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Former child-protection spokesman gets 24 years in prison for child porn

TAMPA — He could have asked for a lighter sentence.

But Al Zimmerman decided Friday that doing so might reveal too many secrets and further humiliate the young men he victimized by producing child pornography.

Knowing prosecutors would ask a judge to sentence him beyond the 15-year minimum mandatory term, the former Florida Department of Children and Families spokesman told his attorneys to withdraw his request for leniency.

"I realize I've pretty much destroyed my life," said Zimmerman, 41, adding that he cried a lot after his arrest on child porn charges. "But since then, most of my tears have been for the people I've hurt. I'm truly sorry."

He was sentenced to 24 years and four months.

U.S. District Judge Susan Bucklew also ordered that Zimmerman be placed under supervised release for life upon his release and register as a sex offender. She banned him from contact with anyone younger than 18 unless a probation officer approves.

"Normally I might say something at sentencing," Bucklew said, "but I don't think there's anything else to say."

Zimmerman pleaded guilty to production of child porn, though federal authorities had also charged him with possession and distribution of the illegal material. Those counts were dismissed Friday.

Federal prosecutors say that from at least October 2004 until December 2007, in Hillsborough and Orange counties, Zimmerman became friendly with boys and enticed them into producing sexually explicit images that he sometimes had them send to his cell phone or Yahoo e-mail account.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Colleen Murphy-Davis said investigators had identified six or seven of Zimmerman's victims, including one who was a foster child in the state's care. He sometimes coached the boys on poses and paid some for their photographs, telling them their pictures would be sold overseas, Murphy-Davis said.

"I spent many sleepless nights praying for those I hurt by my actions," he told the judge. "I ask for their forgiveness, I ask for this court's forgiveness and I ask for God's forgiveness."

After the sentencing, Murphy-Davis said she was "heartened" that Zimmerman chose not to fight for a lesser sentence. Had he done that, she may have had to reveal more details about his victims.

Zimmerman worked as a reporter for Bay News 9 before becoming the DCF press secretary. He told Bucklew he'd often heard judges tell defendants that they saw remorse in them.

"I don't know what remorse looks like, but I know what it feels like," Zimmerman said.

His February 2008 arrest led to charges against another DCF employee who lost his job after authorities began investigating Zimmerman.

Michael Hernandez was a college student who worked as a computer technician for DCF and told authorities that he and Zimmerman had a sexual relationship. Hernandez pleaded guilty to lying to investigators when they questioned him about Zimmerman. He admitted to tampering with Zimmerman's work laptop and home computer to destroy files at Zimmerman's request.

His sentencing is in June.

Kevin Graham can be reached at kgraham@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3433.

Former child-protection spokesman gets 24 years in prison for child porn 05/08/09 [Last modified: Friday, May 8, 2009 10:22pm]
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