Zimmerman's ex shares warning after photo shared

Posted at 11:10 PM, Feb 16, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-17 10:12:11-05

In hopes of warning others against the dangers of sharing intimate images, a woman with a very public online experience shared her private perspective for the first time on television. George Zimmerman shared intimate photos of the woman, Heather, on social media without her permission.  Zimmerman was acquitted in the killing of teenager Trayvon Martin and has become well known for his many appearances in the news, Heather spoke exclusively with NewsChannel 5 Anchor Ashleigh Walters on the condition that the station not use her last name.

Heather says she met Zimmerman in May 2015.  The encounter occurred many months after Zimmerman was shot by another driver while behind the wheel of his car.  Heather recalls her workplace shut down for an hour and a half so the business could work on Zimmerman's car.

She says she was nervous about meeting Zimmerman, but she ignored her gut feeling when she discovered she liked him.

"Just listening to him, and I just felt like, this isn't the monster that everybody made him out to be. I mean, he's very charismatic. You're very drawn, I mean, just to meet him. He's very soft spoken. That he's not what you thought you would meet," she explained.

Heather says it was a dramatic life change when she moved from a small town in Kentucky to Florida about two years ago.

"Everybody knew everybody and they could tell you what you cooked for breakfast that morning," she described.

Her parents still live in that town.  When a few immediate family members learned of the relationship, her mother warned she didn't want Heather to become front page news. The family liked Zimmerman, Heather recalled.

Much of the relationship was happy, Heather said.  She introduced Zimmerman to one of her two teenaged sons.  The three of them spent a weekend at a gun store, but Heather did not allow her child to pose in any photos.  She says while many strangers in public would recognize Zimmerman and ask to take pictures, Heather intentionally stayed out of the spotlight. She also kept the relationship secret from most of her friends.

"In the beginning, it was very normal. Until things didn't go his way," she said.

The couple broke up and got back together several times during the five- or six-month relationship, before Heather decided to move on.  She told Zimmerman she was dating someone new.

One day, her cell phone started to light up with text messages and voicemails from complete strangers. They had seen her cell phone number in tweets posted by Zimmerman's account. The tweets included Heather’s name and phone number, plus personal accusations and photos that included most of her bare chest.

"And I immediately called him, begging him to take it down. And he wouldn't," she said.

Heather called law enforcement and asked for help. Twitter suspended Zimmerman's account quickly, but it was too late. The information had been copied and shared worldwide.  Strangers as far away as Australia and Canada contacted her with messages of kindness and cruelty. Some people tried to use FaceTime to video chat with her. One man was so persistent, she accepted the FaceTime request and put a friend's cat in front of the camera.  She hoped it would make the caller go away, but instead, she says he exposed himself on the chat before she disconnected the call.

Eventually, she lost count of how many messages were coming in, continued to keep records of most of them.

She shared some of the text messages she received with NewsChannel 5:

- "Change your number NOW.  George Z just put it all over Twitter."  Heather responded, "I know."  The stranger wrote back again, "I figured.  Please be safe."

- "You seriously cheated on George?  With a mudslime no less?  What a slut."

- "What do you say you bring that gun by and we can do some role play, call me Trayvon, safe word is NBC lawsuit."

A report filed with the Seminole County Sheriff's Office said the investigating officer observed the tweet posted from Zimmerman's account.  It read, "This is Heather. She cheated on me with a dirty Muslim (her cell phone number). She'll sleep with anyone."

The report described the investigation as "harassing communications" but Zimmerman was never charged in the case.

While a deputy was with Heather, he noted various numbers were calling and texting the woman, "one right after the other."

The calls eventually slowed in frequency, but they continued for many weeks, Heather said.  The experience felt like a violation of her privacy and trust.

Heather says she knew the photos existed before the post.  She wants others to understand how damaging it can be to share intimate images with others.

"Yes, I actually did send the picture to him.  So it wasn't like he snuck and took it or anything. I just never dreamed he would broadcast it to his 16,000 twitter followers," she said.

Heather now wants the images to be erased from all online websites.

Senior Network Engineer, David Parizek, MCSE, said that's going to be difficult.

"The internet, that never forgets," he said.

Parizek says in many ways images are more difficult than written details to track after they've been shared.  Images can be copied and manipulated, then saved with various titles. To erase an image or a piece of information, every website must be communicated with individually.  The process can be extremely expensive and time consuming, often needing the help of computer experts and lawyers.

Parizek believes the best place to start is the search engines themselves. First, use them to list as many possible websites where images may have landed, then ask the search engines to remove the specific results from a search.

"That's where everybody goes.  So if you can block it from there, then most people will give up," he said.

Google, Yahoo and Bing have recently added pages where you can request searches be blocked.  Parizek says in one year, Google received about a million of those requests.

"They have gotten through and approved about 50 percent of them.  And the others they either haven't gotten to, or denied the request because it wasn't appropriate," he explained.

Google posts information about some of the information removal requests it receives from governments and individuals.

There are complexities in the laws and rights of those involved.

"Financial bankruptcy, not too difficult to understand why somebody would want that to be gotten rid of, and people really wouldn't care unless you're a bank. But what about a child pornographer, or a child molester who wants that information forgotten, but really it shouldn't be forgotten.  And what are his rights, and what are everybody else's rights around him?"

New legislation is being considered in many states on the topic of personal information posted online.  "Right to Forget" and "Eraser" laws, for example, would allow adults to have items removed if they posted them while they were a minor.

A Florida law last year banned so-called "Revenge Porn," the posting of nude images with identifying information.  Google has publicly agreed to help remove revenge porn posts. 

Heather's case, however, does not fit under those umbrellas.  Parizek thinks Twitter's suspension of Zimmerman's account could help her argument.

Heather hopes her story will serve as a cautionary tale to everyone regarding potential repercussions of sharing intimate photographs.

"I thought he loved me.  I never thought that he would post all this out there," she said.

The worst part, she says, is how her parents have been forced to deal with the situation.  Friends in their small community heard about the story and the local media started asking questions.

Heather says she has never discussed the situation with her teenaged son, but says when members of the media were asking for interviews on her lawn, she disconnected the doorbell at times and asked him to stay in his room.

Despite the warnings from law enforcement and from strangers calling her number, Heather decided to keep using the phone number posted in the tweets.  She says it has been empowering.  She has learned to ignore and block numbers from unknown callers.

As for her relationship with Zimmerman, she wishes she had trusted her gut in the first place.

"I think twitter suspending his account is probably the best punishment for him.  Because now he has to find different outlets   I mean, he would sit for hours and just post stuff and see what people would write about him.  So that took away a big part of his life.  Just, that took away his fan base," she said.

NewsChannel 5 reached out to George Zimmerman and two lawyers known to have worked with him, but they have not responded to the request for comment or interview.