SANFORD, Florida (Reuters) - 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 mistreatment.
“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 rights activists.
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 February 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 unclear.
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 investigation.
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 Sanford.
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 releasing 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 this?’”
“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 to tears.
“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 voice analysts.
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 chief.
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 said.
On Monday, the Reverends Sharpton and Jesse Jackson led another protest march in Sanford before a rancorous city commission meeting.
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 importance.”
He is tired, he said, and hoping to return to his bank job next week.
Additional reporting Daniel Trotta; Editing By Colleen Jenkins