SANFORD – In his waning days as Sanford police chief, Bill Lee received blistering emails with every curse word imaginable, criticizing him for not immediately arresting George Zimmerman for fatally shooting 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
Emails obtained by The Associated Press show he also got requests for media interviews from as far away as Qatar’s Al Jazeera network and letters of support from other law enforcement officers nationwide. Emails from the scholarly website, racismreview.com, and the media monitoring site, TVEyes, started showing up in his inbox even though he hadn’t subscribed to them.
“The truth will come out later,” Lee wrote in an email to a supporter.
Martin’s Feb. 26 death in a gated community in the Orlando suburb of Sanford first drew national attention on March 8, the day his relatives held their first news conference to draw attention that Zimmerman hadn’t been arrested. Zimmerman wouldn’t be charged with second-degree murder until 44 days after the shooting. During that time, protesters around the nation demanded Zimmerman’s arrest, and the Sanford Police Department was accused of racism and incompetence.
Zimmerman, 28, pleaded not guilty and was released on a $1 million bond while he awaits trial. He is claiming self-defense.
The emails to Lee on that first day of national attention started off forceful but polite.
“When are you going to make an arrest for this crime of murder of a 17-year-old who was armed with Skittles and a can of iced tea?” Mark Anderson wrote from Chicago.
Lee responded with a form letter he used repeatedly, saying his department was conducting a thorough investigation.
The chief was aware that interest in the case was growing by the minute so he sent an email to Sanford’s mayor and city manager soon afterward, stating that some of the evidence corroborated Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense. He had assured Martin’s family that a thorough investigation was being conducted and that the State Attorney’s Office supported the decision not to arrest Zimmerman immediately, he wrote in the email to his bosses.
By that evening, the emails from around the nation were getting heated and vulgar.
“WTF are you waiting for?” said one email from a person only identified as Jerry. “C’mon man, grow a —— pair and do the right thing!”
The AP obtained the emails through a public records request. The emails cover five nonconsecutive days from March 8 to when Lee took a leave of absence from his $102,000-a-year job on March 22, a day after he had received a vote of no confidence from Sanford city commissioners. He was fired in June after less than a year on the job. Before taking the position, he had been a sheriff’s deputy for 27 years.
Lee, 52, refused a request for an interview. His spokeswoman, Sara Brady, said he has been enjoying time with his family.
The emails to Lee streamed in from around the country, portraying Sanford as a small, racist Southern town, akin to Maycomb, Ala., from Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” with a redneck Barney Fife-like chief running its police department. In fact, Sanford is an Orlando suburb with a gentrified downtown of coffee shops, art galleries and cafes. Lee has a master’s degree in public administration and has received training from the FBI.
The emails urged Lee to resign and asked how he could sleep at night. A few recommended he commit suicide and one called Lee the worst person on earth.
Tammi Cubilette, assistant director of instructional support services at the Columbia University School of Social Work in New York wrote “Where’s your buddy George Zimmerman? Maybe the two of you can play Stand Your Ground with each other and the world will be a little less scummier!”
Cubilette, in a telephone interview on Wednesday, said she stood by her email but realizes information that has since been released shows there were Sanford police detectives who doubted Zimmerman’s story and that the investigation was more thorough than initially thought.
Lee feels validated by evidence that has been released since Zimmerman’s arrest showing detectives took investigative steps that they had been accused of ignoring, Brady said.
Lee also had his supporters, particularly among law enforcement officers.
“Hang in there!!! Trial by fire makes for good police chiefs!” Richard Beary, the chief of the University of Central Florida’s police force wrote.
By mid-March, as the fury was building, Lee sent out an email to his officers, warning them to take precautions when responding to calls given that emotions were running high. He also defended his department’s actions.
“Be courteous and professional when members of the community may voice their position and disdain for the police department,” he wrote. “The investigation of this incident was complete and unbiased. There is no reason for anyone in the police department to feel we have done anything but a professional job in providing police service and trying to rebuild the trust of the community.”