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McClatchy Newspapers, Published May 14 2012

'Our lives will never be the same,' Zimmerman's father says

MIAMI - Robert Zimmerman is a retired magistrate living like a fugitive.

He stays in hotels under assumed names. He pays cash so no one will look at his surname and make the connection: This is the father of one of the nation's most controversial murder defendants.

“It's been unimaginable,” he said Monday. “Our lives will never be the same.”

Zimmerman, 64, is the father of George Zimmerman, the Central Florida neighborhood watch volunteer who faces a second-degree murder charge for the Feb. 26 killing of Miami Gardens teen Trayvon Martin.

The high school student's death exploded into a politically volatile case, the kind that drives thousands to the streets in protest - the kind that brings hate mail. Rattled by death threats and shaken by personal information posted on the Web, Zimmerman, his wife and his mother-in-law with Alzheimer's are now on the run, waiting for the trial they are convinced will exonerate their son.

“All of a sudden, it's pack up what you can and leave,” he said. “Staying in this hotel room or that hotel room.”

His life upside down and expenses soaring, he wants the public to be clear that he has not received a cent of donations from anyone, despite the $204,000 his son has amassed through a website to help pay for his defense. In an interview with The Miami Herald, Zimmerman criticized the media, prosecutors and attorneys who he says have distorted information and spread lies about a man who mentored black kids and was deeply committed to his community. The Virginia native said he's sure of one thing: his son's innocence.

He believes medical records and photos - released to the defense on Monday - will prove his son was injured by Trayvon when the two met in a gated community's dark pathway. He said voice tests will show George Zimmerman didn't lie and an eyewitness will back up his account. The girl who claims to have been on the phone talking to the teenager when the incident occurred will be proved a liar, Zimmerman insists.

It all can't come soon enough for Zimmerman, who feels he must leave the state of Florida for good.

It was Feb. 26 when George Zimmerman encountered Trayvon as he walked through the Retreat at Twin Lakes gated community in Sanford. He told his father that he found Trayvon suspicious, because he fit the description of burglars who had recently broken into townhouses: young and black.

Zimmerman stressed that the accepted narrative that his son followed the teen after being told not to by a police operator is false. Instead, he said, George Zimmerman was on the street trying to find an address to pinpoint his location when, on the way back to his car, he encountered Trayvon for a second time.

Trayvon was almost home but turned back, Zimmerman said.

“Trayvon said to him, ‘Do you have an (expletive) problem?”’ George told him, “ ‘No, I don't have a problem.’ He says, ‘You do now,’ and that's when he hit him, broke his nose, and hit him to the sidewalk.”

During the struggle, George Zimmerman reached for his licensed handgun and shot Trayvon in the chest. His dad believes that as the two wrestled on the grass, it was Trayvon's life or George's.

“Trayvon said something to that effect, that George would be dead,” he said.

George Zimmerman's account of what happened sounded true enough to Sanford Police, who publicly said that physical evidence and witness testimony corroborated his story.

But lawyers for the Martin family believe George Zimmerman racially profiled the teenager and stalked him. Trayvon was unarmed, and carried candy, iced tea and a phone.

After giving up his gun, clothes and shoes to police, George Zimmerman gave at least three statements. Pictures were taken of his injuries. “I saw him the next morning. He looked like hell. I said, ‘Who beat you up?’ Zimmerman said. ”His nose was swollen, he had a protective thing over it, and he had a cut lip and two cuts on the back of his head."

Zimmerman insisted that no one in the Sanford Police or the Seminole County prosecutor's office knew he was a retired judge. He denied ever meeting with the original prosecutor on the case, Norm Wolfinger. He said he only met once with a prosecutor's investigator, when he gave a sworn statement insisting that the voice he heard on a 911 tape calling for help was George's.

When his address was posted on the Internet, the mail started coming. He said he received about 1,000 letters, many supportive, but about 50 included threats. One note was left on the door, he said: “George Zimmerman and anyone with his DNA should be eliminated.”

That's when he, his wife and mother-in-law took off. They've been back twice, once with a police escort.

“If people want to walk around with picket signs, fine,” he said. “I'm afraid of some young person who doesn't have a future who wants to do some damage.”

He said he saw his son when he was released from jail, but won't say where he is living, only that he is as far away as Las Vegas. George, he said, is “killing time” waiting for his trial and living on donations.

Zimmerman insisted the family did not intentionally mislead the court at the bond hearing, where no one mentioned the donations. He said George did not know how much was in the account, because a friend administered it.

In fact, after the PayPal site went up, George asked his dad for money and even asked him to put his Lake Mary home up as collateral for his $150,000 bond. Zimmerman gave his son $500.

“George didn't have $200,000 in his pocket,” Zimmerman said. “George is not living large.”

Zimmerman criticized prosecutors, particularly the investigator who testified at the bond hearing and seemed to have little evidence to back up the probable cause affidavit he had submitted to the court.

Now, thanks to public pressure and overzealous prosecutors, he said, his son's life is ruined. Expelled from Seminole State College, he won't be able to find a job.

His stressed that his son was a well-behaved youth - even if he did have a spell of “poor judgment” in the years he lived in the family's Lake Mary home alone before his parents moved to Florida from Virginia.

George Zimmerman was arrested in 2005 for intervening in a friend's arrest. He also had a battle in court with an ex-girlfriend; they each accused the other of domestic violence.

“I look at him and I see someone who goes to work every day, goes to school and is married,” Zimmerman said.

He harbors no ill will toward Trayvon Martin's family, but acknowledges that he's angry at special prosecutor Angela Corey and Benjamin Crump, the Martin family attorney.

“No parent can completely control their child. I believe Trayvon made a bad decision,” he said. “When I was young, I had my issues. I would have liked to see Trayvon change his life and get married and achieve his dreams. He made a decision that changed that, and things didn't work out for anybody.”