Interview by Matt Mallory
USA – -(AmmoLand.com)- As a self-defense instructor, I teach civilians and law enforcement about situational awareness, use-of-force levels, hands-on tactics, and how to use both lethal and less-lethal tools. If you are in the industry that I am, or simply watch the news, you know the name George Zimmerman.
A man by the name of Trayvon Martin lost his life that cold Sunday night on the 26th of February 2012. The news spread across the nation like a wildfire in California. The news reported that a young black boy was murdered by a “white man”. As the dust settled, that turned out NOT to be the truth. Adding fuel to the flame, President Obama made the statement that “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon…” This situation was the spark that set off the Black Lives Matter movement. Just as things started to die down, they flamed back up with the 2014 Michael Brown shooting by office Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, which saw the creation of the slogan “Hands Up, Don't Shoot“.
To teach my students about real life self-defense cases, I felt a good story to tell was that of George Zimmerman.
My goal was to provide a firsthand account of his life-changing battle to survive a deadly encounter. At the start of 2018 my quest began. I noticed a George Zimmerman on Facebook who had mutual friends, I thought, it couldn’t be, but after some research, it was “the” George Zimmerman. I sent a friend request with no expectations that he would accept it, though he did. Soon after, I sent him a message introducing myself and asking if he would be willing to talk with me. My goal being, to tell his story to better my students understanding on the importance of not being in the fight in the first place. He agreed, and we spent months trying to get our schedules to match up for that phone call. In hindsight, it was a blessing since something better was in store.
Fast forward to the fall and I was booked to work as pro staff for Laser Ammo’s booth at the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) Conference. I sent George a text asking if he wanted to have dinner with me while I was in Florida. He accepted, and we picked a mutual night to meet up in person. At that time, I didn’t know he had only done a few public interviews to include Sean Hannity. The same day he did the exclusive interview with Hannity he turned down Barbra Walters for an interview. I’ll save that story for another time.
Though he agreed to meet me, I still wasn’t sure if it would happen. I mean, he doesn’t know me from Adam. If it didn’t happen, I couldn’t blame him, as he has been targeted by everyone from a sitting President all the way down to average citizens. George has had death threats and was shot at in 2015 by a deranged person, by the name of Matthew Apperson, who was sentenced to 35 years (20 and 15 running concurrently). Come to find out, George vetted me through our mutual friend, Andrew Branca, and the meeting came to fruition.
George was celebrating his birthday the night prior to our meeting so I was tasked with picking our meeting location. He suggested Longhorn, Olive Garden, or Buffalo Wild Wings. I chose Olive Garden for a quiet location for us to talk. I had a list of questions that I wrote down, then typed out, and wrote down again, in preparation for our phone call those many months prior. I considered bringing a video camera to capture the meeting but thought that was too much for a dinner setting. I then planned to record the audio from my phone, but little did I know that my plans would change once again.
I arrived at the restaurant and was quickly seated by the hostess. I texted George letting him know I had arrived. I was not sure of what to expect from George. I only knew how the media portrayed him. He had been nothing but a Southern gentleman to me in all our correspondence leading up to this night and he truly had no need or reason to meet with me. Shortly after texting him, he replied stating he was walking into the restaurant. I then went to meet him at the door. As I shook his hand, my first impression was that he seemed to be a polite and soft-spoken person.
That impression carried on through the next two-and-a-half hours that we spent together. I never did see an evil killer that the media portrayed. Could it have been a front? Sure, it was possible, but time would tell.
I truly wanted to get-to-know the real George Zimmerman. As we sat down, I, in normal fashion, handed him one of my PS&Ed (www.psanded.com) business cards along with our company Velcro patch. I then thanked him for agreeing to meet with me. I let him know that I was planning to record our conversation but at that second, I felt led to not record it and for us to just talk. (sic) I conveyed this to him along with my desire to have him come on my YouTube Channel Meet The Pressers as a guest to tell his story, in person. He agreed, and I suggested we do it around the time the movie comes out. Oh, I guess this is a good time to tell you that George flew to California last year to be a subject matter expert for a movie that is being made about that night back in 2012. It is scheduled to be released in the end of July.
