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, Florida, George called the owner to complain. The second time, Big Boi frightened his 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.”
That November, the Zimmermans completed firearms training at a local lodge and received concealed-weapons gun permits. In early December, another source close to them told Reuters, the couple bought a pair of guns. George picked a Kel-Tec PF-9 9mm handgun, a popular, lightweight weapon.
By June 2011, Zimmerman’s attention had shifted from a 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 would begin to carry the Kel-Tec on his regular, dog-walking patrol – a violation of neighborhood watch guidelines but not a crime.
Few of his closest neighbors knew he carried a gun – until two months ago.
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 – the father of the maternal grandmother who helped raise him.
A criminal justice student who aspired to become a judge, Zimmerman also concerned himself with the safety of his neighbors after a series of break-ins committed by young African-American men.
Though civil rights demonstrators have argued 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, OK?” the woman said, declining to be identified because she anticipated backlash due to her race. 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.”
One morning in July 2011, a black teenager walked up to Zimmerman’s front porch and stole a bicycle, neighbors told Reuters. A police report was taken, though the bicycle was not recovered.
But it was the August incursion into the home of Olivia Bertalan that really troubled the neighborhood, particularly Zimmerman. Shellie was home most days, taking online courses towards certification as a registered nurse.
On August 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, whispering frantically.
“I said, ‘What am I supposed to do? I hear them coming up the stairs!’” she told Reuters. Bertalan tried to coo her crying child into silence and armed herself with a pair of rusty scissors.
Police arrived just as the burglars – who had been trying to disconnect the couple’s television – fled out a back door. Shellie Zimmerman saw a black male teen running through her backyard and reported it to police.
After 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 returned later and gave her a stronger lock to bolster the sliding door that had been forced open.
“He was so mellow and calm, very helpful and very, very sweet,” she said last week. “We didn’t really know George at first, but after the break-in we talked to him on a daily basis. 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.
It was such a simple story – literally black and white. A trigger-happy racist vigilante. An innocent young black kid walking home from the store with some candy and a soft drink. Racial profiling and cold-blooded murder.
Then the facts screwed it up.
Whatever else he may be, George Zimmerman is not a caricature. He’s not even “white” as most of us would define it. If he’s white then so is Barack Obama. He is a husband,
father and human being. He was a good neighbor. He killed a man, but is he a murderer?
He had good reason to be concerned about crime. The condo community he lived in had seen a wave of burglaries and attempted break-ins. He was one of the victims. Then one night he saw a strange face in the neighborhood. According to Zimmerman’s statement during the 911 call Trayvon Martin was acting suspiciously, so he called the police like he was supposed to do.
Did Zimmerman exercise bad judgment in following Trayvon? Probably. It certainly didn’t work out very well for either of them. But was he acting recklessly or maliciously? I haven’t seen evidence of that.
There are still unanswered questions. What (if anything) was Trayvon doing that made him seem suspicious? Was Zimmerman following Trayvon or chasing him? Why didn’t Trayvon go home (he had a headstart and 90 seconds to travel 70 yards). Who confronted who? Who threw the first punch?
We haven’t seen all the evidence but many minds are already made up. There are some who will continue to insist it was murder. Others will say it was clearly self-defense. But there is also a place between “guilty” and “innocent” called “not proven.”
Jeralyn has more here.
Tom Maguire has his take here.