tampabay.com

Ex-DCF spokesman faces new charge

He was arrested on a federal child pornography production charge Monday.

By Melanie Ave and Justin George, Times Staff Writers
Published February 12, 2008


Authorities say he used an e-mail alias, Ed Guitterrez, to communicate with at least two teenage boys.

He gave one alcohol. He convinced them to let him take nude photos of them, and for them to take nude photos of themselves.

And when they agreed, he mailed them payments, sometimes hidden inside computer disc cases so parents would not be suspicious. He offered at least one of the boys $200 in exchange for oral sex.

He told them the photos would be sold in Germany.

On Monday, Al Zimmerman, 40, a former spokesman for the Department of Children and Families, was arrested on a federal child pornography production charge at his parents' home in Lakeland, his second arrest in about a week. He's being held in the Hillsborough County Jail.

The federal criminal complaint reveals more details about how authorities think Zimmerman victimized at least two teenagers - and possibly more - over several months' time.

Zimmerman paid two teenage boys money to pose nude and masturbate for photographs between 2006 and 2007, authorities say.

They say he took some of the photos on a Canon camera; others were sent to Zimmerman by the teens on his cell phone. Zimmerman met one of the boys, a foster child, through his job.

At a first appearance hearing in the Tampa federal courthouse Monday, assistant U.S. Attorney Colleen Murphy-Davis argued that Zimmerman should not be released on bail, calling him a community danger.

She said Zimmerman was so obsessed with talking to underage boys that he used his work computer to constantly ask them to send him pornography that he could sell.

In one message dated June 29, 2007, authorities say he wrote one of the teens: "If you can get a hold of a camera that you can use regularly whether it's a cell phone cam or regular digital, I could sell a few pics here and there every month and make you 100 to 200 a month in cash, or 50-80 depending on if they're just shirtless or naked."

But Zimmerman's attorney, Brian Albritton of Tampa, asked Judge Mark A. Pizzo to delay a bond hearing. He said he wanted Zimmerman's parents to be present so they can testify that their son won't skip bail if he's granted a release. His parents have already put up their house as collateral for $120,000 bail after he was released from the Hillsborough County Jail on Feb. 2, he said. He returned to the jail Monday.

Zimmerman, formerly of Tallahassee, had been living with his parents in his hometown of Lakeland until he was picked up Monday on the federal charge.

The judge agreed with Zimmerman's attorney and scheduled the bond hearing for 1:30 p.m. today. Federal marshals took custody of Zimmerman in the meantime, leading him out of the courtroom Monday evening in leg shackles.

Monday's charges are the newest in the case against Zimmerman, a friendly and respected press secretary whose Feb. 1 arrest on eight state child pornography shocked DCF officials, reporters who worked with him and longtime friends.

Zimmerman, a former television journalist who earned $75,000 as a DCF spokesman, previously worked as a reporter at Bay News 9, KENS-TV in San Antonio and WMAZ-TV in Macon, Ga.

DCF spokeswoman Erin Geraghty described Zimmerman's actions as "a betrayal of trust" and said the agency would continue to cooperate with the investigation.

If convicted of the federal charge, Zimmerman could get a mandatory minimum prison sentence of 15 years. He could get up to 120 years if convicted of the eight state charges. The federal case will be prosecuted before the state case, Murphy-Davis said.

Zimmerman has worked with the DCF since 2005, first as spokesman for the department's District 13, which includes Citrus and Hernando counties, and then as a spokesman in Tallahassee for the entire state agency.

When authorities recently arrived at Zimmerman's Tallahassee home with a search warrant, they found a DCF computer technician, Michael Hernandez, in his driveway, the complaint states.

Hernandez told investigators that he had thrown Zimmerman's home computer in a Dumpster at Zimmerman's request. Hernandez also told them two days earlier he had "wiped" and reformatted Zimmerman's laptop computer at his co-worker's request.

The complaint says Zimmerman admitted he was "involved in a pornography business." He told investigators the first victim showed him identification stating he was 18 years old, but Zimmerman said he suspected the card was a fake. The complaint says he also told investigators he knew the second victim, who was in foster care and was a runaway at one time, was 17 years old.

Melanie Ave can be reached at 727 893-8813 or mave@sptimes.com.