The waitress kept returning to our table to take our order, but our short time together was much like two lifelong friends catching up and not looking at the menu. We finally ordered our meals and when they arrived, I prayed over our meeting and the food before we dug in.
As we began to eat, I hit George with my first question. What was your life like prior to that February night in 2012? He began to tell me how he was raised Catholic and that his grandmother lived with his family as is a tradition for many Hispanic families. He was married, had a home, a good job making a handsome hourly wage, and was enrolled in college – setting his sights on getting a degree – all while mentoring inner-city youth in Apopka, Florida. This stood out to me as something a good person would do to make their community better.
Leading up to that terrible night, George said that there were many burglaries in their community. His wife wanted to move but due to work and schooling that wasn't financially feasible. She urged him to do something. There were neighborhood watch signs throughout the neighborhood, so he decided to join the local watch. Come to find out, there was no formal neighborhood watch. So, what does any citizen concerned about their neighborhood do? Gather the masses to form a neighborhood watch of course. I could relate because I did the same thing when we lived in the City of Syracuse, NY.
The Night of the Deadly Encounter
I asked George to walk me through that night that changed his life forever. He began to do so in epic fashion.
It was a cold and rainy Sunday night. Like all other Sunday's he would go out to the store to buy chicken and other food for the diet, he was on. He continued then stopped short and asked me for a piece of paper. I flipped to a blank piece of paper in my notepad that contained all the questions I had for him. I then slid it along with my pen across the table to him. He began to sketch out while explaining that the gated community he lived in wasn't fully gated all the way around. He said that a bordering swampy area would dry up throughout the year allowing people to come and go undetected.
George continued his story on how he was driving out of the gated community and the light from another vehicle lit up the alleyway behind a house. He noticed someone standing in the shadows. He thought that was odd due to the cold rainy weather. The suspicious behavior made him concerned for his neighborhood, so he called it in to authorities.
He continued to use the sketch to show me how that night's events continued to play out. He showed me where he pulled up to the clubhouse and shortly after, a hooded man, later found to be Trayvon Martin, circled his vehicle a couple of times, all while reaching in-and-out of his pockets as if trying to intimidate George. Trayvon then went out of sight behind a building. To help provide police with the location of Trayvon, George got out of his vehicle to get a better vantage point. He informed the dispatcher of this and the dispatcher stated that they didn't need him to do that. However, by now George was out of his vehicle and moving to a better position. George saw lights in the distance and thought the police had arrived. He later realized that was not the case.
Headed in the direction that the lights came from [and] coming around the side of one of the townhouses to the “T” in the sidewalks he was, without notice, punched in the face by Trayvon, instantly breaking his nose. Trayvon then grabbed George and tried to throw him to the ground multiple times. George held his own for a little bit but eventually was thrown to the ground. Once again George referred to the sketch showing me where they were by this time, which was a little further up the sidewalk from the initial attack. He said that the ground sloped down on one side of the sidewalk and his legs were down the hill while his head was on the sidewalk. Trayvon was now on top of George punching him repeatedly in the face, MMA style, as George described. Every time George tried to sit up Trayvon would slam him back down to the ground and in-turn his head would bounce off the sidewalk, causing him excruciating pain.
To get away from the pain being inflicted on his head, George tried sliding down the hill out from underneath Trayvon. This caused George’s red windbreaker to slide up revealing his Kel- Tec PF-9 9mm handgun holstered on his hip.
Trayvon noticed the gun and said, “You’re gonna die tonight!” At that point, George realized that it wasn't his gun or Trayvon’s gun, it was “the” gun in the fight!
