Al Zimmerman was the face of the Florida state agency that protects endangered and abused kids. Now Zimmerman, a former television newsman, stands charged with eight counts of offering two teenage boys money to take pictures of themselves while masturbating.
Zimmerman, 40, was fired from his post as spokesman for the state's Department of Children and Families after his arrest in Tampa Bay on Feb. 1. Police say the boys from Tampa and Central Florida were 16 and 17, and they believe the alleged abuse might be more widespread.
"We believe there are additional victims," says Laura McElroy, spokeswoman for the Tampa Police Department. "There are probably victims who are embarrassed to come forward, but we want to reassure them that their identities will be protected."
Although Zimmerman's job did not typically put him in contact with youths, one of the boys in the case was under the department's jurisdiction.
The arrest of Zimmerman—who is described by acquaintances as "jovial" and "a guy's guy"—is the latest setback for the Florida agency, which has been criticized for incompetence and possible corruption.
Incidents in Zimmerman's past are emerging, creating the image of a man with legal troubles for writing bad checks and running up thousands of dollars in unpaid debts. As a TV reporter he was said to have committed a serious ethical breach. Nothing in his past suggests any evidence of abuse or misconduct with juveniles. Zimmerman was released the day after his arrest from the Hillsborough County Jail on $120,000 bail. Although the arrest report states that Zimmerman admitted the charges, he has not issued a plea.
Police say the arrest came after a telephone tip from one of the boys involved in the case. The case—and possible other cases—are being investigated by the state attorney general's cybercrime unit, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the FBI, in addition to the Tampa Police Department.
According to the Tampa Police Department report, Zimmerman paid the boys to photograph themselves while masturbating, and intended to publish the photos and resell them as pornography.
The Florida Department of Children and Families came under scrutiny in 2002, when a Miami investigator was discovered lying about visiting the foster parents of four-year-old Rilya Wilson—a girl who had actually been missing for a year. She has never been found. The department has also endured investigation that showed corruption in financial dealings.
Robert Butterworth, now the head of the department, said Zimmerman's alleged actions amount to "a betrayal of trust to this department, its employees and the people we serve." He also said he was disturbed by the lack of some information in Zimmerman's personnel file. The file does not contain an application for employment or a fingerprint card. The department says it learned of Zimmerman's arrests for writing bad checks—in 1998 and 2000 in Texas and in 2003 in Tampa—only after his recent arrest. He still has an outstanding warrant against him in Texas for the 2000 incident, but the other charges were dropped after he paid fines. Florida civil court records show that he has being chased by creditors for more than $14,000 in defaulted bank and car loans dating as far back as 1993. Ford Motor Credit has unsuccessfully attempted to garnish his wages and continues to have a lien against him for more than $10,500.
Andrea Moore, the executive director of Florida's Children First, an advocate group, said she did not fault the agency for its hiring of Zimmerman. "People like this are very charming and deceptive," she said. "I have met him. There was just nothing that would lead you to suspect him for this kind of behavior."
Moore said that the emerging reports of Zimmerman's history of writing bad checks and his credit problems would not lead to any suspicion that he could be a child pornographer. "It's a huge leap from financial irresponsibility to being a sexual predator," she said.
She added that the department has improved significantly under the watch of Butterworth and Gov. Charlie Crist. "They have made huge progress, and it's important that this not set their progress back."
Zimmerman was a television reporter for more than 10 years in Tampa, Texas and Georgia. His former landlord in Tampa, Roger Hall, said he saw teenagers around Zimmerman's apartment—especially one Zimmerman introduced as his son, an illegitimate child he told Hall he didn't know he had until he moved back to Florida. "He said he was trying to get to know his son," Hall said. (Tampa police say they have no knowledge of Zimmerman having a son.)
Hall and other acquaintances described Zimmerman as jocular and likable. Cody Marcum, who worked with Zimmerman at KENS in Texas in 1996, told the Tampa Tribune that he was shocked by the charges. "If you ever met him, you would be his best buddy in five minutes," Marcum said. "He was always a guy's guy. But a long friendship does not excuse any of this."
At KENS, Zimmerman delivered a report titled "Perverts in the Park," a segment that talked about men meeting for sex in a public restroom. The report drew complaints when it aired graphic images. At the time, Zimmerman said the images were supposed to have been blurred, and blamed a technical malfunction for failing to obscure the photographs.
Zimmerman earlier worked at WMAZ-TV in Macon, Ga., where he delivered several reports about a scandal involving a police chief in a nearby town. Liz Fabian, a fellow reporter, said she received a call from Jackie Johnson, the wife of the police chief, who told her that Zimmerman had asked her for a $3,000 loan.
"I would describe him as very friendly, easygoing; people liked him," Fabian said. "As for his reporting, I saw some ethical issues."
Johnson told the Tampa Tribune that her son had recently signed with a pro baseball team and had secured a bonus. She said that when Zimmerman asked for the loan, "I got real suspicious."
Records show that in 1998 Zimmerman and his brother bought a Web site domain called "boxersorbriefs.com." A site by this name features a list of male celebrities and the kind of underwear they favor. It is unclear whether the site was ever activated.
Zimmerman started working for the Department of Children and Families in 2005, before the agency began requiring criminal background checks on all employees. He used then-Attorney General Crist as a reference. Crist's office says it doesn't recall Crist's being asked to give Zimmerman a reference and says the Department of Children and Family Services never called Crist.
Zimmerman first served as regional spokesman for Citrus, Hernando, Marion, Lake and Sumter Counties. Good reviews from peers and reporters helped him win his $75,000-a-year statewide job in October 2006.