Trayvon Martin's killing shatters safety within Retreat at Twin Lakes in Sanford

SANFORD

These days, Cheryl Brown has to walk the dog. • For a month — ever since her son heard someone screaming for help and her daughter called 911 and everyone heard the loud snap of a gunshot — Brown's children have been afraid to go outside. • Her youngest daughter, who is 9, won't even look out the window. She keeps seeing the dead teen's body. • "That could have so easily been my son," said Brown. "He wears hoodies all the time."

Brown, a 40-year-old single mom who says she is "mostly black," moved into the Retreat at Twin Lakes last year. She chose the gated subdivision of identical townhomes because it is racially diverse, lots of children live there and, she said, "it seemed so safe."

Then, on Feb. 26, neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin, 17, as he walked from a 7-Eleven with iced tea and a bag of Skittles. Now, Brown's children linger inside. And she does dog duty.

On Wednesday, her white boxer, Sake, led her along the sidewalk, then turned onto a manicured path stretching between two rows of townhouses. Brown stopped and pointed to a patch of shade beneath a scrawny maple tree.

"This is where Trayvon was killed," she said. "He was almost home."

No blood stains the grass where he lay. No flowers or football or Skittles have been placed there to remember the teenager whose death has sparked a national outcry.

A memorial of balloons, teddy bears and cans of Arizona Iced Tea is growing outside the front gate.

Inside the fence, everything still looks the same. Except it's not.

The building of the Retreat at Twin Lakes is a classic Florida story.

Developers saw potential in the sandy acres east of Orlando and determined to turn them into an oasis. They planned a gated subdivision just 10 minutes from downtown — a cloistered community near the interstate, close to good schools, outlet malls and the magic of Disney World.

The idea, as always, was that people could live peacefully in a paradise where nobody could park a car on the street or paint the house an odd color.

In 2004, Engle Homes began construction on 263 two-story townhouses, with upstairs porches and covered back patios and plenty of green space. Inside, the townhomes boasted granite countertops, hardwood floors, master suites and walk-in closets. Outside, there was a pond, a clubhouse and a community pool.

Everything was walled in, to keep out the unknown.

"With its modern Florida architecture, this secluded, gated community is like living in a resort," a spokesmodel says in a promotional video posted on YouTube. "It's the perfect choice for those looking for space and comfort."

The initial cost of a 1,400-square-foot townhome and the pass code to that front gate: $250,000. Today, post-boom, the price has dipped below $100,000.

• • •

George Zimmerman, 28, moved into the Retreat in the summer of 2009 with his wife, Shellie. Records show he worked at a pressure-washing company, though neighbors said they never saw a truck.

Right away, he started calling the police. The 911 operators translated his complaints into the bloodless shorthand of law enforcement.

Aug. 26, 2009: "Male driving with no headlights on."

Sept. 22, 2009: "Yellow speed bike doing wheelies."

Oct. 23, 2009: "Aggressive white and brown pit bull."

The transcripts of Zimmerman's 911 calls during the more than two years he lived on Retreat View Circle fill 28 pages. His concerns include everything from the driver of a pickup cutting off people to a neighbor leaving his garage door open.

He kept a close watch for outsiders, but it couldn't have been easy to tell who belonged and who didn't. When the housing market crashed, many townhomes were foreclosed on and the owners evicted. Dozens of investors, unable to unload the two- and three-bedroom properties, rented them to cover their upside-down mortgages.

The developers had envisioned a stable neighborhood with home­owners planting long-term roots, but now townhouses were turning over all the time. Insiders moved out. Outsiders moved in.

By the time Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin, 40 properties inside the gate were empty and more than half of the residents were renters.

Including Brandy Green, who was dating Martin's dad. And Zimmerman himself.

Trayvon Martin lived with his dad, who resides in the Miami area, and had visited his dad's girlfriend at the Retreat several times before. The kids in the neighborhood always looked forward to playing football with him. But to George Zimmerman, he was a stranger.

• • •

Last summer, residents reported three burglaries at the Retreat, said Sanford police volunteer coordinator Wendy Dorival. At the time, workers were repairing cracks in some of the buildings. Some residents worried they were leaving their ladders up — and teenagers in the Retreat were using them to break into upstairs windows. Others feared outsiders were sneaking in.

Gated communities aren't really any safer than other neighborhoods, said David Morgenstern, spokesman for the Sanford Police Department. "Crime is comparable no matter where you go. All that gate does is make the people who live in that community feel better.

"If a criminal wants to get in, they can."

It's not hard. Drivers draft behind residents with remote control passes, following them before the gates swing closed. Old renters retain the pass code and share it. Landscapers, pizza delivery people and repairmen all have access.

After the break-ins, Zimmerman's calls to 911 seemed to shift, zeroing in on black males. Were black males actually responsible for any of the crimes reported in the Retreat? Impossible to say. Morgenstern, the police spokesman, said last week that he was too overwhelmed with media requests to get the arrest records on individual cases.

In police argot, anyone Zimmerman called about was a "suspicious person," but of course it was Zimmerman who was suspicious.

Aug. 3, 2011: "Black male with white tank top and black shorts … (Zimmerman) believes subject is involved in recent (burglaries) in the neighborhood."

Aug. 6, 2011: "Two black males, one wearing black tank top … are near the back gate of the neighborhood."

In September, the Sanford police helped the Retreat start a neighborhood watch program.