Without any prior experience of drawing and shooting from the holster, George knew it was either now or never. He unholstered the firearm and fired one shot at the man who he felt was trying to take his life. The response from Trayvon was like that of an old Western movie. He said, “Ya got me!” At that second George thought his shot missed. To him, it seemed as if Trayvon was making a statement to concede defeat and not that he actually was hit by the bullet.
In that instance George wasn't worried about his safety or that somebody was trying to kill him, he was more concerned that he missed Trayvon and might have hurt somebody else in a nearby house. To me, this was one of many enlightening times in our meeting. More concerned for the life of his neighbors than his own life.
George was now able to get out from underneath his attacker. Trayvon collapsed onto the ground clutching his chest while mumbling illegible words. A neighbor came out asking what was going on and shortly after a police officer showed up. George said the officer was calm and asked him what had happened. He informed the officer that his firearm was holstered on his side. The officer later retained the gun. Emergency teams worked on Martin. Medical attention was given to George on the scene before he was taken to the police station, for over 5 hours of questioning. Though his head felt as if it was going to explode, he endured the questioning. He was able to clean up in the bathroom at the police station, though after the fact, his attorneys were not happy with George’s decision to do so since it disposed of crucial evidence that could help his case. Little did anyone know that this night’s events would become such a national case.
Life After that Terrible Night
Being that Florida is a stand-your-ground state – meaning that you do not have a duty to retreat when posed with danger if you are legally allowed to be there – and all the evidence showed that George was defending himself, no charges were brought against him that night. It wasn't until later when then President Obama called governor Rick Scott and demanded that he find somebody in the state of Florida that would prosecute George. After consulting multiple district attorney’s, the Governor found one in Jacksonville that would take the case.* This began the 3.5- million-dollar battle for George to stay out of prison. George fought off death that night but never fathomed the war to save his life was just beginning.
*[I still haven't forgiven Scott for this blunder. - TB]
While awaiting trial, George spent his time in solitary confinement. His confinement was more solitary than other inmates due to threats made on his life and his high-profile case. He spent much of his time reading the Bible and Phil Robertson's book “Happy, Happy, Happy”. Being locked up with minimal interaction with others day-after-day is sure to beat down the morale of anyone. It tends to make people depressed or harden them from emotion. George admitted having a bad boy phase after being acquitted which gave him many run-ins with the law.
When he was finally acquitted of all charges, and released from prison.
There after (sic) his cousin drove in from California and they watched a Duck Dynasty marathon. His cousin knew he needed to laugh again with everything he had been through. Phil Robinson (sic) was just the medicine he needed. He made him laugh so much that he wanted to meet him and the family in person. On a whim, he just up and drove to West Monroe, Louisiana in search of the family that helped him be happy again. Little did he know the Robinson’s (sic) had been praying for him during the whole ordeal. The trip had many positive outcomes. He broke bread with the Robinson (sic) family, was born again and found a truly remarkable family who is now lifelong friends.
Through his ordeal he has met other big names in the self-defense industry, to include Andrew Branca and Massad Ayoob. George said that though this incident changed his life in a prolific way, there are great people he has met because of it and that has been positive.
George's life drastically changed that desolate night. Most places won't hire him because of bad publicity. Businesses that have given him a chance, eventually end up letting him go. When people harass your employees while at work, well that is not good for business. To pay his bills, he was reduced to selling the firearm that was used to save his life. A winning bid brought him $250,000. Though this seems like a lot, in comparison to what he has lost and the expense of the trial, it is a drop in the bucket. To keep afloat, he has used his artistic ability to paint and sells his works of art whenever possible.
My last question of the night for George was “If anything, what would you have done differently that night?” Without hesitation, his response was “I would have never left the house!” His answer struck me deep. I thought he would say, I would have just called 911 at the time I saw the suspicious silhouette lurking next to the building, in the rain. Or possibly, I would have stayed in my vehicle after the person circled it in an intimidating manner. For him to wish he had never left his home was a statement for sure. Your life can change in an instant based on decisions that you make.
