The Miami Herald

Air marshal took Zimmerman in after shooting

In the height of the national outcry over the shooting of Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman hid out for over a month in nearby Lake Mary at the home of a man prosecutors say is federal law-enforcement agent — a former Seminole County Sheriff’s deputy who was pressured to quit after he was duped by a con artist.

He was the friend who taught Zimmerman how to shoot and hosted his graduation party. As lesser acquaintances granted television interview after television interview, Mark Osterman never showed his face even as he offered shelter to a friend in need just when he had become one of the most controversial people in America.

In the summary of the friend’s interview with the FBI and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement released Thursday by the Duval County state attorney, the name and occupation of the friend is blacked out. But one memo in the 300 pages identifies him as an air marshal, and the interview he gave provides enough detail about the relationship to reasonably confirm his identity.

He told authorities that his wife presided over Zimmerman’s wedding. Zimmerman’s marriage certificate lists Sondra Osterman as the person who presided over the ceremony. Sondra Osterman’s Facebook profile shows she’s married to Mark, who posted that he travels for a living and works for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Among his Facebook likes: “Support George Zimmerman.”

Reached Friday morning by The Miami Herald, Osterman declined to be interviewed. “No thanks,” he said, before hanging up.

Osterman, 44, met Zimmerman around 2006, through his wife, Sondra, who worked with Zimmerman at a mortgage-services company. Zimmerman was a loan originator, Sondra Osterman a loan processor. They later worked together at a different company, Digital Risk.

In his interview with the FBI and FDLE, Mark Osterman said he visited Zimmerman’s house some 50 times. The two men went shooting together about once a month.

“He described Zimmerman as a person of strong character, but not very street wise,” the report states. “He has never known Zimmerman to be in a fist fight. Zimmerman stays in casual contact with a lot of people, but is not known to have any other close friends.”

They became such friends that Osterman hosted a graduation party for Zimmerman when he said he completed his associate’s degree in criminal justice at Seminole State College. Osterman, the report notes, “did not see the diploma.”

Zimmerman was actually just a course or two shy from graduating, and was expelled from the college when the shooting scandal exploded.

Osterman was among the people agents interviewed in a quest to determine whether Zimmerman showed any racist tendencies. Like the other co-workers, neighbors and old flames the agents questioned, Osterman said Zimmerman did not ever associate with racists. Zimmerman, he added, also never did drugs.

An air marshal’s role in the former neighborhood watch volunteer’s life could become significant as the case progresses: Osterman is the one Zimmerman’s wife Shellie first called for help the night he shot unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin. Osterman went to the crime scene with her, but said he did not speak “in depth” with either Zimmerman or the officers.

The record shows Osterman also accompanied Zimmerman for a video walk-through of the shooting scene with police, and went to his third interview with Sanford Det. Chris Serino. In a police surveillance camera video shot three days after the killing, Osterman can be seen standing in the police lobby and going up the stairs.

“During his conversations with Zimmerman, Zimmerman never asked… what not to say during his interviews with the police,” the interview summary said. Osterman “stated Zimmerman did not understand the process and his only advice to Zimmerman was to tell the truth.”

In his FBI statement, Serino said Zimmerman sounded “scripted.”

From the start, lawyers representing Trayvon’s family questioned whether Zimmerman had help from some outside law enforcement influence. Some suspected it was his dad, a retired Virginia magistrate. Others accused Seminole State Attorney Norm Wolfinger of pulling strings to keep him out of jail.

Trayvon’s family lawyer, Natalie Jackson, raised the question Thursday whether Osterman was friends with former Sanford police chief Bill Lee, who spent 30 years at the Seminole County Sheriff’s department and trained many deputies at the academy.

Osterman was a Seminole County Sheriff’s Deputy assigned to patrol and a school resource officer for six years.

He lost that job in 1998, when he and another colleague were fooled by con man Juan Diaz, who told the two cops that he was a second baseman for the New York Yankees and needed bodyguards. Diaz drove an expensive sports car, went to strip clubs and flashed money around — with the two officers in tow, according to 1998 news reports.

But Diaz was later revealed to be a fraud, and was arrested for writing a phony check for a $38,000 Ford Expedition he bought, the Orlando Sentinel reported at the time. Because the two officers never got permission to work an off-duty security detail, the sheriff fired them. “The guy was very wealthy. He had a hundred-thousand-dollar sports car. I had no reason not to believe that he wasn’t who he said he was,” the Orlando Sentinel quoted Osterman as saying at the time, from transcripts of his hearing. “I started to realize that this guy wasn’t all that he said he was. I started going to baseball card shops.... I really know nothing about baseball. I’m not a big baseball fan, but no one knew who a Juan Diaz was.’’

Osterman grew suspicious when he caught Diaz in little lies and when Diaz often didn’t have money to pick up tabs.

“He lied about everything,’’ Osterman said at the hearing.

According to the Sentinel, the officers figured out the check for the Ford was worthless but instead of reporting the car stolen, they hit the dealer up for a friend to get a finder’s fee for the vehicle’s return.

The newspaper reported that they appealed their dismissal and eventually resigned.

An online police database shows the former Army veteran later went to the Volusia County Beach Patrol. Osterman’s Facebook profile says he has worked for the Department of Homeland Security since 2001. On Facebook, Osterman describes his job as “lots of shooting and traveling.” Air marshals travel incognito, ready to act when flights are hijacked.

Citing the “covert nature” of the jobs, the Transportation Security Administration would not confirm his employment.

“Due to the covert nature of their mission, TSA does not confirm the identity of Federal Air Marshals,” spokeswoman Sari Koshetz wrote to The Herald.

Osterman graduated from Daytona Beach Community College in 1992, according to his Facebook profile. His wife expressed public Facebook support for former Sanford Police Chief Lee, who was fired in his role in the shooting investigation.

Zimmerman shot Trayvon, an unarmed Miami Gardens teenager, and told police the youth attacked him. In the days after the shooting, then-chief Lee said the injuries and evidence supported Zimmerman’s claims of self defense, but the outcry that ensued cost Lee his job. The investigation was yanked from his department, and the FDLE and FBI took over the case.

After the shooting, Zimmerman fled his home because of death threats and organizations like the New Black Panther Party, which put a bounty on his head. As tempers flared nationwide, Zimmerman hid at Osterman’s home for as long as six weeks before he left the state, according to Osterman’s interview with the FBI and the FDLE.

Six weeks after the Feb. 26 killing, Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder.

On April 26, agents paid Osterman a visit.

The FBI and FDLE record shows the agents asked Osterman if he knew whether Zimmerman had researched Angela Corey, the special prosecutor assigned to investigate him. Osterman said he did not know.

Osterman described Zimmerman as frugal and organized. He detailed Zimmerman’s account of the attack he said he endured from Trayvon that led to the shooting, and offered glimpses of his friend’s personal life. He told authorities that Zimmerman’s mother was strict and hit him “all the time” when he was a child, while the father largely ignored the abuse. The family had been estranged just prior to the shooting, he said.

“Zimmerman is frustrated with the New Black Panther Party and is very scared of them,” the FBI-FDLE report said. “Zimmerman is very concerned with all the negative reaction from the press and others and wants more evidence released to show what really happened.”




© 2012 Miami Herald Media Company. All Rights Reserved.
http://www.miamiherald.com