Posted: 4/26/2012 2:27:36 PM
A NEIGHBORHOOD IN FEAR
By the summer of 2011, Twin Lakes was experiencing a rash of burglaries and break-ins. Previously a family-friendly, first-time homeowner community, it was devastated by the recession that hit the Florida housing market, and transient renters began to occupy some of the 263 town houses in the complex. Vandalism and occasional drug activity were reported, and home values plunged. One resident who bought his home in 2006 for $250,000 said it was worth $80,000 today.
At least eight burglaries were reported within Twin Lakes in the 14 months prior to the Trayvon Martin shooting, according to the Sanford Police Department. Yet in a series of interviews, Twin Lakes residents said dozens of reports of attempted break-ins and would-be burglars casing homes had created an atmosphere of growing fear in the neighborhood.
In several of the incidents, witnesses identified the suspects to police as young black men. Twin Lakes is about 50 percent white, with an African-American and Hispanic population of about 20 percent each, roughly similar to the surrounding city of Sanford, according to U.S. Census data.
One morning in July 2011, a black teenager walked up to Zimmerman's front porch and stole a bicycle, neighbors told Reuters. A police report was taken, though the bicycle was not recovered.
But it was the August incursion into the home of Olivia Bertalan that really troubled the neighborhood, particularly Zimmerman. Shellie was home most days, taking online courses towards certification as a registered nurse.
On August 3, Bertalan was at home with her infant son while her husband, Michael, was at work. She watched from a downstairs window, she said, as two black men repeatedly rang her doorbell and then entered through a sliding door at the back of the house. She ran upstairs, locked herself inside the boy's bedroom, and called a police dispatcher, whispering frantically.
"I said, 'What am I supposed to do? I hear them coming up the stairs!'" she told Reuters. Bertalan tried to coo her crying child into silence and armed herself with a pair of rusty scissors.
Police arrived just as the burglars - who had been trying to disconnect the couple's television - fled out a back door. Shellie Zimmerman saw a black male teen running through her backyard and reported it to police.
After police left Bertalan, George Zimmerman arrived at the front door in a shirt and tie, she said. He gave her his contact numbers on an index card and invited her to visit his wife if she ever felt unsafe. He returned later and gave her a stronger lock to bolster the sliding door that had been forced open.
"He was so mellow and calm, very helpful and very, very sweet," she said last week. "We didn't really know George at first, but after the break-in we talked to him on a daily basis. People were freaked out. It wasn't just George calling police ... we were calling police at least once a week."
In September, a group of neighbors including Zimmerman approached the homeowners association with their concerns, she said. Zimmerman was asked to head up a new neighborhood watch. He agreed.
"PLEASE CONTACT OUR CAPTAIN"
Police had advised Bertalan to get a dog. She and her husband decided to move out instead, and left two days before the shooting. Zimmerman took the advice.
"He'd already had a mutt that he walked around the neighborhood every night - man, he loved that dog - but after that home invasion he also got a Rottweiler," said Jorge Rodriguez, a friend and neighbor of the Zimmermans.
Around the same time, Zimmerman also gave Rodriguez and his wife, Audria, his contact information, so they could reach him day or night. Rodriguez showed the index card to Reuters. In neat cursive was a list of George and Shellie's home number and cell phones, as well as their emails.
Less than two weeks later, another Twin Lakes home was burglarized, police reports show. Two weeks after that, a home under construction was vandalized.
The Retreat at Twin Lakes e-newsletter for February 2012 noted: "The Sanford PD has announced an increased patrol within our neighborhood ... during peak crime hours.
"If you've been a victim of a crime in the community, after calling police, please contact our captain, George Zimmerman."