Donations flood in for families of Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman

May 13 2012 - 7:58am

MIAMI -- The mother of slain Florida teenager Trayvon Martin will be able to take about eight months of paid leave from her county job, thanks to the generosity of county employees.

Sybrina Fulton, who has worked at the Miami-Dade County housing authority for 23 years, collected $40,825 worth of donated vacation time, county records show. The paid time off is in addition to the nearly $100,000 the family raised on wepay.com and at rallies, which will be used to launch a criminal justice advocacy foundation in Trayvon's name.

The donated days are the latest in a mounting fortune in contributions that have amassed on both sides of the controversial case. With websites dedicated to the grieving parents of Trayvon Martin as well as for the man who killed him, and now even his attorney, funds gathered in the wake of the Feb. 26 tragedy promise to reach half a million dollars. Donors continue to reach into their pockets, even as each side criticizes the other's purpose and intent in seeking donations.

"They are using the money to continue the legacy of their son," said Michael Hall, a graphic designer and marketing specialist who helped launch the Justice for Trayvon Martin Foundation. The parents created the non-profit in March in response to their son's killing. "They didn't want a situation where people could say they were profiting off the loss of their son."

Hall said Trayvon's parents will become paid employees of the foundation, compensated for their time conducting speaking engagements and other advocacy work. He stressed that the foundation would keep Fulton and her ex-husband, Tracy Martin, at the levels of income they already made -- not higher.

Until now, the parents' extensive travel expenses have been paid either by their attorney, Benjamin Crump, or by whoever invited them to the event they attended, he said. They turned all checks they received over to the Miami Foundation, a pre-existing and separate organization that is administering the Justice for Trayvon Martin Foundation's trust fund, and will help establish a board of directors, review expenditures and conduct audits, Hall said.

The goal is to raise $1.5 million for programs such as teaching conflict resolution to teens.

The first order of business: a movement to repeal the Stand Your Ground laws that exist around the nation. Fulton released a video on Friday, timed for Mother's Day, on secondchancecampaign.org urging Americans to appeal to their respective governors to eliminate laws that offer increased immunity in self-defense cases.

Hall said the details have not yet been finalized, but Fulton would presumably not begin getting a salary or per diem by the foundation until after her paid county leave runs out. He said he doesn't know if she plans to leave her county job.

Last month the Miami-Dade County Commission passed a resolution sponsored by Bruno Barreiro, Barbara Jordan and Jose "Pepe" Diaz to allow county employees to donate vacation time to Fulton or Trayvon's aunt, Yolanda Knight Evans, a water and sewer customer-service representative. The $50,000 cap the commission set on the value of the time donated was reached in two weeks, county spokeswoman Suzy Trutie said.

A similar measure was passed last year to help the families of two slain police officers.

Records show 192 county employees gave Fulton some of their hours, and 70 people donated to Knight Evans.

The donations for Fulton added up to 1,362 hours -- a total of 34 paid weeks off. Trayvon's aunt collected nearly nine weeks.

County records show Fulton, who earns $68,768 a year, used funeral leave, four weeks of accumulated sick leave and 60 hours of vacation after her son was killed by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman. She took two days of furlough in compliance with her county contract.

Last week's pay period was the first that tapped into the bank of donated time.

Fulton is expected to appear before the commission on Tuesday to thank the county for its support.

Records show the donors included deputy mayor Jack Osterholt, who gave her eight hours, and Stan Hills, the former head of the fire union.

By far the most generous contributor was county clerk's office employee Eric Cherelus, who gave Trayvon's mother and aunt each an entire week of his vacation time.

Tracy Martin is a truck driver, and it's unclear whether he has been on paid or unpaid leave. He and Fulton were in London this week speaking at the University of London and were unavailable for comment.

"Don't forget there are two people who need to be taken care of here," Hall said. "A lot of the media focuses on Sybrina and forgets that Trayvon had a father, who lived here and co-parented."

Hall is the unpaid interim executive director of the foundation. He expects to employ both parents and Trayvon's older brother Jahvaris Fulton, who is working as an intern on the foundation's social-media strategy.

"Any time some tragedy happens in society, you don't know what impact it will have," said Marlon Hill, the attorney who helped set up the foundation. "The whole intention of this foundation was to speak to the broader issues. We are using it as an opportunity to do something positive."

Trayvon's family are not the only ones raising money.

Zimmerman, the man who shot their son, raised $204,000 in just three weeks with a PayPal account posted to a website. He spent about $50,000 before his defense lawyer ever learned of the fund's swelling balance, his attorney, Mark O'Mara, acknowledged.

O'Mara recently created a new fundraising site administered by a former IRS agent and registered with the Florida Division of Consumer Services. He told ABC News that he raised nearly $8,000 in the first few days the site was active.

"I'm not going to be unrealistic to the fact that everyone is seeking donations in relation to this case, including the Trayvon Martin family," O'Mara said at a recent press conference. "It seems as though we have become in this criminal justice system a system where we can ask other people to help us. That's what we are doing."

The fund now also includes the $150,000 balance transferred from the original PayPal account Zimmerman had set up.

In a statement on his website, O'Mara said Zimmerman spent $7,000 on PayPal fees, $5,000 on bond, and $1,000 at the jail commissary and for phone cards. He also paid off existing debts and set up a secure living quarters while he awaits trial, the statement said, without offering dollar figures.

"Roughly a third of the balance remains liquid and in Mr. Zimmerman's possession for living expenses for the next few months," O'Mara said. "So far, none of the funds have been applied to legal expenses."

O'Mara did not return repeated messages seeking clarification.

"George, I'll be donating monthly," Facebook user Annette Elaine Kelly of Ontario posted on the Facebook page O'Mara set up for the case. "I hope that you have been truthful (I believe you have) and that people will give you a fair hearing. Take care."

One post that has since been removed from the page asked why people supported Zimmerman. Many people commenting on the site believe the controversial neighborhood watch volunteer was railroaded by the media.

"Fantastic. I have donated, a second time. ($50 the first time, $25 today). I plan on donating small amounts, but weekly, so George is reminded that we are still here, and we still care," San Francisco attorney Michael Mortimer wrote. "I see where it fully discloses where my donations can go. Given George and his family need living expenses, I am glad to help provide for personal costs, and to pay legal expenses."

The judge handling Zimmerman's case asked for more information about Zimmerman's fundraising, to determine whether his family misled the court at his bond hearing last month. O'Mara presented the family as indigent, and Zimmerman did not speak up to reveal the money he had collected. When the fundraising became known, the prosecution asked that Zimmerman's $150,000 bond be increased, but he did not follow up the oral request with a formal written motion.

News of Zimmerman's tally shocked Trayvon supporters, who believe Zimmerman should lose his bond for misleading the court.

"The guy is living paycheck to paycheck, he kills a teenager and all of a sudden, he's got $200,000?" said Sanford, Fla., minister H.D. Rucker. "What does that say about our society? There are racists out there."

Attorney Crump said he's puzzled.

"I look at those donations, and I scratch my head," Crump said. "I ask myself: 'What cause is it exactly that they are contributing to?' "

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(c)2012 The Miami Herald

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