When two young white men were fatally shot in Jacksonville, Fla., on Sunday, the news immediately set off rumors that their deaths were connected to anger over the verdict in the George Zimmerman case.
Rumors of a Florida black-on-white fatal shooting fueled by a "Free Zimmerman" bumper sticker quickly began to spread around the internet.
InfoWars: "Brothers Murdered Over 'Free Zimmerman' Sticker?"
Top Conservative News: "Thugs slaughter two brothers in Jacksonville in busy parking lot."
The Examiner: "Police say double murder is not related to 'Free Zimmerman' bumper sticker."
There's just one problem: There never was a Zimmerman sticker.
What really happened? Why has the tragic death of these two brothers become a rallying point for conservatives?
At 9:20 p.m. on Sunday night, the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office (JSO) tweeted that they were investigating a shooting at a Golden Corral on the city's west side. One of the restaurant's employees allegedly witnessed an altercation shortly before 9 p.m., heard gunfire, and phoned the authorities. JSO spokeswoman Melissa Bujeda confirmed Sunday that one man was dead when they arrived on the scene and his brother died later after being transported to the hospital. The initial coverage of the shootings failed to mention that, according to Bujeda, witnesses had identified the suspects fleeing the scene as young black men, although they did report that police believed the suspects and the victims were "acquaintances."
Soon after the police identified the victims as Matthew and Andrew Bohannon on Monday, the brothers' friends began tweeting that the brothers died in a race-related retaliation shooting over the George Zimmerman verdict.
Many claimed that the Bohannons' car had a "Free George Zimmerman" or "Free Zimmerman" bumper sticker on it.
The rumors reached such a level that the sheriff's office issued a statement denying that there was a connection between the shooting and the Zimmerman verdict:
We have had numerous inquiries, blog comments, and Facebook postings about the relationship between the Normandy double homicide last night in the Golden Corral parking lot and the outcome of the George Zimmerman trial. We are confident to say where we are in the investigation that this is not the case at all. There is NO link at all between these cases, nor did we ever suspect one.
Even as they denied a connection between the Zimmerman verdict, the JSO declined to answer questions about the existence of the elusive "Free Zimmerman" bumper sticker.
The JSO consistently refused to comment on the existence of a Zimmerman sticker. "It's an ongoing investigation, we don't discuss ongoing investigations," a spokeswoman for the sheriff's office told BuzzFeed. Across social media platforms, the office repeated the same message, fueling speculation and skepticism among commentators.
"They DID have the sticker and that IS y they got killed... i am friends with the family and it was an arguement [sic] that got out of control... the blacks in the car got mad and shot my friends," Jeff Smith wrote in response to the JSO's Facebook post.
"This is BS. this was a racial killing. Just not the right color. Ok. We are not stupid JSO," Jane McBee agreed.
"Why can't the news and JSO admit the truth about what the boys were murdered for the sticker on their vehicle 'Free Zimmerman'…why the big coverup. This deserves media coverage just like Trevon [sic] received," Cyndi Starling wrote in response to a story about the search for the suspects.
The sheriff's denial did little to stop rumors that there was a connection to the Zimmerman verdict, and by Tuesday, the right-wing blog Infowars had picked up on the story.
Brothers Murdered Over 'Free Zimmerman' Sticker?
Jacksonville Sheriff's Office accused of covering up hate crime
The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office is facing accusations that it covered up a hate crime by denying that the murder of two brothers in a parking lot on Sunday night was related to the Trayvon Martin case, despite the fact that a sticker was placed on the brother's truck which read "Free Zimmerman"...
If the shooting was directly related to the Zimmerman verdict, the JSO could have decided to downplay the connection in an attempt to prevent retaliatory attacks amidst national tension in the aftermath of the trial. In the weeks before and the days after the Zimmerman verdict, innumerable threats were made on Twitter by Trayvon Martin supporters to kill white people in revenge attacks, despite the fact that Zimmerman is Hispanic.
Hours after the Infowars story went viral on the right-wing blogosphere, the sheriff's office announced that they had a suspect in custody.
Avery Wood, 19, was arrested for two counts of felony murder and two counts of armed robbery. Witnesses told police that he had planned to steal drugs from the Bohannon brothers.
