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Zimmerman spent $36,000 on phones, Web, credit cards

By Frances Robles, McClatchy Newspapers –

MIAMI — George Zimmerman went through almost $36,000 of contributions in 18 days spent mostly in jail, spending a bulk of his newfound cash on telecommunications, newly filed court records show.

Using funds donated from the public on his short-lived website, Zimmerman and his wife spent $6,500 on Internet and phone bills, according to a document his defense attorney filed with the judge. He and his wife bought new cell phones for $300 each and paid a year-long Verizon contract in full. They installed a telephone landline for $2,500 and spent $1,300 on a two-year AT&T wi-fi contract.

They paid off at least $7,000 in credit card bills.

They used $4,378 on automotive expenses, making payments on two car loans while renting another for more than $1,500. Gas: $800.

In a May letter to Circuit Judge Kenneth Lester, defense attorney Mark O’Mara called the spending “judicious.”

The money was donated to Zimmerman in the wake of the killing of Miami Gardens teenager Trayvon Martin. As the media spectacle heated up and marches around the country demanding Zimmerman’s arrest grew in size and number, Zimmerman turned to the Internet for donations.

Many people were sympathetic to his cause, because of the non-stop media attention and the suspicion by some critics that the unarmed teenager played a role in his own death. Zimmerman says the teen attacked him and he was forced to shoot in self defense.

Donations spiked when Zimmerman was arrested, and swelled again earlier this month, when the judge raised his bond to $1 million. Over the next three days, O’Mara said, the fund grew by $36,000.

O’Mara submitted to the court a list of broad categories of spending, after revealing to the judge that Zimmerman had raised much more from online contributions than previously believed.

At an April 20 bond hearing, O’Mara said Zimmerman was destitute. The defense attorney said he found out a few days later that Zimmerman was sitting on nearly $200,000 so he immediately reported that to the court.

The defense lawyer argued to the judge that the oversight was not a serious error, and that the Zimmermans apparently thought the use of the money was restricted. They must have believed that, O’Mara told the judge, because his parents were ready to mortgage their Lake Mary home to come up with $150,000 in cash to pay the bond off in full.

“The rationale the family seemed to have was that the money sitting there was given to them to support their living expenses and necessary legal expenses, but was not simply available to them for whatever other purpose they want,” O’Mara wrote. “As further documentation of the judicious use of those funds (as compared to unfettered use of those funds) I have enclosed a listing of expenses.”

Zimmerman paid off a $3,000 loan to his parents, paid $5,000 for bond, spent $800 at the jail commissary and $600 on jailhouse calling cards. The couple spent about $1,300 on food and $400 on utilities and $1,900 on rent.

Zimmerman and his wife, Shellie, both unemployed, incurred unexpected expenses because they were forced to leave their house in a hurry in the face of death threats and heated tensions. That, O’Mara said, is why some of the credit card bills are steep.

In jailhouse calls released last month by the state attorney’s office, Zimmerman was heard telling his wife to pay off all their bills.

They spent almost $4,000 on American Express alone.

O’Mara stressed that Zimmerman turned over the $123,000 balance to his attorney and that he advised Zimmerman to keep another $20,000 in cash for future expenses.

The expense list covered the period from April 9, when the donation website went up, until April 27, just after the Zimmermans turned over the balance to a legal trust fund.

The judge did not buy the argument and, despite the expenses of long-term phone contracts, instead said he believed Zimmerman was preparing for a life on the run. He revoked Zimmerman’s bond, and then issued a scathing order raising the bond to $1 million. Now O’Mara is asking for a new judge, saying he believes Lester has shown such prejudice that Zimmerman can’t possibly get a fair trial from him.

In a court document filed Tuesday, Assistant State Attorney Bernie de la Rionda called the argument for a new judge “absurd.” He criticized O’Mara’s frequent television appearances, and listed several special considerations Judge Lester gave Zimmerman, such as letting him live out of state after he was released on bond the first time.

Bank records submitted as evidence indicate Zimmerman spent at least part of that time on the Maryland shore.

The prosecutor did not criticize the spending as much as the fact that Zimmerman tried to conceal the funds from the judge. De la Rionda noted that even if O’Mara is holding on to the balance of the funds, the money is still Zimmerman’s.

“The money still belongs to the defendant,” he wrote in a motion. “And he can demand it at any time.”

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