The killing of unarmed Florida teenager Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman has reopened old racial wounds and ignited calls for justice from across the nation.
But as often happens when a local case captures national attention, the hard facts of the killing seem to have been drowned out amid the rumors, shouts and political rhetoric.
The debate has its place, no doubt. But to try to more clearly present what actually happened on the night of Feb. 26 in Sanford, Fla., TPM has put together a guide to the events that reportedly took place before, during and immediately after the killing.
1. George Zimmerman Wanted To Be A Cop
Zimmerman, 28, once asked a neighbor for a letter of recommendation so he could apply for a job at a police agency, according to the Miami Herald. It’s unclear whether he ever went through with the application, but the newspaper dug up records showing he later completed a one-night-a-week, 14-hour “citizens’ academy” course with the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office in Sanford. A spokeswoman with the agency said: “It’s not a training academy. Participants are not issued any type of sheriff’s equipment or deputization.”
Zimmerman and his wife lived in a community called The Retreat at Twin Lakes. After a rash of burglaries there, he volunteered to help run a neighborhood watch program.
He patrolled the neighborhood with a black Kel Tec 9mm handgun holstered to his side. And he regularly called the local police when he saw suspicious behavior. The Sanford Police Department released a list of more than 40 calls Zimmerman made to 911 from 2004 until the day of the shooting. Many of them are about minor things like open garage doors and kids doing wheelies on their bicycles. But he also called about people he believed looked suspicious.
Despite his passion for law enforcement, Zimmerman had a history of violence, according to the Miami Herald. In one incident, he was arrested on suspicion of pushing an agent with the Florida’s Alcohol Beverage and Tobacco division. The charge was later dropped when he agreed to enter a pretrial diversion program. In another altercation, his ex-fiancee accused him of confronting her and getting into a pushing match with her. The Herald did not find records that Zimmerman was arrested following her allegations.
2. Trayvon Martin Was Suspended From His Miami-area High School
Martin lived in the Miami suburb of Miami Gardens but was staying with his father’s girlfriend more than 200 miles away in the Orlando suburb of Sanford on the night of the shooting. What brought him there, according to the Miami Herald, was a suspension from his high school.
In a report obtained by the newspaper, school officials said they caught Martin with a “marijuana pipe” as well as a plastic bag that had traces of marijuana in it.
The suspension was Martin’s third at the school, according to the Herald. None of the suspensions appeared to be for anything violent.
3. George Zimmerman Called Police Before The Shooting
Like many of Zimmerman’s calls to police in the years before the shooting, his Feb. 26 call showed that he spotted someone “suspicious” and wanted authorities to check it out. Police released audio of the call after the shooting. In it, you can hear rain tapping on glass and the sound of windshield wipers, making it seem like he’s inside a vehicle.
There are a few key moments in the 4:11 minute phone call:
• 0:04 – “Hey, we’ve had some break-ins in my neighborhood and there’s a real suspicious guy…This guy looks like he’s up to no good or he’s on drugs or something. It’s raining and he’s just walking around, looking about.”
• 1:35 – “These assholes, they always get away.” Zimmerman says this in the middle of reporting what Martin looked like and where police could find him.
• 2:05 – “Shit, he’s running.” You can then hear the sound of a door open and a beeping from inside a vehicle.
• 2:20 – Possible racial slur. The phrase is hard to hear, but CNN had an audio specialist zero in on it and the possible slur sounds clearer. (Video embedded at right.) There is some debate over what exactly he said, but some listeners hear Zimmerman saying “fucking coons.”
• 2:22 – “Are you following him?” the dispatcher asks. Zimmerman replies that he is. “OK, we don’t need you to do that.” Zimmerman responds: “OK.”
The rest of the call is spent with Zimmerman giving the dispatcher directions about where police officers can meet him. The dispatcher tells him officers are on their way before the call ends.
4. Martin’s Girlfriend Says She Was On Phone With Him When Altercation Began
Martin, 17, was walking back that night from a local store, where he reportedly bought iced tea and a bag of Skittles. His 16-year-old girlfriend later told ABC News she was on the phone with him right up until the confrontation with Zimmerman.
The girl, who the television network has since identified only as DeeDee, said Martin told her he saw a man watching him so he put his hoodie on and kept walking.
“I asked Trayvon to run, and he said he was going to walk fast,” the girl told the network. “I told him to run, but he said he was not going to run.”
Eventually, Martin thought he had lost the man. But then Zimmerman returned and cornered him, the girl said. Here’s how she told it to ABC News:
“Trayvon said, ‘What are you following me for,’ and the man said, ‘What are you doing here.’ Next thing I hear is somebody pushing, and somebody pushed Trayvon because the head set just fell. I called him again, and he didn’t answer the phone.”
Cell phone logs, which were given to ABC News, backed up the girl’s story that she was on the phone with Martin about five minutes before police arrived on scene.
5. Only One 911 Call Captured Screaming, Gunshot
Sanford police released recordings of seven calls to 911 that neighbors made to report the shooting. Of the seven, six were made after the shooting, with neighbors reporting they heard screaming followed by either a gunshot or a loud bang.
Only one call began before the shooting took place. It features a woman, calling to report that someone was in trouble outside her home. In the background of the call, you can hear a man yelling, but it’s hard to make out what he’s saying.
“There’s just someone screaming outside,” the woman says.
The 911 dispatcher asks for an address. In the version police released to the public, the woman’s answer was edited out so several seconds of silence follow. When the audio begins again, the screaming continues.
