Sunday, January 21, 2018
Public safety

FBI records: Sanford police investigator felt pressured to arrest George Zimmerman in Trayvon Martin shooting

The lead Sanford police investigator who sought manslaughter charges against George Zimmerman told the FBI that a sergeant and two others officers tried to pressure him into making an arrest in the controversial case — even though he didn't think there was enough evidence.

Sanford Police Officer Chris Serino first made headlines when evidence released in the case showed he sought manslaughter charges against Zimmerman even while his chief publicly said there was no probable cause to arrest him. But a document released late Thursday casts doubt on Serino's prior sworn affidavit seeking criminal charges and raises questions about the credibility of the star law-enforcement witness in the murder case against Zimmerman for the shooting death of a black teenager, Trayvon Martin.

Telling the FBI that he was concerned that people inside the Police Department were leaking information, Serino cited Sgt. Arthur Barnes, officers Rebecca Villalona and Trekelle Perkins "as all pressuring him to file charges against Zimmerman after the incident," an FBI report said. "Serino did not believe he had enough evidence at the time to file charges."

A request Thursday evening to the Sanford Police Department for comment about Serino's statement went unanswered.

"Our position has always been that there's something going on in the Sanford Police Department," said Benjamin Crump, an attorney for Martin's family. "All of this is window dressing. What's important is George Zimmerman's statements, which are inconsistent and factually impossible."

Serino, a 15-year veteran of the department who was a major-crimes investigator, was demoted last month to overnight patrol. Tapes of his interviews with Zimmerman show him poking holes in the former neighborhood watch volunteer's account of what happened the night he killed Martin. Serino told the FBI that Zimmerman had a "little hero complex" and sounded "scripted." However, he said he believed Zimmerman targeted Martin because of his attire, the circumstances and recent burglaries in the area, not the color of the teen's skin.

In his FBI interview, Serino accused Sgt. Barnes of being "friendly" with Tracy Martin, the teenager's father. He said Tracy Martin at first understood why no charges were filed, but later changed course and accused Zimmerman of racial profiling.

Crump denied that Tracy Martin ever changed postures. The elder Martin, he said, sought legal counsel the very day Serino told him no charges would be filed.

Records released Thursday show that Barnes, a 25-year veteran of the department, told the FBI that he believed the black community would be "in an uproar" if Zimmerman was not charged. "The community will be satisfied if an arrest takes place," the FBI quoted him saying. Barnes "felt the shooting was not racially motivated, but it was a man shooting an unarmed kid."

The report does not make clear why Serino would feel pressure from Barnes and the other two officers he mentioned when he had the backing of the police chief. Chief Bill Lee was fired last month for his role in the widely disparaged investigation.

Serino did not respond to a request for comment and in the past has declined to speak to the Miami Herald.

Serino's statement was among nearly 300 pages of documents released Thursday by the Duval County state attorney, including reports from FBI agents who launched a civil rights investigation to determine whether racial bias was involved in Trayvon Martin's killing Feb. 26.

After interviewing nearly three dozen people — including gun dealers, Zimmerman's former fiancé, co-workers and neighbors — the FBI found no evidence that racial bias was a motivating factor in the shooting, the records show. It's unclear whether more interview transcripts remain to be released.

The evidence released Thursday includes witness-statement summaries from co-workers. They described Zimmerman as a consummate professional who was exceedingly pleasant and didn't fly off the handle, even when someone cut off the lock he had used to make sure no one moved a special ergonomic chair from his desk. An ex-girlfriend described him as someone who sometimes wanted to drive into a lake and was prone to road rage, but she said he had plenty of black friends and was the "last person" she would expect to get into the kind of confrontation that led to Martin's death.

The statements said Zimmerman had been beaten as a child by his mother, was sometimes suicidal and that two weeks after the killing he tried to buy more guns because he feared for his life.

One memo from prosecutors mentions that Zimmerman went to his interviews with police accompanied by a friend who is a federal air marshal.

Another report, which appears to refer to the same person, details an interview with one of Zimmerman's closest friends, a former Seminole County sheriff's deputy. The former deputy went to the scene the night of the shooting, put Zimmerman up for more than a month after the killing, and accompanied him to his interviews with police. He trained Zimmerman on how to use a gun, adding that he "wasn't a very good shot at first," but improved.

The friend, whose name was blacked out in the report, told state investigators that Zimmerman was frugal, not very streetwise, and had a childhood marked by an abusive mother and a father who looked the other way when his son was beaten. Zimmerman, he said, had been estranged from his family until Martin's shooting.

On the report detailing the friend's interview, his current occupation is covered in black ink.

"I'm intrigued by this person at the scene that night. Putting two and two together, he is the air marshal who accompanied him to the interview," said Natalie Jackson, one of the attorneys for the slain teen's parents. "I would ask the question of whether he knew former police Chief Bill Lee, because they both worked at the sheriff's department."

Zimmerman, 28, was a neighborhood watch volunteer in the development where Martin's father's girlfriend lives. He spotted the teen that night and found him dodgy, called the police and got out of his car to locate him, Zimmerman's friend told investigators.

Zimmerman has said Martin attacked him, broke his nose and slammed his head on the concrete at the Retreat at Twin Lakes townhouse complex. Specially appointed prosecutors who investigated the case said Zimmerman wrongly assumed Martin was a criminal, and, they say, he did not suffer injuries serious enough to require deadly force.

They charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder, which carries a potential life sentence.

The U.S. Department of Justice and FBI stepped in about a month after the killing, as protesters nationwide criticized the investigation. In all, the FBI interviewed 35 people.

Among the other revelations in the nearly 300 pages of records:

• A witness told prosecutors that her son, a minor, had felt pressured by Sanford Police to say the injured man he saw was wearing a red top. The boy's testimony is considered critical, because it backed up Zimmerman's allegation that he — wearing red — was being pummeled.

• The day Zimmerman turned himself in to be charged with second-degree murder, authorities confiscated a handgun from his car.

• A gun dealer told police that some time in mid-March, Zimmerman called to say he was afraid for his life and "needed more guns."

• A police sergeant on duty at the station the night Trayvon was killed said he didn't notice any injury to Zimmerman's nose, but said he was "grunting as if in pain."

Miami Herald staff writer Scott Hiaasen contributed to this report.


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