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Tampa police say the media spokesman may have sexually abused others.
By MELANIE AVE and DONG-PHUONG NGUYEN, Times Staff Writers
Published February 5, 2008
The former spokesman for the Florida Department of Children and Families, now facing child pornography charges, met one of his two male teenage victims through his job, the agency's leader confirmed Monday.
The victim, who was 16 or 17 at the time of the crimes, was in the custody of the DCF when he met Al Zimmerman, who was fired upon his arrest Friday on eight charges of using a child in a sexual performance, DCF Secretary Bob Butterworth said during an afternoon news conference.
"There are indications," Butterworth said, "at least one victim he met through his job."
Butterworth declined to say anything further about the victim, who likely came into the state's supervision after an abuse or neglect complaint was lodged against a parent or guardian.
It's unclear how he met the other teenager.
Authorities suspect Zimmerman - a highly lauded public information officer and former television journalist - was distributing the photographs he took of the two teenagers posing naked and masturbating. His arrest report says he offered the victims money for the photos.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation seized Zimmerman's home and work computers.
The teenagers, now ages 17 and 18, were 16 and 17 when the crimes happened between December 2005 and Friday. Authorities say Zimmerman admitted the offenses.
Also on Monday, Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said Zimmerman, 40, may have victimized more children, based on interviews with witnesses and victims, one of whom contacted the police last week.
"We believe there are victims that may be embarrassed to come forward because of the sensitive nature of their case," McElroy said. "We want to reassure them that their identity will be protected."
Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey said the investigation by his agency, the attorney general and the FBI continues, but he added, at this point, authorities are aware of only two victims.
News of Zimmerman's arrest continues to reverberate across the state, from the top of the DCF to the ranks of reporters who he dealt with daily for stories about the agency. Butterworth said he had no indication his colleague was capable of such offenses.
Zimmerman, who is affable and outgoing, was first hired by the DCF as its spokesman in Citrus, Hernando, Marion, Lake and Sumter counties. He was promoted to the more visible statewide job in Tallahassee after positive evaluations and accolades from reporters and others.
Butterworth said he will not allow "the criminal acts of this one individual" to compromise the integrity of the department.
"We are moving forward and doing great things each and every day to protect the people of this state," Butterworth said.
Butterworth also expressed dismay that Zimmerman's criminal record did not come to light through the hiring process until the child pornography case surfaced. Even though his prior arrests for writing bad checks and driving under the influence may not have kept him from the job, he said they should have been checked out thoroughly.
Zimmerman was hired by the state in 2005, before the November 2006 policy of seeking fingerprints from all new employees not just those who care for children.
Records show an outstanding Texas warrant exists for Zimmerman for bad checks.
In 2003, Zimmerman was arrested in Tampa on charges of writing bad checks, but the charges were dropped after he paid $433.59 in fines. Another check charge in Texas from 1998 was dismissed. In 1993, he was convicted of driving under the influence in Georgia.
Because of the arrests discovered in Zimmerman's background, Butterworth said the DCF will review all the files of its 13,500 employees hired before the fingerprinting policy was changed to make sure their records are clear.
Zimmerman was released from a Hillsborough County jail on Saturday on $120,000 bail. If convicted of all eight charges, he could get 120 years in prison.
Efforts to reach Zimmerman at his parents' home in a gated Lakeland community were unsuccessful. A reporter's call to their home was not returned.
In related news Monday, an assistant statewide prosecutor asked a Hillsborough judge to revoke Zimmerman's bail. But Circuit Judge Walter Heinrich said the Attorney General's Office must first file a written motion and notify Zimmerman and his attorney.
Monday evening, a spokeswoman for the Attorney General's Office said prosecutors had not yet decided whether to seek a bail rehearing.
McElroy said any teenager who had contact with Zimmerman in any way should contact the Police Department at 813 231-6130.
Times staff writer Colleen Jenkins contributed to this report. Melanie Ave can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8813.
[Last modified February 4, 2008, 23:13:09]