Zimmerman investigator blamed black officers for leaks, ‘pressure’ to file chargesby Joy-Ann Reid
July 15, 2012 at 8:00 AM
PrintDuring an exclusive interview Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee Jr. ,left, and lead investigator Chris Serino talk Friday, March 16, 2012 about the Trayvon Martin shooting incident. (Red Huber, Orlando Sentinel)
A report of an FBI interview with the lead detective investigating the shooting death of Trayvon Martin suggests that within the Sanford police department, the question of whether to arrest George Zimmerman for the killing broke down along racial lines.
Investigator Chris Serino, who interviewed Zimmerman multiple times and ultimately filed a “capias” request suggesting manslaughter charges against Zimmerman, wrote in that request that his investigation concluded that Zimmerman followed Martin, 17, on the evening of February 26th because he “reached a faulty conclusion as to Martin’s purpose for being in the neighborhood” where Zimmerman and his wife rented a townhome. The capias was filed with the Seminole County State Attorney on March 13th.
The day before, police chief Bill Lee held a press conference in which he insisted that the department lacked probable cause to arrest Zimmerman. Then on March 16th, the same day the city released 911 calls from neighbors on the night of the shooting, Lee and Serino sat down with a local newspaper and insisted that not only did they lack cause to arrest Zimmerman, but would have violated his constitutional rights under Florida’s Stand Your Ground law had they arrested him for shooting Martin to death.
What changed in the 24 hours between the department’s official stance that there was no evidence Zimmerman committed a crime, and the filing of that capias the next day has been an ongoing question in the case. Now, a report of an interview that federal investigators conducted with Serino nearly a month after the filing sheds new light on what Serino believed was at work.
In an April 3rd interview with FBI investigators (incorrectly dated March 3rd in the filing, which was released by prosecutors on Friday as part of a new round of discovery in the case against Zimmerman), Serino alluded to pressure from within the department to file charges in the Martin shooting, and a concern that leaks to the public were inflaming the case. Protests in Sanford, weeks after the shooting, ultimately led to Lee stepping aside as police chief. He was fired from the department formally last month. And the case ratcheted up racial tensions in Sanford, but also within the Sanford police department, which was no stranger to racial conflict both with the community, and within its ranks.
“Serino is concerned that many of the leaks in this case are coming from within the Sanford Police Department,” the FBI report states. Serino reportedly named the officers he believed were behind the leaks: officers Arthur Barnes, Trekell Perkins and Rebecca Villalona. Barnes and Perkins are black. Villalona is white, but is married to an African-American. Serino is Cuban-American.
Perkins is the officer who took the statement of Witness 9, a woman who claimed to know Zimmerman and his family, and who accused Zimmerman of being racist, and “hating black people.” Neither Villalona nor Barnes were involved in the Zimmerman investigation.
Barnes, a 25-year veteran of the police department and a Sanford native, was himself interviewed by FBI agents on April 5th. The former Army M.P., who was assigned to the property crimes division, talked to the investigators about the racial makeup of Sanford, and told them “the number one crime issue in the City of Sanford is burglaries,” including for his division. The Retreat at Twin Lakes subdivision, where Zimmerman and his wife rented a townhouse, had seen nearly a half dozen break-ins in the year prior to the Martin killing, and Zimmerman himself had called in several “suspicious person” reports, all involving young black males, on August 3 and 4, and October 6, 2011, and again on February 2nd. The Twitter account for the Retreat at Twin Lakes homeowner association boasted on February 12th about the success of their neighborhood watch program, for which Zimmerman — though a renter, not a homeowner — was the coordinator.
Barnes told investigators that while he was “unsure how the younger African-American community” would react to the outcome of the investigation, he believed “the African-American community would be in an ‘uproar’ if Zimmerman” was not charged. “The community will be satisfied if an arrest takes place,” the report of two FBI agents states. “As for the civil rights investigation, if i is determined to be a violation of Trayvon Martin’s civil rights then it will reflect negatively on the Sanford Police Department and fingers will be pointed at them for not doing their job properly,” the report states, adding that Barnes believed the community was split “50/50″ on whether the shooting was a hate crime, but that he did not believe the shooting was racially motivated. “It was a man shooting an unarmed kid.” the report states Barnes told the FBI investigators.
