ORLANDO, Fla. -- George Zimmerman, the Neighborhood Watch volunteer who fired the shot that claimed the life of Trayvon Martin on a rainy night in Sanford, Fla., last month, has been painted as a racist, a vigilante and a murderer.
More than a half-million people have signed an online petition calling for his arrest. He is in hiding, driven from his home by threats.
Little is publicly known about the 28-year-old from Virginia who attended Seminole State College and aspired to become a law-enforcement officer.
But the Sentinel has unearthed new details about the life of the man at the center of this controversy, including an allegation of domestic violence in his past.
As thousands call for his arrest -- some threatening vigilante justice of their own -- few defenders have emerged for the embattled neighborhood watchman.
His father, Robert Zimmerman, told the Sentinel that George, the third of four children, is a former altar boy. And he insisted his son is not racist.
"Anybody who knows my son knows and routinely tells me that they don't believe one thing of what's reported in the media," his father said in an exclusive interview last week.
Zimmerman moved to Florida from Manassas, Va., about a decade ago with his parents, Robert and Gladys, according to records and interviews.
Former neighbors reached by the Sentinel said they remembered the family but didn't know George Zimmerman well.
"He seemed to be a good-enough kid," recalled Ron Whitis, who lived next door to the Zimmermans in Manassas, about 30 miles from Washington, D.C. "I really don't know a lot about him."
Whitis described the suburban Prince William County neighborhood as a place where people mostly keep to themselves. Another neighbor said about the same: She knew of Zimmerman but didn't know him personally.
When his parents bought a home in a Lake Mary, Fla., subdivision in 2002, Zimmerman was initially also listed on the deed to their home. Records indicate he lived there for several years.
In 2005, George Zimmerman was twice accused of either criminal misconduct or violence.
That July, Zimmerman -- 21 at the time -- was at a bar near the University of Central Florida when a friend was arrested by state alcohol agents on suspicion of serving underage drinkers, according to an arrest report.
Zimmerman was talking with his friend, became profane and pushed an agent who tried to escort him away, the report said. Authorities said he was arrested after a short struggle.
Charged with resisting arrest without violence, he avoided conviction by entering a pretrial-diversion program, something common for first-time offenders.
A month later, court records show, a woman filed a petition for an injunction against Zimmerman, citing domestic violence. It's unclear what led to the petition, but Zimmerman responded by filing a petition of his own the following day.
Records show injunctions were later issued in both cases. Reached by e-mail, the woman would not comment on her past with Zimmerman or his current situation.
Zimmerman married Shellie Nicole Dean, a licensed cosmetologist, in late 2007. The next year, he resurfaced in court documents as a credit-card company pursued him for unpaid debts.
Capital One accused Zimmerman of failing to pay more than $1,000. He settled with the company for $2,135.82, records show, to cover his debts with interest, as well as attorney and court costs. However, the credit-card company soon reported that Zimmerman wasn't making the payments he had agreed to.
Zimmerman's employer at the time, CarMax, agreed to garnish his wages. That arrangement was canceled in late 2008 because Zimmerman was no longer employed by CarMax.
It's unclear how Zimmerman was employed when he encountered Trayvon Martin on Feb. 26, but he took his role as a Neighborhood Watch volunteer very seriously. Police say Zimmerman had called to report suspicious people on multiple occasions, just as he did when he saw Trayvon. In the past 15 months, he made 46 calls to Sanford police, according to records.
Teontae Ami, who also lives in the Retreat at Twin Lakes community, said very few black teens like himself live in the neighborhood.
Teontae, 17, said he and a close friend who is black would sit at the end of a driveway in the evening and felt uncomfortable when Zimmerman would pass them on a neighborhood patrol. They used to greet him, but he never responded, Teontae said.
"I think he took his job too seriously," Teontae said, referring to Zimmerman's watch patrols. A student, Teontae said his friend was once confronted by Zimmerman, who accused him of stealing a bike.
"I don't want to call it a black thing, but it sure seemed like it," said Teontae, who said the bike was never stolen.
Another neighbor, 55-year-old Frank Taaffe, defended Zimmerman as "not a racist."
Taaffe, a marketing specialist who had been a watch captain with Zimmerman until December, said he may have been "overzealous, maybe," but "his main concern is the safety and welfare of the community."
He said Zimmerman had been doing watch patrols for about a year and was a stand-up guy who was diligent but did not have a fanatical demeanor. Records show Zimmerman is not the owner of the town home where he lives in the gated Sanford community.
Zimmerman expressed an interest in law enforcement when he applied to the Seminole County Sheriff's Office citizens' law-enforcement academy in 2008, and has demonstrated that, although he's not a cop, he is willing to take action that resembles policing.
In 2003, records show, he pursued a 24-year-old Lake Mary man he had seen shoplift a 24-inch TV from an Albertsons supermarket, following the suspect's car until a deputy arrived. The next year, he followed a man who he claimed had spit at him while driving.
Robert Zimmerman, when speaking with the Sentinel last week, was emotional and clearly devastated. He said his family has received death threats. And on the claims that son George tracked and killed an innocent 17-year-old black teen, the elder Zimmerman was blunt: "They're lies."
"George is going to suffer for years and years," he said.
(Staff writers Scott Powers and Rene Stutzman contributed to this report.)
(c)2012 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)
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