John Johnston

Judge Not

At first Randall Zimmerman wasn't sure whether he'd just awoken from a nightmare or if he was waking up to one. What happened the night before didn't seem real. Couldn't possibly be real. His name and face had been flashed on every news station in Denver like he was some kind of criminal. But when he went outside to get the papers in the morning, he realized he hadn't been dreaming.

"Educator accused of molesting; former youth pastor charged in assault of girl at Grace Chapel" the Rocky Mountain News declared. "Suspected sexual activity with girl occurred in early 1990s, police say," the Denver Post announced. No matter where he turned, he couldn't escape it. On the radio, Rick Lewis and Michael Floorwax were calling him a sicko.

Friends, relatives, colleagues, students and former youth group members had all heard the news, and none of them could believe it. Not Randy. Not the man who opened his home to kids when they had nowhere else. Not the guy many of them credit with saving their lives. Not the husband and father of two little boys.

It all started rather innocuously. Zimmerman was in his office at Aurora's Mrachek Middle School when Jeff Himes, an investigator with the Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office, called him to say that a young woman had filed a complaint with his office five months earlier, in December 2000.

"About what?" Zimmerman asked.

"Oh, nothing serious -- just light sexual contact," he recalls Himes as saying.

"He asked me if something like that had happened, and I said no," Zimmerman remembers. "He said, 'Good, I didn't think so, but we need you to come in and answer some questions so we can close the case.'"

When he hung up, Zimmerman phoned a friend who suggested he call an attorney. He flipped through the phone book, picked one out and called for some quick legal advice; he was cautioned against speaking with authorities. But Zimmerman wasn't too worried. Yes, he was shocked that this young woman from so long ago -- a woman Zimmerman and others describe as deeply troubled -- would make such an allegation, but he knew he was innocent. He figured it was only a matter of time before the investigator came to the same conclusion. So he ignored the attorney's advice and went to visit Himes.

When he arrived at the sheriff's office, Zimmerman remembers Himes asking him if he was a minister. He said yes and explained that he'd moved here from Chicago to attend Denver Seminary.

"He told me he had a friend who teaches at the seminary and that they go to church together," Zimmerman says. "He asked, 'Where do you go to church?' I said, 'I don't.' And he said, 'Why not? Aren't you Christian?'" Zimmerman, who just shrugged in response, could tell by Himes's tone that he disapproved. It set the tone for the rest of the meeting.

Himes and Kirby Hodgkin, another sheriff's investigator, questioned Zimmerman for about thirty minutes, telling him that a 24-year-old woman claimed he'd touched her and forced her to perform oral sex on him twelve years earlier, when she was in the sixth grade. But Zimmerman told them he hadn't even met the girl until she was in the eighth grade. The investigators took notes as he said this and proceeded to ask him questions about his work history, apparently unconcerned. They also asked him to describe the young woman who'd made the allegation. "I told them she was moody and had had problems with friends and that she said she'd been molested by a baseball coach," Zimmerman recalls.

Throughout the interview, he says, the two deputies pulled a good cop/bad cop routine, with Hodgkin playing the nice guy. Himes asked him if he'd take a polygraph, and Zimmerman agreed. Since it can take up to three weeks to schedule the test, Zimmerman asked what would happen in the meantime. Himes scoffed at this, Zimmerman says, telling him he could look up the procedures on the department's Web site. And when Zimmerman asked what to expect during the polygraph, he says Himes became even more antagonistic. After telling Zimmerman that he'd schedule the lie-detector test, Himes quipped, "You'll be able to walk out after that." His tone, Zimmerman recalls, implied that the polygraph would be the last part of the investigative process he'd be able to walk away from. "That was when I knew they weren't going to just close the case."

Taking the situation far more seriously, Zimmerman hired attorney Steve Newell, who told him not to take the polygraph, as it is inadmissible in court. Zimmerman didn't hear anything more about the case until Friday, June 1.

School had let out for the day, and Zimmerman was wrapping things up in his office at Mrachek, where he was an assistant principal. He was getting ready to leave, blissfully unaware that his cell phone wasn't working and that Newell had been calling desperately to warn him that the Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office had issued a warrant for his arrest. Zimmerman had no idea that parked outside the school were three squad cars of deputies waiting to apprehend him as he exited. And as he stepped out into the sunlight, he remained unaware of what was transpiring. The cars were gone. Newell had gotten through to the sheriff's office, convincing them to let his client go home for the weekend; Zimmerman, he promised, would turn himself in first thing Monday. These were his last few moments of peace before his life changed forever.

Randall Zimmerman was born in Minocqua, a small town in northern Wisconsin. The youngest of four kids -- he has one sister and two brothers -- he had a Leave it to Beaver childhood complete with homemaker mother. The family was close-knit, and they spent weekends fishing and boating on the lake their house faced. When Zimmerman was ten, his family moved to Sheboygan Falls, another quaint Wisconsin town. Just before his freshman year in high school the family moved again, this time to Madison, where his dad was transferred for his engineering job at the regional telephone company.

Although Zimmerman had a fairly secular upbringing -- he describes his family as "nominal Roman Catholic" -- he became intrigued by religion during college. While studying philosophy at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, he took a course on early Christian writings and caught the Jesus bug. He went abroad to study for a year, but when he returned, he decided to transfer to the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and pursue a bachelor's degree in religious studies. To Zimmerman, Jesus's message was all about helping the downtrodden, and he did his best to do that. He was a big brother to a boy who lived in Cabrini Green, a housing project notorious for its gang violence and drug dealing, and he volunteered at various homeless shelters throughout the city. He also met Carol, his future wife, who participated in much of the community service with him.