"Some residents called me wanting to do a startup," said Dorival, a civilian police employee. About 30 people came to the clubhouse for that first session, she said. "Everyone was enthusiastic." Zimmerman volunteered to be captain.

"I told them, this is not about being a vigilante police force," Dorival said. "You're not even supposed to patrol on neighborhood watch. And you're certainly not supposed to carry a gun."

For the first two months of this year, at the Retreat at Twin Lakes, the Sanford police logged 51 calls for service. Half were just people requesting information. The others included eight burglaries, two bike thefts and three simple assaults.

Zimmerman's last 911 call came on Feb. 26, at 7:11 p.m. "Black male, late teens, dark gray hoodie, jeans or sweatpants walking around area," the dispatcher recorded. A minute later: "Subject now running towards back entrance of complex."

On a recording of the call, you can hear Zimmerman say, "He's got his hand in his waistband. Something is wrong with him." Then, "He's running toward the back entrance."

The dispatcher told Zimmerman not to follow him. A patrol officer was on the way.

Minutes later, other residents at the Retreat started calling:

"A guy's yelling for help."

"I just heard a gunshot right outside our house."

"I don't hear any more screaming."

"I'm pretty sure the guy's dead out here."

"This is, like, a nice neighborhood. Oh my god! Why would someone just kill someone like that?"

• • •

Cheryl Brown was at a Walmart that night when her daughter called, crying. She hurried home to find police blocking the gates to her subdivision. She parked her car across the street and ran to her kids.

Her son, Austin, was hysterical. He had been right there, walking the dog, when he heard the cry for help. But then Sake had pulled off the leash. As her son chased the boxer, he had heard the gunshot.

"What if the dog hadn't gotten loose? What if he had tried to help? My son is 13," Brown said. "He looks a lot like Trayvon."

For her son's whole life, Brown said, she has told him: If someone's chasing you, run. "What if it's a kidnapper? Or someone trying to beat or rob you?" she asked.

She stopped walking the dog and shook her head. "But if he runs, does that make him even more suspicious?" Brown wiped her eyes. "What makes someone suspicious? That's what worries me the most."

• • •

Every building at the Retreat at Twin Lakes is painted some shade of brown: taupe, terra cotta, khaki. Every townhome has a garage out front and a keypad on the door handle — so if someone steals your keys they can't get inside. Dozens of yards have signs alerting would-be intruders of alarm systems.

"It is a peaceful place. We don't have problems here," Tito Ortiz, 62, said the other day beside his mailbox. A former minister, Ortiz remarried five years ago and bought a house in the Retreat for his new bride. Somewhere they would be safe to grow old together.

"I don't know what happened with that boy. I'm so surprised that happened here," he said. But he doesn't worry about staying in the neighborhood and has no intention of moving. "We are still going to find our peace here."

Many residents of the gated community declined to talk to reporters. Others were eager to give their opinions, but not their names. Several said they had started carrying guns.

No one had seen Zimmerman. Or Trayvon Martin's dad. Except on the news.

Jamie Meyers, 26, and her two preschoolers walked through the neighborhood to place silk violets on the teenager's memorial. She and her husband moved here two years ago to be behind a gate, to be surrounded by other families with kids. "We're thinking about moving now," said Meyers, who teaches middle school. "We don't want to stay here, in a place something like this could happen."

The next day, on the other side of the complex, Thomas Ransburg, 20, was outside talking to his girlfriend. Ransburg has lived behind the gate since January, he said, and sees no reason to move now.

A few months ago, he was hanging out with a friend who lives in another townhouse. "But that day, he forgot his key," said Ransburg. So they walked around to the back patio and opened the sliding glass door. Someone saw them and called the police. They spent four hours at the station, trying to convince investigators his friend really lived there. "They thought we were trying to rob it or something," he said.

Ransburg, who is black and wears long dreadlocks, laughed at the memory, swore it didn't make him angry, and said he understood. "I don't think it was racial," he said. "I guess we just looked suspicious. Everyone's always been real friendly back here. People smile and wave. All the little kids run around. There's always laughter."

Just then, three teenage males walked through the unlocked side gate, down the walkway toward Ransburg. T.J. Jones and his twin brother, T.Y., 14, and their cousin James Young, 13, have lived in the complex for two years. Their moms moved here from apartments to give the boys more room and a safe place to play.

The boys, who are black, used to play football with Trayvon Martin "right there on that grass where he died," said T.Y.

He told Ransburg that their mom won't let them outside after dark anymore. She is worried someone might think they are "suspicious or something," said T.J. "She keeps telling us to be careful."

Ransburg nodded, and pointed at the townhouse across the street. "You see that door? That's my door," he told the boys. "If anyone is ever bothering you or following you, if you ever feel scared, that's my door. Knock on it. I'll be there to get your back."

• • •

The community pool was empty that afternoon. So was the clubhouse. On the bulletin board, there were two fliers. One was a notice from the homeowners' association: "All residents are part of the Neighborhood Watch program and are encouraged to get to know your neighbors and look out for one another! … There is also a neighborhood watch meeting with Officer Wendy on Thursday, March 29th, 7 p.m."

The other flier said simply, "Neighborhood Watch meeting canceled."

Lane DeGregory can be reached at degregory@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8825. Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

Trayvon Martin's killing shatters safety within Retreat at Twin Lakes in Sanford 03/24/12 [Last modified: Monday, March 26, 2012 8:49pm]

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