SANFORD, Fla. -- Sanford Mayor Jeff Triplett sat down and put his head in his hands when he learned police refused to arrest a Neighborhood Watch volunteer who shot and killed Trayvon Martin, a black teenager.
"I don't understand how someone could not be arrested," Triplett said this week about the highly publicized Feb. 26 shooting that has thrown a worldwide spotlight on Sanford. "This doesn't make sense to me. My God, if that was my boy, I would be absolutely flabbergasted."
But the news hit Triplett hard for other reasons. When he was elected mayor of this city of 54,000 residents, Triplett vowed to change the long-running perception of Sanford as a crime-ridden community with racial tensions and good old boys.
Now, barely 15 months in office, Triplett has drawn international attention as a small-town mayor managing a racially charged crisis.
In the past week, Triplett has granted interviews with major newspapers worldwide and appeared on a host of television news outlets. It hasn't been easy.
At a rally attended by thousands at Fort Mellon Park on Thursday, Triplett pledged to find justice in Trayvon's killing after he was called up on stage by U.S. Rep. Corinne Brown.
But many in the crowd -- angry that shooter George Zimmerman has not been arrested by the Police Department -- loudly booed and jeered the mayor as he spoke. Triplett returned to the stage after Brown chastised the protesters, saying Triplett deserves respect and that he has been working hard to find justice.
Triplett traveled to Washington, D.C., on Tuesday to meet with U.S. Department of Justice officials, and he met with officers of the NAACP.
"This tragedy, and the media coverage it has gotten Sanford, has been terrible for us," Triplett said hours before Thursday's rally. "Hopefully we won't be defined by this incident.
"But the weight of this is on my shoulders," he said. "I have people saying: 'There's nothing you could've done. There are things you (as mayor) can't control.' But I'm not the type of person to just step aside. I have to be at the table."
With Trayvon's slaying, many in Sanford say Triplett -- a native of southwest Missouri with a deep, steady voice -- has emerged as the cool and confident city leader, facing millions around the world angrily clamoring for Zimmerman's arrest and the firing of Sanford police Chief Bill Lee Jr.
But according to Sanford's charter, the city manager, Norton Bonaparte Jr., oversees the Police Department, and the mayor is only a voting member of the City Commission.
Triplett "is a born leader," said friend Steve Richards, owner of Steve Richards Air Conditioning and Heating of Sanford. "He's a very calm person. He listens to everyone, takes everything in and then makes his decision."
Theo Hollerbach, owner of Hollerbach's Willow Tree Cafe in downtown Sanford, called Triplett "a level-headed guy" who has a genuine love for Sanford.
"He doesn't fluster easily," Hollerbach said. "He has a way of looking at things several ways and from your point of view."
City Commissioner Patty Mahany, who has not agreed with Triplett on some issues, praised the mayor for his handling of the Trayvon case.
"I think he's listening to everyone," Mahany said. "I think he's trying to represent the people who feel that an injustice has been done, and he's certainly trying to portray to everyone in our city the need to stay calm and wait until all the facts come out before making a judgment."
Others say that as mayor, Triplett could lead the commission into forcing Bonaparte to fire Lee and revamp the Police Department.
"I feel like he's just passing the buck," Sanford resident Carla Campbell, 29, said while attending Thursday's rally at Fort Mellon Park. "It's sad. You would think in a small community like Sanford, we would be better."
Triplett, 43, has lived in Central Florida since 1992 and spent the past seven years in Sanford. He is a senior vice president for United Legacy Bank. His wife recently graduated from law school, and the couple have two sons.
In November 2010, Triplett, a former president of the Sanford Chamber of Commerce and a political newcomer, defeated longtime Mayor Linda Kuhn. Kuhn said she did not want to comment for this report. One of the city's main priorities at the time Triplett was elected was filling the jobs of city manager and police chief.
A month before Triplett was sworn in to office, Sanford had to deal with a racial incident involving a city police lieutenant's son who wasn't arrested until a month after he was videotaped punching a black homeless man.
Given that incident, Triplett acknowledges the city could have done a better job handling the Trayvon shooting and relaying information about it to the public.
(c)2012 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)
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