Like many communities in Florida, Twin Lakes had been hit hard by the foreclosure crisis. In a well-reported, and well-worth-your-time article, Tampa Bay Times reporter Lane DeGregory calls Retreat at Twin Lakes “a classic Florida story”:
Developers saw potential in the sandy acres east of Orlando and determined to turn them into an oasis. They planned a gated subdivision just 10 minutes from downtown — a cloistered community near the interstate, close to good schools, outlet malls and the magic of Disney World.
The idea, as always, was that people could live peacefully in a paradise where nobody could park a car on the street or paint the house an odd color.
Per DeGregory’s reporting, the cost of a 1,400 square-foot Twin Lakes townhome has fallen from $250,000 to below $100,000; 40 homes are empty in the community and half are inhabited by renters (George Zimmerman and Brandy Green, Martin’s father’s fiancé, among them). Indeed, Retreat at Twin Lakes homes are easy to find in foreclosure and real estate listings.
A number of Retreat at Twin Lakes residents interviewed in Trayvon Martin coverage have called their community ‘safe’ and ‘family-oriented.’ According to DeGregory, Trayvon Martin was known by many of the young people at Retreat at Twin Lakes because he played football with them when he visited.
But similar to the ‘eyes on the street’ effect Jane Jacobs outlined in The Death and Life of American Cities, the effects of the foreclosure crisis—empty houses and high turnover in community—seems to have unsettled some Retreat at Twin Lakes residents and fostered a culture of petty theft and suspicion. During the summer of 2011, there was a string of burglaries in which laptops, PlayStations, bikes, a car, and jewlery were stolen from homes at Retreat at Twin Lakes. Mother Jones has posted some of the related incident reports, and they have been reported in coverage by the Tampa Bay Times, The Miami Herald, and the Daily Beast, which highlighted the following:
Last July a rental car was stolen from one townhome along with the car keys, which were inside on a dining room table. The resident awoke in the morning to discover her sliding glass door open. The car was eventually found abandoned. In August a PlayStation and videogames were stolen from another townhome. In September someone vandalized a townhome under construction. In December someone broke into a foreclosed townhome, stopped up a toilet and started the water running….
Three weeks before Martin’s death another Twin Lakes resident arrived home to discover a kitchen window open and a laptop and gold necklaces missing.
These incidents alarmed residents and strained relations between them. Robles’s article includes this telling line:
Problems in the 6-year-old community started during the recession, when foreclosures forced owners to rent out to “low-lifes and gangsters,” said Frank Taaffe, a former neighborhood block captain.
Much of the suspicion was directed at teenagers in the community, as DeGregory reports. Zimmerman, meanwhile, had a long record of calling 911—reporting pot holes, open garage doors, and anything suspicious—but DeGregory reports these summer incidents coincide with the period in which Zimmerman’s calls became more notably more concerned with ‘suspicious’ black males.
Zimmerman was not the only Retreat at Twin Lakes resident concerned about growing crime in the gated community. Per DeGregory: “In September, the Sanford police helped the Retreat start a neighborhood watch program. ‘Some residents called me wanting to do a startup,’ said Dorival, a civilian police employee. About 30 people came to the clubhouse for that first session, she said. ‘Everyone was enthusiastic.’ Zimmerman volunteered to be captain.”
Some stories have reported with a suggestion of illegitimacy that the Twin Lakes neighborhood watch group was not of the 25,000 registered with the National Sheriff’s Association. But while that is true, it is very clear the chapter had support and basic instruction provided by the Sanford Police Department.
Dorival has described to a number of outlets how she briefed neighborhood watch members at Retreat at Twin Lakes that evening. Per The New York Times:
She then gave a PowerPoint presentation and distributed a handbook. As she always does, she emphasized what a neighborhood watch is — and what it is not.
In every presentation, “I go through what the rules and responsibilities are,” she said Thursday. The volunteers’ role, she said, is “being the eyes and ears” for the police, “not the vigilante.” Members of a neighborhood watch “are not supposed to confront anyone,” she said. “We get paid to get into harm’s way. You don’t do that. You just call them from the safety of your home or your vehicle.”
Using a gun in the neighborhood watch role would be out of the question, she said in an interview.