| SANFORD, Florida, March 29
SANFORD, Florida, March 29 Banker Jeff Triplett
became the part-time mayor of Sanford, Florida, last year. He
wanted to improve transportation and attract jobs to the quaint
city of brick streets and lakefront views.
Now, he is confronted by any mayor's nightmare: the shooting
death of a black teenager under vague circumstances, accusations
that someone who volunteered to protect lives unjustifiably took
one and questions about the police investigation.
The white mayor, who is a senior vice president at United
Legacy Bank, is governing a town of about 54,000, 30 percent of
whom are black and have long complained bitterly about police
"I ran for office to make a better Sanford. And this comes
on your plate, and it's just amazing," 43-year-old Triplett told
Reuters in an interview.
"The decisions I'm trying to make, I could be not only held
accountable for them from the city side but from the nation and
the world that's watching right now."
The death of Trayvon Martin has drawn international
attention, spurred protests in American cities and prompted a
federal review. Triplett has been booed off a stage, defended by
black community leaders, and lectured on racial justice by civil
A slender, fair man from southwest Missouri, the mayor was
in Tampa, Florida, with his family for his 11-year-old son's
football game on March 10 when Sanford City Manager Norton
Bonaparte Jr. called to say a shooting that had occurred 13 days
earlier in their town was in the news.
Media around the world told the story of how 17-year-old
Martin had walked to a convenience store on the night of Feb. 26
to buy candy and iced tea.
On his way to his father's girlfriend's home, Martin was
spotted by a half-white, half-Hispanic watch captain patrolling
the neighborhood. George Zimmerman called police to report a
"suspicious" person. Before police arrived, 28-year-old
Zimmerman had shot and killed Martin in an incident that remains
Sanford police questioned Zimmerman and set him free after
he claimed self-defense.
Triplett said he and Bonaparte became "joined at the hip" at
City Hall trying to ascertain the facts surrounding Martin's
death and look into accusations about police conduct.
"My question immediately was the same as everybody else's,"
Triplett said. "How is there somebody that has been killed, and
we can't make an arrest or we didn't make an arrest?"
Triplett had difficulty getting a handle on the case.
Information would be relayed only to be corrected, he said, and
police were generally reluctant to reveal too much about the
Pressure on the mayor's office mounted as people around the
world signed petitions demanding Zimmerman's arrest. Triplett
fielded calls from reporters and prepared for protest marches in
He agreed to appear at a March 14 rally led by Baltimore
evangelist Jamal Bryant. It proved a turning point for him.
"I walked in, and that's when it all really and truly hit me
smack in the face. There were 500 people in there. There were
people outside. There were news cameras and reporters from all
over the nation," Triplett said.
The mayor, who typically spent 10 hours a week on his
official duties before the shooting, went to his supervisors at
the bank and said he would take a leave of absence to focus
on the city.
By now, Martin's family was asking Triplett to release the
audio of a call that Zimmerman made to police on the night of
the shooting and 911 calls from neighbors who heard the
confrontation. Police, prosecutors and the city attorney opposed
rel e asing the calls because of the investigation, Triplett said.
"Everyone was saying to me, no, no, no, don't turn them
over," he said. "I just continually asked, 'Why wouldn't we do
"I made that call to try to settle everything down a little
bit, to let the family hear what transpired. We were being
accused of a lot of things, or the police department was, so we
can take the step to say, 'We're not here to hide anything.'"
On March 16, Triplett invited Martin's family to his office
at City Hall to listen to the calls. Natalie Jackson, an Orlando
civil rights lawyer, told Reuters that she was there with
Martin's parents, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton; his
21-year-old brother Jahvaris Fulton; two family representatives;
and the city manager.
Triplett played the calls on his office computer. Someone
was heard crying for help. Martin's mother wept and ran from the
room, convinced it was her son, Jackson said. Everyone was moved
"It was very emotional," Triplett recalled. "Obviously when
you hear something like that, there couldn't be anything worse
for a family member or a parent ... and to hear your own son,
what transpired at the last second."
Neighbors who heard the confrontation have differed on
whether the cries for help were from Zimmerman or Martin.
Special Prosecutor Angela Corey, appointed by Florida to
investigate the case, said she would have the audio reviewed by
The mayor played all eight calls. Jackson said he seemed
changed after hearing them.
"That was when I saw the courage of the mayor," she said. "I
saw his humanity. He and the city manager were shaken up. That's
when the mayor decided everyone was getting the tapes, and he
distributed the disks to the media."
Not everyone approved of Triplett's actions. Sanford City
Commissioner Patty Mahany said she thought he meant well, but
that he had drawn more attention to the case and the calls could
influence jurors in any trial.
"I think it stirred up a lot of anger in very well-meaning
people who still don't have the whole story," Mahany said.
Mahany and the mayor also found themselves on opposite sides
in a March 21 City Commission "no confidence" vote over
Sanford's Police Chief Bill Lee. Triplett was one of three on
the five-person panel who voted "no confidence" in the police
Triplett said the issue for him was not the investigation of
the shooting, but Chief Lee's handling of the crisis that
followed. Lee has temporarily stepped down.
On March 23, the Rev. Al Sharpton led a rally of about
10,000 people in a downtown Sanford park. Triplett, invited to
speak on behalf of the city, was booed off the stage.
Congresswoman Corrine Brown told the crowd that Triplett had
embraced the Justice Department's investigation of the shooting
and called him back on stage. He was applauded.
"She totally took that crowd in a different direction. I
called her the next day and couldn't thank her enough," Triplett
On Monday, the Reverends Sharpton and Jesse Jackson led
another protest march in Sanford before a rancorous city
Speaker after speaker criticized the mayor, the City
Commission and the city manager for failing to put more pressure
on the police department. Many people said the city's leaders
lacked the courage to stand up to law enforcement.
Triplett sat stone-faced, politely dispatching the speakers
after their time at the podium was up.
A few days later, Triplett said he feels changed and jaded
by the Trayvon Martin case.
"I've had several people say one thing to my face and then
say another thing in public," Triplett said. "I never thought it
would be Jeff Triplett sitting in the middle of an issue of such
He is tired, he said, and hoping to return to his bank job