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PEOPLE Top 5 are the most-viewed stories on the site over the past three days, updated every 60 minutes
- April 09, 2012
- Vol. 77
- No. 15
Trayvon Martin Case: A Fatal Encounter
How the Chance Meeting of An Unarmed 17-Year-Old Boy and a Florida Crime-Watch Volunteer Led to Tragedy-and Sparked Outrage Across the Country
On Feb. 26 Trayvon's unwavering taste for hoodie couture may have proved deadly. While visiting Sanford, Fla., Trayvon walked to a 7-Eleven, armed only with change. He bought a can of Arizona ice tea and a bag of Skittles, then headed back to the gated community where his father's girlfriend lives. A lanky 6'3" and 140 lbs., Trayvon caught the eye of George Zimmerman, 28, a local crime-watch volunteer, who at 7:11 p.m. phoned 911 and said, "This guy looks like he's up to no good." Asked what the suspect was wearing, Zimmerman responded, "A dark hoodie." What happened next remains unclear-and is at the heart of a furor sweeping the country as people demand Zimmerman's arrest. Trayvon's 16-year-old girlfriend told ABC that in their last cell-phone call Trayvon said he'd pulled up his hood and was moving away quickly. Zimmerman, by contrast, told police Trayvon decked him with a punch and bashed his head on the ground as they tussled. This much is indisputable: There were cries of "Help," then Zimmerman fired two bullets from a semiautomatic handgun, one of which fatally struck the teen in the chest.
Now the U.S. Justice Department and FBI have launched investigations. While people across the country awaited charges, they held marches and vigils, demanding to know why an unarmed youth with a reputation as "a good kid" had been slain. The lack of an arrest cast light on both a controversial Florida law that permits citizens to fire a gun when they feel threatened and police work (see box) that relied on the testimony of Zimmerman, a man who, according to police reports, has phoned police 46 times since August 2004 to report disturbances. As charges of racism flew, Trayvon's mother, Sybrina Fulton, 46, a local government employee, told PEOPLE, at times weeping, at times angry, "People want to make this a black and white issue, but I believe that this is about right and wrong. No one should be shot just because someone else thinks they're suspicious."
And no one should receive news of a slain son the way Trayvon's divorced parents did. Earlier that evening Tracy Martin and his girlfriend Brandy Green had gone out to dinner while Trayvon stayed behind to watch the NBA All Star Game. When they returned to find Trayvon gone, Martin figured his son had gone to a movie with his cousin. "I fell asleep," says Martin, 45, a truck driver, who had lived with Trayvon in Miami Gardens, where Fulton still resides. When Trayvon remained missing the next morning, he phoned the sheriff's department. "Someone told me she'd send a police unit to help me file a missing persons report," Martin says. Instead three police cars pulled up, and officers asked to see a photo of Martin's son. After he accessed an image on his cell phone, one cop shook his head. "He said, 'I'm going to show you a photo, and you tell me if this is your son,'" says Martin. "It was a picture of my son, dead."
Trayvon was a boy who did his family and community proud. It wasn't just that he mowed the lawn every weekend with his dad, worked the concession at a football field and helped his neighbors with their groceries. His mother had drilled manners into him, and it showed. "It was always 'Thank you,'" says Johnson, 60, his great-aunt. Each year he put up her Christmas decorations, and come summer he pulled the weeds from her yard. "He didn't mind anything you wanted him to do," she says. At 9, Trayvon helped his dad to safety when a fire broke out in the family kitchen. As he grew older, Trayvon, who had a love for aircraft, longed to go on to college like his brother Jahvaris Fulton, 21. The teen was so close to other family members that he wore them like a badge of honor. On his upper right arm, he'd tattooed the names of his grandma and great-grandma. The tattoo on his right wrist read "Brina," his mom's nickname. Pat Nicholson, a neighbor in Miami Gardens, says, "From the outside looking in, he was the perfect child."
But he wasn't, of course. He was a teenager-which is to say not all of his choices were smart. His trip to Sanford came courtesy of a two-week school suspension from Dr. Michael M. Krop Senior High School (where Trayvon transferred for his junior year). The reason, a family spokesman confirms: Trayvon was caught with a bag containing marijuana residue. The Miami Herald also reports that Trayvon had been suspended two other times for truancy and graffiti.
Just as Trayvon was not all angel, Neighborhood Watch volunteer Zimmerman is not all devil. His many phone calls to police, coupled with his attendance at a citizen's police academy in Seminole County, suggests "a cop wannabe," says Walt Zalisko, a former police chief in nearby Oak Hill, Fla. But while public sympathy tilts toward Trayvon, police say Zimmerman's version of events has been corroborated by a witness. After the shooting, to which he admitted, he went into seclusion. "He couldn't stop crying," said his friend Joe Oliver, himself African-American.
Friends dispute the racism charges that followed release of the 911 tape on which Zimmerman can be heard describing Trayvon as "a black man" and saying, "These a--holes, they always get away."
Zimmerman's attorney Craig Sonner says he was only trying to defend himself. Michael Lansdowne, an African-American, has known Zimmerman, who is part Hispanic, since kindergarten. "I consider George part of my family," he says. George Hall, 78, a Presbyterian minister who once wrote a letter recommending Zimmerman for police work, says, "I'm sure he's not a racist."
Some of the descriptions friends and family offer about Zimmerman sound eerily like Trayvon: respectful, a family man who carried his grandmother's groceries into the house. "He was always helpful," says Hall, Zimmerman's childhood neighbor in Manassas, Va. "He was a great neighbor, a law-and-order man." Albeit one who had brushes with the law. After moving to Florida, Zimmerman and his ex-fiancée swapped accusations of domestic violence and were ordered by a court to stay away from each other. Zimmerman was also arrested in 2005 for pushing a police officer, a charge that was subsequently dropped.
As Fulton and Martin wait for April 10, the date a grand jury is scheduled to convene, they're trying to keep the focus on obtaining justice for Trayvon. "This is about my son," says Fulton, her voice rising in anger. "I don't want him to get lost in this." Trayvon's dad feels the same way. "I want his death to have an impact," he says. "I want it to be known Trayvon made a difference."
- Reported by Steve Helling,
- Wendy Grossman Kantor,
- Siobhan Morrissey.
January 30, 2015
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