The moment that George Zimmerman became unrecognizable to Leanne Benjamin, she says, came when the Florida man finally realized that there was a chance he could go to prison for killing Trayvon Martin.
But when the jury in Zimmerman’s murder trial asked for a clarification on the manslaughter charge a day before he was acquitted of all counts in July 2013, Benjamin, who testified on his behalf in the trial, said that something happened to her friend that day — a change that she still can’t explain almost 8½ years later.
“He snapped at that point,” Benjamin, 70, told The Washington Post. “He changed completely. He just was not the same person.”
A decade has passed since Zimmerman fatally shot Martin and claimed self-defense in a case that was among the first to set the stage for the nation’s racial reckoning — and that helped give birth to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Yet, since the former neighborhood watch volunteer was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter, Zimmerman, once described by GQ as “the most hated free man in America,” has stretched his 15 minutes of infamy into 10 years of reprehensible headlines: arrests for domestic violence allegations, retweeting a photo of the 17-year-old Martin’s dead body, reportedly selling the gun that killed the teen for $250,000.
Jay-Z namechecked him in a song after Zimmerman allegedly threatened to feed the hip-hop mogul to an alligator. Zimmerman — who once said he was punched in the face at a restaurant after telling diners that he killed Martin in self-defense — even got into online dating and painting, with art critics comparing his work to that of serial killer John Wayne Gacy and cult leader Charles Manson.
Zimmerman, 38, made headlines again this month when a judge dismissed the $100 million defamation and conspiracy lawsuit he filed against Martin’s parents and their book publisher, HarperCollins. While Zimmerman alleged that Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin smeared him as being racist, Judge John Cooper rejected Zimmerman’s claims, saying the Florida man failed to show “any fraudulent representation.”
“There can be no claim for conspiracy to defraud if there is no adequately stated claim for fraud,” the judge wrote.
When the lawsuit was filed in late 2019, Ben Crump, the family’s attorney, noted how Zimmerman “continues to display a callous disregard for everyone but himself, revictimizing individuals whose lives were shattered by his own misguided actions.”
“This tale defies all logic, and it’s time to close the door on these baseless imaginings,” Crump said in a statement at the time.
Zimmerman did not respond to multiple interview requests. Brother Robert Zimmerman Jr., who is George’s spokesman, defended his sibling in an emailed statement to The Post, saying his brother has been treated like “society’s whipping boy.”
“My brother is perhaps one of the most misunderstood people on the planet,” Zimmerman Jr. wrote.
Benjamin said that although she does not regret testifying on his behalf during the murder trial, she acknowledges that Zimmerman, whom she hasn’t spoken to in a few years, “probably always will be a divisive figure in this country because of what he did.”
“People had their doubts about him, but after he’s done all of this, all their doubts are gone,” she said. “People feel like they were right about George.”
It didn’t take long after his acquittal for Zimmerman to make news again. In 2013, he was accused in separate incidents of threatening or pointing a gun at his estranged wife and girlfriend, respectively, but the charges in both cases were dropped after the women recanted their accounts.
As his family was hoping he could parlay his infamy into a reality show — even as he claimed to be homeless — Zimmerman was involved in a September 2014 road-rage incident in which he threatened to kill Florida resident Matthew Apperson. Then, about eight months later, in May 2015, the two men were involved in another road-rage incident in Lake Mary, Fla., in which Apperson shot at Zimmerman as they were driving in their cars.
Apperson claimed self-defense, while Zimmerman, who had claimed self-defense in the fatal shooting of Martin, said the attack was unprovoked. Apperson was convicted of second-degree attempted murder in 2016 and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
The verdict shocked Michael Lafay, Apperson’s attorney, who told The Post that he still has a hard time wrapping his head around how “Mr. Zimmerman was the winner of both sides of Florida’s self-defense laws.” (Apperson, 42, is set to get a new trial.)
Around that time, Zimmerman turned to Twitter. In September 2015, he retweeted a photo of Martin’s slain body from a Twitter user who wrote, “Z-man is a one man army.” He later said in a statement that he “did not, and never will knowingly retweet a picture of a deceased body.”
Months later, he was banned from Twitter, a permanent suspension “for repeated violations of the Twitter Rules on private information” as a result of posting topless photos of a woman he claimed was an ex-girlfriend.
Benjamin noted that money has been an issue for Zimmerman in the past decade. In 2016, Zimmerman told Las Vegas TV station KTNV that he had sold the pistol used to kill Martin for $250,000 to an unspecified bidder. Zimmerman also found an unlikely cash flow stream by selling his artwork. After he sold his first painting of a blue American flag for $100,099.99 on eBay, Zimmerman was accused by Mediaite and other outlets of copying the image from a stock image taken off the website Shutterstock without attribution.
Christian Viveros-Fauné is among the art critics who have widely panned Zimmerman’s paintings as “murderabilia.” The former Village Voice art critic told The Post that there was “absolutely no value” in the “complete cack-handedness” of Zimmerman’s paintings, which Viveros-Fauné compared to pieces by Gacy and Manson.
“The value in his work is hate, which has a market in America,” Viveros-Fauné said. “Just don’t call it art.” The curator added, “There was that great Andy Warhol line — ‘In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.’ And Zimmerman is really trying to stretch his 15 minutes as much as he can.”
After he gave an interview on the fifth anniversary of Martin’s death to WeSearchr — a crowdfunding platform for the alt-right that’s listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a white nationalist hate group — Zimmerman was in the news so much that the Orlando Sentinel dubbed him “the cockroach that won’t go away.”
He looked to another form of social interaction to distract him during that time: dating apps. Zimmerman was quickly booted off Bumble and Tinder in 2018 and 2019, respectively, after users pointed out that he had accounts under the fake name of “Carter.”
Filmmakers Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason have not forgotten their own experience with Zimmerman. While filming the 2018 documentary series “Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story,” Zimmerman threatened Jay-Z, an executive producer on the project, and anyone else who approached him or his family during shooting, saying he would feed them “to an alligator.” Jay-Z seemingly responded to Zimmerman in his verse on the DJ Khaled song “Top Off,” in which the mogul references “Georgie Porgie.”
Zimmerman was charged with stalking a private investigator who contacted him about the docuseries, and he served 12 months of probation after pleading no contest. Nason said that she and the crew realized they were “getting in too deep with someone who is not well.”
“We just want to know what happened from his perspective,” Furst said. “Ultimately, what was revealed was a person who was still dangerous.”
Zimmerman — who most recently lived in Lakeland, Fla., according to public records — has indicated in court documents that he’s been subjected to death threats and has moved to protect himself. He’s also acknowledged that he’s had trouble finding employment. A speaking engagement at a gun and law conference in Boise, Idaho, was canceled last November after the hotel where the event was being held found out that Zimmerman was scheduled to appear.
Benjamin said that the years since she was a character witness for Zimmerman have not been easy. Her marriage fell apart, she said. The real estate agent has lost business in Lake Mary from people not wanting to work with someone who supported Zimmerman. But despite all the news Zimmerman has made for all the wrong reasons in the past decade, she still hasn’t given up hope that her old friend “can still do something good in his life.”
“I just keep moving forward. That’s all anybody can do,” she said. “I just wish George had done that.”