Until his little brother, George, shot and killed an unarmed black teenager on the sidewalk of a Florida gated community more than two years ago, Robert Zimmerman Jr. was "the family f---up." He used the phrase with me a lot, but the first time was in October 2012, at a dark back table at the Algonquin Hotel's Blue Bar in Manhattan, six months after what all the Zimmermans call "the incident." He was downing a double gin and soda, and he was wearing a Hugo Boss suit, "diamond" earrings from Kohl's, and the remnants of airbrush concealer from a quick appearance on Fox News's Geraldo at Large. He went on to name all the ways he was a lousy namesake for his father, Bob, a former Army sergeant, and a disappointing son for his mother, Gladys, a fierce, devoutly Catholic first-generation immigrant from Peru. "Unemployed. College dropout. With a DWI and a boyfriend," he said, listing his sins. (The boyfriend was a big problem for Gladys, somewhat less so for Bob.) But then, overnight, George had become "the Wreck-It Ralph of America," and Robert—articulate, sweet-natured, maybe in over his head—was thrust into the role of family savior. "You know what that means?" he said, ordering a second gin and soda. "Zimmerman in charge of rebranding."
So Robert got to work, defending his brother in the media dozens of times over the next year. The circumstances may have been grim, but the small doses of celebrity could be fun. He had both Greta Van Susteren and Sean Hannity in his phone contacts. He braved HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher, appearing on the show shortly before the first anniversary of the night that George shot Trayvon Martin. Unlike with the news channels, he got paid this time: $800. It was the only income Robert earned that whole year. He had a great time doing the show and an even better one afterward over drinks with fellow guest Donna Brazile, an African-American political operative who managed Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign. "I miss black people!" he told her.
After George was found not guilty of second-degree murder in July 2013, Robert began thinking about how to accelerate the Zimmerman rebranding project. There had to be a way to capitalize on George's notoriety. A family business, maybe. He and his mother had an idea: George could be the frontman for a home-security company called Z Security Products. "They all start with Z," Robert explained, walking me through an imagined product line. "There's the Z Bar, the Z Rock, and the Z Beam. They're all targeted to women. One is to secure sliding doors. One is to put in the front door. The light is to carry and is designed by George. It has a little alarm—you know, Help me, help me!" Keep reading.