Olivia Bertalan was home alone with her infant son one morning last August when a man came to her door, knocked, and rang the doorbell. She peered out a window, didn't recognize the man and called police when another man came to her back door.
Bertalan, 21, ran upstairs and locked herself and her son in a bedroom as the second man entered her home, which was in the Retreat at Twin Lakes, a gated, middle-income neighborhood of 260 townhouses in Sanford, Fla., outside Orlando. Terrified, she and her son cried as the man tried to turn the knob of the door where they hid. Both men ran when police arrived, but not before stealing a laptop and digital camera.
"It was terrible," said Bertalan, who moved from the neighborhood last month after about half a year, because of this and other burglaries. "I'm sure he could hear me in there because my son was crying, and I was crying. ... Who knows what would have happened if the police hadn't been there."
Twin Lakes has been in the national spotlight since one of its residents, George Zimmerman, shot and killed a 17-year-old boy named Trayvon Martin while Martin was walking through the neighborhood on a rainy February night. Martin, who was unarmed, was reportedly headed to a relative’s house. Zimmerman, who was carrying a concealed 9mm handgun and was the captain of the neighborhood-watch organization, told police that Martin had assaulted him after Zimmerman had asked why he was there.
Under Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which allows people who believe they’re in danger to respond with deadly force, Zimmerman was not arrested, but Martin’s death has since inspired protests and public demonstrations nationwide. The U.S. Justice Department on March 20 announced a review of the case for possible civil-rights violations. Two days later, the Sanford police chief stepped down temporarily, and Florida Gov. Rick Scott announced the appointment of a special prosecutor in the case and a task force to review the controversial law. Even President Obama weighed in last week, saying, "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon."
In attempting to understand Zimmerman’s actions, much attention has been called to the fact that Martin was black, and to the frequency with which Zimmerman, who is half-white and half-Hispanic, called police in the years leading up to the shooting. Twin Lakes is almost 50 percent white, with Hispanic and African-American populations of about 20 percent each.
Conversations with several residents, however, suggest that Zimmerman’s calls reflect a wider feeling of concern and distrust in the community. For years, Twin Lakes residents had been on edge—demonstrated by their decision last September to start a neighborhood-watch organization, which was initiated by Zimmerman himself. The burglary of Olivia Bertalan’s home was just one of at least eight reported over the previous 14 months—several of which, neighbors said, involved young black men. On Feb. 26, the odds were stacked against Martin: he was a young black man in a neighborhood that was feeling besieged by crime and blaming it—fairly or not—on people who looked like him.
Three weeks before Martin’s death another Twin Lakes resident arrived home to discover a kitchen window open and a laptop and gold necklaces missing. Two witnesses said they saw a young black man standing nearby, but they did not see the man break into the home, according to a police report. One witness said he believed it was the same man who had stolen his bike. The next day officers responding to a call confronted three black men and one white man on bikes near the neighborhood. The same witnesses identified one of the men as the same man they saw near the burglarized home. The officers found the laptop in the man's backpack.
Last July a rental car was stolen from one townhome along with the car keys, which were inside on a dining room table. The resident awoke in the morning to discover her sliding glass door open. The car was eventually found abandoned. In August a PlayStation and videogames were stolen from another townhome. In September someone vandalized a townhome under construction. In December someone broke into a foreclosed townhome, stopped up a toilet and started the water running. According to a police report, the water flooded the bedroom and caused drywall in the garage to collapse.
During the months before he shot Martin, Zimmerman called police about once a month, said Kim Cannaday, spokeswoman for the Seminole County Sheriff's Office. He called about suspicious-looking people in the neighborhood, many whom, like Martin, he identified as black. Zimmerman also called to report a neighbor's garage door open and children playing in the street, asking that he remain anonymous so as not to offend other neighbors.
In all, police have records of 46 calls from Zimmerman since 2004, both to 911 and a nonemergency number, sometimes for reasons as mundane as reporting a pothole blocking a road, as he did in 2005. The sheriff’s office released the records after Sanford police detectives requested them as part of the investigation into Martin’s death, Cannaday said.
Cannaday said he did not believe that the number of calls Zimmerman made to police was itself concerning.
"I would not consider it excessive," Cannaday said. "That's typically what we encourage, is if anyone in the community sees something out of the ordinary, concerning, or suspicious, we would want for them to call."
Olivia Bertalan said it was George Zimmerman's wife, in fact, who helped her to identify the burglar who stole her laptop. Bertalan didn't know Zimmerman well, but said he was helpful and "sweet" after the crime, inviting her to call them anytime if she felt afraid or needed anything.
Officers eventually identified the person who burglarized Bertalan's home as a neighbor. He was arrested but released because, as Bertalan understood it, he was a minor. Both he and the other man were black, according to the police report.
After the crime, Bertalan said, she was afraid to come home and find things missing. She and her husband got a dog, as advised by police.
"There was definitely a sense of fear in the neighborhood after all of this started happening, and it just kept on happening. It wasn't just a one-time thing. It was every week," she said. "Our next-door neighbor actually said if someone came into his yard he would shoot him. If someone came into his house he would shoot him. Everyone felt afraid and scared."