About 40 seconds into the call, the dispatcher asks: “So you think he’s yelling ‘help’?”
“Yes,” the woman says.
“Alright, what is your — ”
In the middle of the dispatcher’s question, there is a loud crack. The man’s screaming stops.
“There’s gunshots,” the woman says.
“You just heard gunshots?”
About 45 seconds later, after some commotion and a few small questions, the dispatcher says, “I don’t hear him yelling anymore. Do you hear him?”
“No, I don’t, because I’m hiding upstairs. There was a gunshot right outside our house.”
6. George Zimmerman Claimed Self Defense
The first Sanford police officer to arrive in the community that night was Timothy Smith. In a report he wrote hours later, he said he came across Martin, who was lying face down in the grass, and Zimmerman, who quickly admitted he pulled the trigger and was still armed.
The officer said Zimmerman was cooperative as he put him in handcuffs and took his 9mm handgun. He also said Zimmerman appeared to be injured.
“While I was in such close contact with Zimmerman, I could observe that his back appeared to be wet and was covered in grass, as if he had been laying on his back on the ground,” the officer wrote. “Zimmerman was also bleeding from the nose and the back of his head.”
Another officer and a sergeant arrived began trying to resuscitate Martin but could not get a pulse. Meanwhile, Zimmerman was treated by emergency workers. “I overheard him state ‘I was yelling for someone to help me, but no one would help me.'” Smith wrote in the report.
Zimmerman was taken to the police department and questioned about the shooting. According to the Orlando Sentinel, which quoted anonymous “law enforcement authorities,” Zimmerman told investigators he was walking back to his SUV when he was approached from behind by Martin. He said the two of them got into an argument and then Martin punched him in the nose and knocked him to the ground. Zimmerman said the teen then began beating him and slamming his head into the ground. He said he shot Martin in self defense.
7. Only One Witness To The Altercation Has Gone On The Record
There are several people the media has identified as witnesses to the shooting, but none actually saw the gunshot and only one person has gone on the record to say he saw some sort of altercation before the gun went off. That witness is a 13-year-old boy named Austin McLendon.
McLendon told the Orlando Sentinel he was walking his dog in the rain when he heard someone screaming for help. When he went to get a closer look, McLendon saw someone lying on the ground. The person was wearing a red shirt, he said. According to the newspaper, he did not mention seeing another person.
Before McLendon could get closer, he said, his dog escaped. He turned to catch it, but a few seconds later, he heard a gunshot. McLendon ran back to his home, where he and his sister called 911.
In its story, the Orlando Sentinel said McLendon’s story backed up Zimmerman’s because the gunman was wearing a red jacket when police arrived. In other words, it was Zimmerman that McLendon saw on the ground. But a few days later, the boy and his mother told the Huffington Post that his comments were twisted. He believed Martin was the one who was in trouble, not Zimmerman. McLendon’s mother also told HuffPo she believed the police investigator who talked to her son tried to lead him to provide information he really didn’t have.
There is also a second person who said he witnessed the altercation before the shooting, but so far he has refused to go on camera or give anyone his name. Identified only as “John” by a WOFL, the Fox affiliate in Orlando, the man spoke to the television station last month through the door of his home.
The man said he saw two people in an altercation. “The guy on the bottom, who had a red sweater on, was yelling to me, ‘Help! Help!’ and I told him to stop, and I was calling 911,” he said, according to the TV station. He went inside to call 911 but then heard a gunshot. He said when he looked down at the scene, the person who had been on top and who was “beating up the other guy” was now lying dead on the grass.
A third person has also claimed to have seen the altercation. That person spoke to CNN’s Anderson Cooper but refused to even reveal his or her gender, much less provide a name or other identifying characteristics on air.
The person said it was dark and hard to see what happened, but he or she claimed to have heard multiple gunshots. “It was very dark, but I felt like they were scuffling,” the person said. “And then I heard the gunshots, which, to me, were more like pops than they were like a bang.”
It’s unclear whether CNN tried to verify the person’s claims.
8. The Remainders
Here are a few more revelations that are notable, but still leave key questions unanswered:
• An autopsy was performed on Martin’s body by the Volusia County Medical Examiner’s office, but the results will likely not be made public for weeks or months more. [Los Angeles Times]
• Martin was tested for drugs and alcohol as a “routine part of the autopsy,” according to Sanford police spokesman Sgt. David Morgenstern. The spokesman said he did not believe Zimmerman had been tested for those things. [The Guardian]
• Police collected the clothing worn by both Martin and Zimmerman and have packaged it for analysis by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. [Orlando Sentinel]
• A witness identified only as “a long-time teacher” said police corrected her when she said she heard the teen crying for help. The officer allegedly told her it was Zimmerman, not the teen, who was yelling for help. [ABC News]
• Surveillance video of Zimmerman inside the police department on the night of the shooting appears to show him without any obvious cuts or bruises on his head or face. This could be explained by the fact that Zimmerman received medical attention at the scene and the video is grainy enough that it’s impossible to know his condition with real certainty. It could also be explained by him having never been injured. [ABC News]
• Two women who came upon the altercation moments after the shooting said Zimmerman had his hands pressed on Martin’s back and didn’t try to render any aid. [NBC News]
• Zimmerman’s father, Robert Zimmerman, told his son’s side of the story to an Orlando television station. “It’s my understanding that Trayvon Martin got on top of him and just started beating him,” Robert Zimmerman said. [WOFL]