George Zimmerman wasn’t a cop, but he wanted to be. The 28-year-old man who shot Trayvon Martin inside a gated Florida community Feb. 26 is in hiding now, as the media and the nation direct their attention to the town of Sanford, near Orlando. The neighborhood watch captain has not yet been charged in the shooting, and claims he acted in self-defense when he shot the African-American teenager with the Kel-Tec 9mm handgun he was licensed to carry. But now, with national attention mounting, Martin’s parents are calling for Zimmerman’s arrest and prosecution.
The Zimmermans, George and his parents, Robert and Gladys, moved to Florida from the Manassas, Va., area about 10 years ago. The third of the couple’s four children and a former altar boy according to his father, Zimmerman graduated from Osbourn High School in Manassas in 2001.
The family’s neighbors from Virginia said they didn’t have many memories of Zimmerman as a boy. “He seemed to be a good enough kid,” Ron Whitis, a former next door neighbor, said.
It didn’t take long for Zimmerman to adjust to his new Florida home. In 2003, he gave chase when he saw a man steal a television from a supermarket, following the shoplifter until police could catch up. Zimmerman followed another man a year later, saying the man had spit on him.
Zimmerman’s record becomes spottier over the following years as he had a handful of run-ins with the law. In July 2005, Zimmerman was arrested after a tussle with law enforcement outside of a bar near the University of Central Florida. It was a first offense, and Zimmerman got off with a pretrial diversion program.
In August of the same year, a petition for injunction was filed against Zimmerman by a woman who cited domestic violence, and Zimmerman responded with his own petition. Both injunctions were issued.
In 2007, records show Zimmerman married Shellie Nicole Dean, a cosmetologist. The next year, he struggled with credit-card payments to Capital One, ultimately reaching a settlement for $2,135.82. Capital One later reported that Zimmerman was failing in his payments.
Despite these scrapes, Zimmerman reportedly wanted to enter law enforcement himself, and was attending Seminole State College, which has a law and public safety program. In 2008, he applied to the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office program for citizen law enforcement.
It is not clear where Zimmerman was employed at the time of the shooting, but records show that he was working for CarMax for an undetermined period of time before 2008.
Zimmerman’s parents have said that their son has been misrepresented since the shooting. “Anybody who knows my son knows and routinely tells me that they don’t believe one thing of what’s reported in the media,” Zimmerman’s father told the Orlando Sentinel.
Whether or not Zimmerman was an official neighborhood watchman or was self-appointed is now a matter of dispute. The National Sheriffs’ Association, which runs the Neighborhood Watch Program, said it has “no information indicating the community where the incident occurred has ever even registered with the NSA Neighborhood Watch program,” NSA executive director Aaron D. Kennard said in a statement.
But by all accounts, Zimmerman took the job seriously. He made close to 50 911 calls between Jan. 1, 2011, and the evening of the shooting to report suspicious characters in his neighborhood, a 260-unit housing complex that is almost 50 percent white with Hispanic and African-American populations of about 20 percent each.
On Monday, the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office released recordings of six non-emergency calls in which Zimmerman is heard reporting mundane happenings around his neighborhood. Most of the calls begin with Zimmerman mentioning recent break-ins or other crimes in his community. In one of the calls he reports spotting two African-American males who match the description of suspects from a recent robbery. In another, he reports a neighbor’s open garage door.
The reaction to the shooting among community residents seems to have been mixed. Cynthia Wibker, secretary for the homeowner’s association, told reporters that Zimmerman’s actions once led to the arrest of a thief. “He helped solve a lot of crimes,” she said.
A 55-year-old marketing specialist—and former neighborhood watch captain—Frank Taaffe has also stuck up for Zimmerman, saying that he’s not a fanatic and “not a racist.” Zimmerman was “overzealous, maybe,” Taaffe told reporters, but “his main concern is the safety and welfare of the community.”
Others members of the community, including Ibrahim Rashada, told reporters that Zimmerman’s behavior was sometimes unnerving, as when the watchman emailed a description of a suspect to other residents. “I fit the stereotype he emailed around,” Rashada said. After that, Rashada didn’t feel comfortable taking walks around his neighborhood. “I don’t want anyone chasing me,” he said.