SANFORD, Fla. -- George Michael Zimmerman, the man at the center of the racially charged killing of an unarmed black teen, is a former altar boy, insurance salesman and college student.
And another label has also stuck in the public's perception: frustrated cop wannabe.
Over the years, his scores of calls to police showed he pursued shoplifters and errant drivers with zeal, reporting pit bulls, potholes, children playing in the street, open garage doors and "suspicious" youths -- usually black males -- loitering in the street.
He peppered his calls with jargon familiar to police. In one case, he chased a reckless driver while calling 911 -- the driver later told police he was terrified that Zimmerman was going to attack him. In another case, Zimmerman tailed a supermarket shoplifter until a police officer successfully arrested the thief.
On the night of Feb. 26, he tailed Trayvon Martin through the Retreat at Twin Lakes, the gated community where Zimmerman lived with his wife, describing his every move to a dispatcher who told him he didn't need to follow the young man. A scuffle ensued and Zimmerman shot Trayvon dead. Zimmerman claims self-defense.
Dr. Laurence Miller, a Palm Beach County clinical psychologist who works with local police agencies, said he believes Zimmerman likely was acting out the "whole TV cop role in his head" when he confronted Trayvon.
"A lot of people like the power and control that law enforcement officers have but with that comes a tremendous amount of responsibility," Miller said, pointing out that a police officer is the only profession that can use "coercive physical force" or lethal force to subdue a suspected criminal.
"People act like cowboys and like the power, but not the responsibility."
Trayvon's killing has sparked large rallies, worldwide press and social media attention.
Sanford's police chief and the Seminole County state attorney, lambasted for their handling of the case, have both stepped off of the investigation.
Jacksonville's state attorney will now spearhead the probe, which will likely go to a grand jury next month.
Zimmerman, 28, and his family have gone into hiding since the shooting amid reports of death threats. The latest, according to the Orlando Sentinel, a $10,000 reward for Zimmerman's capture by the fringe group New Black Panther Party.
His newly hired defense attorney, Craig Sonner, insisted Friday that his client was not a racist.
"Let the investigators do their job and let's see what the evidence shows. My client can prove it was self-defense," Sonner told CNN, adding that Zimmerman and his wife mentored two black youths.
What is known about Zimmerman comes from public records and interviews with the few who have defended the man's reputation.
His father told the Orlando Sentinel that his son is not a racist, stressing that he grew up in a multi-ethnic family.
"Anybody who knows my son knows and routinely tells me that they don't believe one thing of what's reported in the media," Robert Zimmerman, told the newspaper.
Zimmerman, one of four siblings, grew up in Manassas, Va. His father was a former military man who raised the children in a very strict, respectful household, neighbors recalled.
His mother, Gladys Zimmerman, was a courts employee of Peruvian descent. The family worshipped at All Saints Catholic Church, where Zimmerman served as an altar boy, neighbors said.
Kay Hall, his neighbor from across the street, said Zimmerman would often bring her dog home if he escaped from their yard, or help her family bring in groceries.
"He just a caring person, very gracious and polite," Hall said in an interview.
Linda Rudenski, another neighbor, praised the family and remembers Zimmerman's older brother sharing a limo with her daughter for prom. She enjoyed chatting with Gladys Zimmerman about their trips to Peru.
"She was just such a kind and loving mother and so proud of her kids," Rudenski said. "They were a wonderful family and Georgie was a super kid," she said.
After he graduated from Osbourn High School in 2001 and moving to Florida with his parents, Zimmerman would still visit his older brother in Manassas and drop by the old block.
A few years back, he came by and asked George Hall, Kay's husband, to write a letter of recommendation so that he could apply to a police agency. Hall gladly obliged.
Whether Zimmerman ever actually applied to a police agency is unclear. But according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, he never applied to take the Basic Abilities Test needed to enter recruit training.
However, in December 2008, he applied for a citizens' police academy with the Seminole Sheriff's Office. In his application, Zimmerman stressed his background with the law: He wrote that his father is a retired Virginia Supreme Court magistrate judge and his mother worked as a deputy clerk of courts.
He was accepted and completed the one-night-a-week, 14-hour program.
Sheriff's spokeswoman Heather Smith stressed that the program is simply an educational tool designed to engage citizens and teach them about policing.
"It's not a training academy. Participants are not issued any type of sheriff's equipment or deputization," Smith said.
His prior contacts with the law would have given police agencies pause.
In 2005, according to an arrest report, a state agent arrested Zimmerman for battery on a law enforcement officer and obstructing justice. According to the report, agents with Florida's Alcohol Beverage and Tobacco division were arresting several employees near the University of Central Florida.
Agent Paul Fleishman wrote that Zimmerman walked up to a pal under arrest and began chatting, refusing to leave. Zimmerman cursed him, Fleishman wrote, before pushing him and causing a "short struggle."
The charge was later dropped when Zimmerman entered a "pre-trial diversion" program, which is not unusual for first-time offenders. The program usually entails paying fines and taking classes for anger management.
Zimmerman -- in applying to enter the citizens' police academy -- later disputed the official version of the event, insisting that the agent never identified himself. "I hold law enforcement officers in the highest regaurd (sic) as I hope to one day become. I would never have touched a police officer," Zimmerman wrote.
Before the case was resolved, he was also involved in a domestic dispute with his ex-fiancee, hair salon employee Veronica Zauzo.
Zauzo claimed Zimmerman was trolling her neighborhood to check on her. At her apartment, they spoke for about an hour when she asked him to leave. He asked for some photos and paperwork and she refused.
A pushing match ensued and her dog jumped up and bit him on the cheek, Zauzo claimed. Zimmerman, in a petition filed the next day, painted her as the aggressor, wanting him to stay the night.
"She accused me of going to another woman's house or going to party," wrote Zimmerman, who said Zauzo slapped, clawed and choked him.
In their petitions, both included previous allegations of violence. In the end, an Orange County circuit judge ordered them to stay away from each other for more than a year, according to court records. No charges were filed.
His domestic troubles continued in October 2007, when Zimmerman called police to report that the tires of his Dodge Durango were slashed and he suspected his girlfriend's ex-boyfriend.
The man denied the claim and told officers he was so annoyed by text-message exchanges with Zimmerman that he was mulling a restraining order. None was filed, according to Seminole County records.
Zimmerman married Shellie Nicole Dean in 2007, records show.
Over the years, records show, Zimmerman worked selling insurance, for which he earned a vocational certificate from Seminole State College.
He also worked briefly at a CarMax auto dealership, where his paycheck was garnished because of a credit card debt.
(Miami Herald staff writer Frances Robles contributed to this report.)
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