams, a black 16-year-old who wears dreadlocks, said last year a man came to his house and accused him of stealing a bicycle. The police even came and checked the serial numbers on the bike in his garage.
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.
He suspects Zimmerman got tired of thugs “and reached his breaking point,” Taaffe said. “But why was he carrying a gun? Why not carry pepper spray or a Taser? That’s bizarre-o.”
Taaffe said Zimmerman was so normal that he came across as though he were “an engineer from Lockheed Martin.” He did not show up to homeowner association meetings Rambo-style “wearing a bandana around his head with a bowie knife sticking out of his pocket,” Taaffe said.
It’s unclear what Zimmerman, who is married, does for a living, although he once owned a pressure washing company.
As for any 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.
In a statement delivered to the Orlando Sentinel, his father, Robert Zimmerman, defended his son, who he said was a “Spanish-speaking minority with many black family members and friends.”
“He would be the last to discriminate for any reason whatsoever,” Robert Zimmerman wrote. “One black neighbor recently interviewed said she knew everything in the media was untrue and that she would trust George with her life. Another black neighbor said that George was the only one, black or white, who came and welcomed her to the community, offering any assistance he could provide. Recently, I met two black children George invited to a social event. I asked where they met George. They responded that he was their mentor.”
He said the family prays for Trayvon and his parents every day.
At no time, the father wrote, did George Zimmerman follow or confront Trayvon, although the recording of the call to police shows the dispatcher asking him, “Are you following him?” and Zimmerman answered, “yeah.”
“We don’t need you to do that,” the police dispatcher said.
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.
He has cooperated with the investigation and never retained an attorney, Lee said. His phone numbers are disconnected and no one answered the door at his home or his parents’ home. His in-laws shooed a reporter away. After death threats and an avalanche of hate mail, Lee said Zimmerman went into hiding. Local station WFTV Channel 9 reported that he showed up with a truck last week and moved out.
“We are taking a beating over this,” said Lee, who defends the investigation. “This is all very unsettling. I’m sure if George Zimmerman had the opportunity to relive Sunday, Feb. 26, he’d probably do things differently. I’m sure Trayvon would, too.”