The Neighborhood Zimmerman Watched

by Ian Tuttle
He’d been personally affected by a spate of burglaries in the run-up to the tragic night.

From the start the facts seemed to be of little importance to the prosecution of George Zimmerman, whether at the State’s table in Florida’s 18th Circuit Court or in the court of public opinion.

The forces lined up against Zimmerman worked diligently to bury the background to his confrontation with Travyon Martin in February of 2012 — namely, the rampant crime, frequently committed by black males, that had put his neighborhood on edge. As the “conversation” about the Zimmerman case and about race in America continues, these widely neglected facts should be exhumed.

George Zimmerman moved to the Retreat at Twin Lakes, in Sanford, Fla., in the summer of 2009. Two years into the Great Recession, the gated community of 260 townhomes was in the middle of a demographic transformation. The neighborhood was built to be a family-friendly option for first-time homeowners just a quick drive from downtown Orlando. The initial average price for a 1,400-square-foot townhouse was $250,000. By February of 2012 it had fallen below $100,000.

Large-scale foreclosures in the wake of the housing crash led investors to rent, rather than sell, the spaces, which brought a new, transient type of resident. The Tampa Bay Times noted that, by the end of February 2012, 40 of the homes were empty, and of those occupied, half were being rented.

As the type of resident changed, so did the type of visitor. Eight robberies were reported from the start of 2011 to the time of the Martin shooting, and dozens more burglaries were attempted. Neighbors frequently reported suspicious persons lurking about, possibly casing residences. Many of the suspects were black. In July of 2011 a black teenager stole a bicycle from Zimmerman’s front porch.

According to crime statistics obtained from City-Data.com, the larger community of Sanford had seen a steady uptick in burglaries, from 668 in 2007 to 945 in 2011. Robberies peaked at 199 in 2009, but with 159 in 2011, they remained at rates well above pre-recession years. For Zimmerman’s Twin Lakes community, the statistics were manifest as day-to-day problems — a story chronicled by Reuters in an exhaustive profile of Zimmerman published in April of 2012.

Zimmerman, who was known by local police to be a vigilant watchdog — he called police about once every two months, amounting to 46 times between August 2004 and the time of the shooting — assumed a new role in the community shortly after a particularly alarming break-in. In August of 2011 Olivia Bertalan locked herself and her infant son in an upstairs bedroom when two men — both black — broke into her house to try to steal her television. When police arrived, the would-be robbers fled.

Zimmerman came to Bertalan’s house later in the day, after police had left. He gave her an index card with his contact information and invited Bertalan to visit his wife, Shellie, who spent her days at home taking online classes, if she ever felt unsafe. He returned later with a lock to help secure the sliding backdoor that the burglars had forced open. When she appeared before the court as a witness for the defense, Bertalan said she was “very appreciative” of Zimmerman’s help.

Within a month of the break-in at Bertalan’s, another house was burglarized, and one under construction was vandalized. A group of residents spoke to the homeowner association, and at its request, Zimmerman agreed to coordinate a neighborhood watch with the assistance of the Sanford police. “If you’ve been a victim of a crime in the community,” read the Retreat at Twin Lakes’ February 2012 e-newsletter, “after calling the police, please contact our captain, George Zimmerman.”

That same month, Zimmerman called police after spotting a black teenager peering through the windows of a neighbor’s empty house — not for the first time. “I don’t know what he’s doing. I don’t want to approach him, personally,” Zimmerman told the dispatcher. Four days later, a different house was robbed. Police found the stolen items in the backpack of 18-year-old Emmanuel Burgess — the youth Zimmerman had reported to police just days before. The same boy had been one of the burglars at Olivia Bertalan’s house the previous summer.

The situation in Twin Lakes, Bertalan told reporters later, was frightening. “Everyone felt afraid and scared,“ she told Reuters. “People were freaked out,” she told Reuters. “It wasn’t just George calling police. . . . We were calling police at least once a week.” She says she and her husband talked with Zimmerman daily following the burglary at their home.

Frank Taaffe, a fellow neighborhood-watch captain for the Retreat at Twin Lakes, affirmed that the neighborhood had suffered a string of burglaries that were being committed primarily by “young black males.”

It was against that backdrop of fear and suspicion that Zimmerman and Martin met on February 26. It happened, in Taaffe’s words, during “a perfect storm.”

Anti-Zimmerman forces have done everything in their power to wash away any mention of that storm, because it indicates a much more complicated situation lingering in the background of the Zimmerman case than will fit any convenient narrative. Those who would discuss this case — and its implications for race relations — would do well to acknowledge that.

— Ian Tuttle is an editorial intern at National Review.

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