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Who is George Zimmerman, and why did he shoot Trayvon Martin?

George Zimmerman, the Florida neighborhood watch captain who shot unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin, wanted to be a police officer and mentored an African-American boy. Is he a vigilante or, as one neighbor said, 'a good dude'?

By Staff writer / March 24, 2012

Activists assemble outside City Hall in downtown St. Louis on Friday to bring attention to the Trayvon Martin case. Martin was unarmed when he was shot and killed in February in an Orlando, Fla., suburb.

Johnny Andrews/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/AP

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ATLANTA

George Zimmerman, the 28-year-old former altar boy whose shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, has caused a national uproar, has withdrawn into seclusion. His lawyer says he’s afraid for his life amid numerous death threats.

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As Florida and federal investigators dig into the Feb. 26 shooting and the Sanford Police Department's decision to not charge Zimmerman with a crime, attempts to understand the shooting have focused on the extent to which Zimmerman's past experiences colored his decisions in the moments before Trayvon died.

Critics have called Zimmerman a racist vigilante who initiated a conflict with Trayvon largely because of a profile: A black man wearing a hoodie walking through a gated neighborhood. If the FBI finds evidence of this, Zimmerman could be charged with a federal hate crime.

A separate state investigation is slated to probe whether the state's Stand Your Ground law, the justification for not charging Zimmerman, was applied properly amid new evidence that suggests Zimmerman followed Trayvon and initiated an altercation where Trayvon got the upper hand.

Zimmerman's comments on a 911 tape from the night of the shooting that “These [expletive] always get away,” and speculation about whether he uttered a racial slur before following Trayvon on foot support the idea that Zimmerman's frustration with a crime wave in the Retreat at Twin Lakes had boiled over into vigilantism.

Zimmerman has contended that he was on his way back to his SUV after following Trayvon when he was attacked. Police found Zimmerman with a bloody nose and blood on the back of his head. His lawyer says Zimmerman's nose was broken.

At the very least, a series of 46 emergency calls made by Zimmerman over the past six years document a man vigilant about keeping his neighborhood safe and orderly. The calls include complaints about unruly people at the pool, potholes, dumped trash, and kids playing in the street. In recent months, as the neighborhood saw an uptick in crime, including burglaries and a shooting, Zimmerman's calls had focused on specific suspects, the majority of them young black men.

“The newly released police calls paint Zimmerman as a man obsessed with law and order, with the minutiae of suburban life, and with black males,” writes Mother Jones' Adam Weinstein.

But Zimmerman's family, his neighbors and his lawyer paint a different picture: That of a devoted neighbor, keen enough to protect the neighborhood that residents, in establishing a local Neighborhood Watch group last year, appointed him the captain. The organization was not registered with the national Neighborhood Watch program, but was set up with the assistance of the Sanford Police Department. Zimmerman initiated the program, according to Wendy Dorival, the department's volunteer coordinator.

Frank Taaffe, a neighbor, told CNN that Zimmerman "had a passion for the safety of our neighborhood and he demonstrated to the rest of us that one person could make a difference. And he was an average guy, just like me." In a separate interview, Mr. Taaffe told the Washington Post, “George is a good dude. He cares about this community. He’s not a vigilante out looking for trouble."

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