It’s not clear how the three officers would have influenced Serino to change his assessment. And Serino’s reports reflected his own doubts about Zimmerman’s story, including his assessment that Zimmerman’s answers seemed “scripted.” Serino has refused to comment on any aspect of the case. He was reassigned at his request from the investigations division to patrol last month, and assigned to night duty.
The capias request was signed by Serino’s superiors, and it would have had the support of both the investigations chief, Sgt. Bob O’Connor, and then-Chief Lee. It came three days before the 911 calls related to the shooting were released to the public. Martin’s parents had been pushing for the release of the tapes, appealing to Sanford mayor Jeff Triplett for assistance.
Sources tell theGrio several black officers were questioned by Lee, but all denied leaking information to the media. Serino seems to have believed they were doing more than leaking. He listed Barnes, Perkins and Villalona as “all pressuring him to file charges against Zimmerman after the incident.”
“Serino did not believe he had enough evidence at the time to file charges,” the FBI report continues. “Serino also stated that Barnes is friendly with Tracy Martin,” Trayvon Martin’s father, and Serino reportedly told the agents that Barnes had asked him for Martin’s phone number, which he ultimately obtained from someone else.
And the report states that Serino believed that after he talked to Tracy Martin, the father understood why police had not charged Zimmerman. “Serino was not sure why or when Tracy Martin changed his views and Martin now believes the shooting was racially motivated,” the report concludes. Serino’s capias report alludes to a February 28th meeting with Martin’s father at the Sanford Police Department, from which Tracy Martin reportedly came away with an appreciation for the “complexity of the case” and was “reassured” by Serino that a thorough investigation would take place.
Serino investigated possible racial motive for shooting
The question of whether Zimmerman’s confronting Martin on the night of the shooting was racially motivated has become central to defense claims that Zimmerman is being unfairly characterized in the media and by supporters of Martin’s family. Serino appears to have investigated the possibility himself, but concluded that “just the act of following Martin was the instigation … and nothing else.” As for whether he believed Zimmerman racially profiled Martin, Serino told investigators he believed that Zimmerman’s actions “were not based on Martin’s skin color,” but “rather based on his attire, the total circumstances of the encounter and the previous burglary suspects in the community.”
According to the FBI report, local gangs in the area, “referred in the community as ‘goons,’ typically dressed in black and wore hoodies.” The agents wrote in their report, which was part of a new round of evidence released by prosecutors Friday, that Serino believed that “when Zimmerman saw Martin in a hoody, Zimmerman took it upon himself to view Martin as acting suspicious [sic].” The homicide investigator described Zimmerman to the FBI investigators as “overzealous” and as “having a little hero complex,” but “not as racist.” The report states that Serino told the agents that he had asked Zimmerman on several occasions whether he followed the teen because of his skin color, and “Zimmerman never admitted to this fact.”
Serino conducted several interviews and phone conversations with Zimmerman starting on the night of the shooting. Zimmerman was viewed by the officers initially, as more witness than suspect. He was left alone to write his statement at the Sanford Police Department on the night of the shooting, and went home with his wife after she brought him a change of clothes. Serino initially told several witnesses that it was Zimmerman who was crying for help on the night of the shooting, and one witness later told state attorneys investigators that her son, who was out walking his dog on the night of the shooting and witnessed part of the scuffle, felt pressured and “obligated” to say it was Zimmerman that he heard calling for help.
Serino told the FBI agents that he felt he knew Zimmerman “fairly well,” and that the 28-year-old neighborhood watch volunteer didn’t want to be a cop, “because cops have a bad reputation and are bullies, but he wants to be a judge.” He described Zimmerman as a “soft guy,” but added that his story about the shooting seemed “scripted,” as if he knew “the right things to say to the police” — including claiming self-defense, and telling officers he feared for his life in the confrontation with Martin.
Serino reportedly investigated whether Zimmerman had any white supremacist ties, but found that no one in that community knew who he was.
In: Other News
Tags: Zimmerman, charges, uproar, black, community
Location: Sanford, Florida, United States (load item map)
Marked as: approved
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