After multiple refills of our drinks and getting close to being kicked out of the restaurant, because they were closing soon, we thought this was a good spot to call it a night and agreed to reconnect soon. We left the restaurant together and took a final photo together before parting ways.
My Final Thoughts
Some thoughts I had during our dinner meeting. First, a dispatcher’s advice – though in this case, good advice – is not a lawful order. Second, George did not seek out Trayvon with a gun in-his- hand. That is, to me, he did not have the intention to “hunt-him-down”. He only drew the firearm as a last resort to defend himself from the grave bodily harm being imposed and his death that was impending.
In the months since our dinner, George and I have kept in touch, talking on and off as topics come up in the news and in life.
In a phone call with George earlier this year, he said to me “I feel like that's your duty. Once you make a call and you ask for assistance, you ask for police response. I feel like it’s your duty as a civilian, or as a concerned citizen, to be able to relay that information to them so that they can respond rapidly and accurately to your call for help.”
To this day, George feels he did everything correctly and did nothing wrong that night. However, he agrees with me in that, if you don't want your life turned upside down like his was, it's better to not be in the fight in the first place. As well, the decisions you make can put you in harm's way in more ways than one and the situation may not turn out the way you think.
If this case was tried in my home state of New York I would have no doubt that he would be in prison. I train many thousands of students annually, all over the country, and my advice is to have a higher level of thinking. Taking the higher road, if you will. The old saying, I would rather be tried by 12 than carried by six, is foolish in this day and age!
I agree with George in that those who carry a handgun for self-defense should know how to use it and practice doing so but they should also investigate insurance like the USCCA membership or CCW Safe. This coverage will help cover legal fees but there is still no guarantee that you will be acquitted. Hence, staying out of the fight in the first place is the best advice. Even if you have a great legal defense team, your attorney does not pick the jurors for your trial. The attorneys only deselect some that are the worst for their case. Ultimately, the pick comes from a jury pool “of your peers”. Don't count on your jury being made up of gun-toting, hardworking Americans that are a USCCA or NRA member! The hand you are dealt in court can be much like playing Russian roulette. I would prefer to not be caught with the “Dead Man’s Hand”!
Right after his life was turned upside down, never to be the same again, he risked his own life to save the life of a family in an overturned SUV. Only a selfless person would do something like that. This in a day and age where people would rather pull a cell phone out to record people dying rather than lend a hand to those in need. I came out of my dinner meeting with George feeling that I met a man that tried to do the right thing but got a raw deal in the end. I pray that no one goes through what George did and that is why I bring his story to you.
I have been telling my students for years that it's better to not be in the fight in the first place! You will survive 100% of the fights that you are not in. These days, to be judged by anyone, even 12 jurors can be almost as bad as being carried by six pallbearers. To put everything in context, in a moral of the story kind of way, I would say: “You could do everything for the right reason, do nothing illegal, and still be prosecuted or persecuted – by a jury of public opinion – for the decisions that you make.”
Shoot straight and stay safe.
About Matt Mallory
Founder and Lead Instructor of Public Safety and Education (a.k.a. PS&Ed), Matthew J. Mallory is a U.S. Army veteran, former adjunct college professor, and a highly experienced firearms instructor whose passion for weapons and self-defense began at a very young age. Currently, Matt works as a sworn New York State Law Enforcement Officer, firearms instructor (USCCA, NRA, UTM, Utah, and New York), self-defense instructor (NY, TASER, ASP, Safariland, and Sabre Red), and gun store owner. He teaches more than 60 different firearms and self-defense courses, over 200 times each year, to many thousands of students all over the country. He co-hosts a YouTube show called Meet The Pressers and also travels the county working as a brand ambassador and pro staff for many companies (USCCA, Laser Ammo, Shooter’s Technology Group, Mantis, and Angel Armor). His over 35 years of vast experience and passion for teaching ensures that his courses are educational and highly entertaining. You can learn more about Matt at www.PSandEd.com.