"The investigation revealed video surveillance at the restaurant showing the victim's vehicle driving up and meeting with the suspect vehicle and someone ultimately shooting both victims," the JSO said on their Facebook page.
According to the post, a witness came forward and told police that Avery Wood, an "acquaintance" of Matthew and Andrew Bohannon, had asked him to help steal drugs from the brothers. Other witnesses told the police that they heard Wood bragging about his plan to rob Matthew and Andrew. Based on this information, the police took Wood into custody on Tuesday morning, where he confessed to planning and organizing the drug robbery. Wood did not confess to murder, but he admitted that he was present during the shooting.
The JSO reported that "more arrests are pending," and a source close to the investigation told BuzzFeed that two more suspects will be taken into custody soon.
The suspect had many pictures of himself with drugs and drug paraphernalia on his Facebook page.
[Avery Wood's Facebook page has since been deleted.]
"We all knew him," said A.J. Mikesell, the creator of Matthew Bohannon's memorial page. "He killed my best friend because he thought he was a gangster."
After the arrest, the sheriff's office adamantly confirmed that there was NOT a "Free Zimmerman" sticker on the Bohannons' vehicle.
The JSO Facebook account replied to every question or accusation about the rumored sticker on their Facebook page, while the JSO Twitter account messaged bloggers who'd reported the sticker as a fact.
Despite this, the story continues to spread across the right-wing web, with additional speculation that "something" is being hidden from the public.
UPDATE: Police just made an arrest and say more arrests should come shortly. Jacksonville Sheriff's Office is calling it an armed robbery and specifically stating that it is not a hate crime. It is unclear if anything was actually stolen. The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office claims that the "Free Zimmerman" bumper sticker does not exist.
If the races had been reversed, this would be the biggest news story in the United States. The headlines would scream "racial hate crime." Since it is two white males murderers by a group of black males, it has only received local coverage with explicit denials that it was racial.
The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office announced Wednesday afternoon that three other men had been charged in the brothers' killing.
Jallil Graves, 21, George Carter, 21, and Steven Bennett, 18, were arrested in the shooting deaths of 19-year-old Matthew Bohannon and 24-year-old Andrew Bohannon Wednesday morning. Avery Wood, 19, was arrested Tuesday. All four men have confessed and been charged with two counts of felony murder and two counts of robbery.
In a press conference Wednesday afternoon, Lt. Rob Schoonover said Wood plotted to get a group of people together to rob the brothers, Andrew and Matthew Bohannon, of about three ounces of marijuana, a $600 street value, in the Golden Corral parking lot. They met at 8:40 p.m. and, according to Schoonover, Graves got out of the vehicle and shot first Andrew and then Matthew. News4Jax reports that Graves was already in police custody when they realized his involvement in the crime -- he was arrested in Clay County earlier this week and charged with attempted murder in the shooting of a 20-year-old man at a house party on July 7.
Schoonover reiterated that police have ruled out rumors that the shooting was related to the verdict in the Trayvon Martin trial. He confirmed that there was NOT a Zimmerman bumper sticker on the victim's truck and stated that marijuana was found at Andrew Bohannon's house.
The JSO also released images of the Bohannons' truck, which clearly does not have a "Free Zimmerman" sticker.
They also posted a picture of the marijuana stash that the police found at the brothers' house.
Despite this evidence, the story continues to circulate through the conservative web.
As conservatives and liberals argue about conspiracies and cover-ups, a grieving family prepares to bury two children.
"I don't want another mother to ever have to go through this," mother Stephanie Bohannon sobbed in an interview with News4Jax. Tragically, the brothers died on their father Bruce's birthday and one day before their mother's. Stephanie told News4Jax that they planned to set up a donation fund to help pay for funeral expenses, as Bruce recently lost his job and they were unsure how they would be able to afford burying their children.
"Love your children each and every day," Bruce said. "Love them like you'll never see them again because you never know when something like this will happen."
Ellie Hall is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC. Her secure PGP fingerprint is 6055 A264 DADD AADC 347E 5986 547C C11C DD7D 176A.
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