By Frances Robles, McClatchy Newspapers –
SANFORD, Fla. — They heard the desperate wail of a child, a gunshot, and then silence.
Trayvon Martin, 17, died Feb. 26 in a dark pathway some 20 minutes after a neighborhood watch volunteer called police saying he thought a young stranger looked suspicious. It was raining, and the volunteer thought the kid in the hoodie walked too slow and peeked in windows.
Three witnesses contacted by The Miami Herald say they saw or heard the moments before and after the Miami Gardens teenager’s killing. All three said they heard the last howl for help from a despondent boy, and believe the sequence of sounds shatters the notion that Trayvon was killed in self-defense.
As the controversy grows, so does the number of voices disputing the official version that watch captain George Zimmerman gave to police: that the 6-foot, 3-inch, 140-pound teen assaulted him when Zimmerman, 28, tried to question him. In fear for his life, he pulled a Kel Tek .9mm handgun from his waistband and shot.
From Facebook to twitter and online petitions, local police and prosecutors are getting tens of thousands of demands for criminal charges as the national media shines a spotlight on a small, racially diverse town with a history of police tension. There are now more and more calls for the U.S. Department of Justice to intervene and try to answer: What really happened to Trayvon Martin?
“I heard someone crying — not boo-hoo crying, but scared or terrified or hurt maybe,” said Mary Cutcher, 31. “To me, it was a child.”
Zimmerman said he tailed Trayvon in a mission to find out if the teen was up to no good. Zimmerman was out to put a stop to recent burglaries. He dialed police — his 46th call in the past 14 months to report shady people, reckless drivers and other disturbances around his neighborhood.
He offered to follow his suspect, but the dispatcher told him: “We don’t need you to do that.”
But Zimmerman did anyway. Some minutes later, Trayvon was killed with a gun the watch volunteer was licensed to carry.
“This was not self defense,” Cutcher said. “We heard no fighting, no wrestling, no punching. We heard a boy crying. As soon as the shot went off, it stopped, which tells me it was the child crying. If it had been Zimmerman crying, it wouldn’t have stopped. If you’re hurting, you’re hurting.”
She and her friend say they heard the sounds from a few steps away, where they were inside beside an open window. Seconds later, they dashed out to find a boy face down on the ground and a man standing over him, a foot on each side of the body on the ground, with his hands pinning the shooting victim down.
“I asked him, ‘What’s happening here? What’s going on?’ said Cutcher’s friend, who did not want her name published for fear for her safety. “The third time, I was indignant, and he said, ‘Just call the police.’ Then I saw him with his hands over his head in the universal sign of: ‘Oh man, I messed up.’ ”
The women, who were the first on the scene, said they saw Zimmerman pacing back and forth.
“I know what I heard. I heard a cry and a shot,” the second witness said. “If there was a fight, it did not happen here where the boy was shot. I would have heard it, as this all happened right outside my open window.”
The women think there may well have been a physical altercation between the two, but it must have taken place in a different spot, where Zimmerman perhaps had a chance to compose himself and draw his weapon.
Cutcher was one of eight or nine 911 callers that night but she said investigators dismissed her, and a detective failed to follow up with her. Both women said police seemed very blase.
“Mr. Zimmerman’s claim is that the confrontation was initiated by Trayvon,” Police Chief Bill Lee said in an interview. “I am not going into specifics of what led to the violent physical encounter witnessed by residents. All the physical evidence and testimony we have independent of what Mr. Zimmerman provides corroborates this claim to self-defense.”
To claim self-defense, someone has to show there was danger of great bodily harm or death, Lee said. “Zimmerman had injuries consistent with his story,” Lee said.
Zimmerman had a damp shirt, grass stains, a bloody nose and was bleeding from a wound in the back of his head, according to police reports.
“If someone asks you, ‘Hey, do you live here?’ Is it OK for you to jump on them and beat the crap out of somebody?” Lee said. “It’s not.”
A neighborhood eighth-grader out walking his dog said his family also called 911.
“I saw someone lying on the ground, and I heard screaming,” said Austin, 13, whose mother asked that his last name not be published. “I don’t know that it was the person on the (ground) who was screaming, but to me it sounded like a kid who was crying. It was a yell for help, and I think it was Trayvon.”
Austin wasn’t sure if the person was in a fight or had slipped and gotten hurt. Austin’s Boxer puppy got off the leash so the boy went chasing after the dog and lost sight of the scene for a moment. Then, he heard a gun go off.
He ran home and told his sister to call the police.
The boy, who is black, has been rattled ever since. He feels angry and disconcerted, and wonders whether he’s at risk too.
“That people can stereotype like that makes you scared,” he said.
Austin’s mom said he’s been acting out in school and seems mad all the time.
“My son has a terrible feeling of guilt, because he did not do anything to help. He’s angry,” said Austin’s mother, Cheryl Brown. “They are saying that Trayvon looked suspicious, because he was walking slow. So I guess I have to tell my son: make sure you always run fast.”
Chief Lee released a statement Thursday disputing Cutcher’s account, saying it differed from what she originally told police, which she angrily denies.
Cutcher originally gave police a statement that matched Zimmerman’s account, said police spokesman Sgt. David Morgenstern.
Lee is “asking the public and the media to give the system the opportunity to work, in the interest of safety of the community,” Morgenstern said.
Zimmerman, whose whereabouts are unknown, was not charged, and the case is now under review by the Brevard Seminole State Attorney’s Office. Local and national black leaders have rallied around the incident as the latest example of a double standard of justice in what they consider a case of racial profiling.