But Zimmerman had no intention of going into the ministry. He planned to become a religious studies professor, and after he and Carol were married, in 1988, they moved to Colorado so he could attend Denver Seminary and earn a master's degree in religious philosophy. Before he could graduate, he had to complete a nine-month service internship. Fellow seminarian Robert Strauch encouraged Zimmerman to spend it at Grace Chapel, a non-denominational church in Englewood where he led a high school youth group.

Zimmerman quickly discovered that he had a talent for relating to kids. Adolescents were instantly comfortable with his easygoing demeanor and non-judgmental way. But he and Paul Barnes, senior pastor and founder of Grace Chapel, clashed over philosophy. "The church was very much about teaching people to take the Bible literally, but I don't believe there's a hell," Zimmerman says. "I never tried to teach kids what to think, but how to think."

Parents liked him, though, and when a full-time job opened up for a middle-school pastor, they embarked on a letter-writing campaign to get him hired. With no choice but to heed his flock, Barnes offered Zimmerman the job in 1991. Over the next couple of years, Zimmerman began reaching out to troubled kids. He encouraged those who attended church with their parents to bring their friends. Many of those who came had strained parental relations, and Zimmerman and Carol, a schoolteacher who volunteered a lot of her time with the youth group, became father and mother figures to them.

The Zimmerman household had an open-door policy: homeless kids could stay there, and Randy and Carol could be reached 24 hours a day. A teenage girl who had turned to prostitution after running away from an abusive home once called Zimmerman at midnight; a friend of hers had been mugged, and although she had escaped unscathed, she was alone and scared on Colfax. Zimmerman drove from his Littleton home to get her, and she stayed with him and Carol for two weeks. A sixteen-year-old boy who was estranged from his family lived with the Zimmermans for nine months.

"He did everything for me as a kid, and he saved my life a few times," says another youth group member, Courtney Henrich, now 22. "My grandfather died in 1992, and my dad moved to Michigan after that. I didn't have anyone, and a friend asked me to come to church, where I met Randy."

Henrich had had a rough childhood -- her mom was an alcoholic, and her dad was rarely around -- and she battled depression. Whenever she was on the verge of suicide, which was often, it was Zimmerman who talked her out of it. "Randy opened my eyes to accepting myself for who I was," she says. "I actually got to be a kid for once in youth group."

It was also Zimmerman to whom she turned when she needed someone to confide in about having been molested as a kid. She phoned him at home many times in the middle of the night, and her calls were always welcome. Like a lot of the youth group kids, Henrich stayed in touch with Zimmerman long after they both left Grace Chapel. "He was always looking out for us kids," says Henrich, who is now a substitute teacher at a Breckenridge daycare center.

One of those kids was Mary (not her real name). Zimmerman met her when he was an intern and she was in eighth grade. She attended Grace Chapel with her parents and quickly entrusted Zimmerman and other youth leaders with her personal problems. For example, Mary told him that a baseball coach had abused her when she was eight years old.

She told the same story to Byron Holz, who had met Zimmerman at the Moody Bible Institute and then wound up at Denver Seminary with him and later worked as a youth sponsor at Grace Chapel. "She had talks with me about how she'd been molested by this coach and how it haunted her. She told me she had nightmares of a dark figure standing over her bed, and she wondered whether it was demonic," Holz says. "I wondered whether she had post-traumatic stress disorder. Also, she was intensely attached to peers and was very moody. Her best friend one week would be her enemy the next."

Holz, a licensed professional counselor who evaluates disturbed kids, says extreme admiration and then hatred of someone is symptomatic of borderline personality disorder. And for a while, Mary idolized Zimmerman. In fact, a lot of the girls developed crushes on him. But Mary's feelings for Zimmerman seemed to extend beyond that. Holz says she told him during a church retreat that she was having erotic fantasies about Zimmerman. Mary's extreme feelings for and against friends continued, so Holz and Zimmerman urged her to see a church counselor.

At the same time, Zimmerman's disillusionment with Grace Chapel was growing stronger. Not only did he and Barnes differ on ideology, but they disagreed on their mission. Zimmerman and others who used to work there say Barnes was unhappy with the influx of "alternative" kids in the youth group because their parents weren't also attending -- and therefore not bringing money into the church. "I wanted to serve troubled kids, and he wanted to grow a mega-church," Zimmerman says. (Barnes declined to comment for this story.)

The beginning of the end came when Zimmerman shared his thoughts on Grace Chapel's policy regarding the role of women in the church. A kid from youth group asked why there were no female elders there, and Zimmerman said if it were up to him there would be. Word got back to Barnes, who was furious. Relations between the two continued declining, and a couple of months later, the church elders asked Zimmerman to resign. All the kids were upset about it, but Mary "was inconsolable," Holz recalls. "She pleaded with Barnes not to let him go."

The departure was hard on Zimmerman, too. "The ministry itself was a wonderful experience. It was the best job I ever had in terms of being meaningful," he says. "But I didn't want anything to do with churches after that."

That was in February 1994, and Zimmerman hasn't been back to church since. But he didn't lose his passion for helping kids, and teaching seemed like a natural next step. He earned his teaching license while working at the Larkspur campus of the Emily Griffith Center, a residential treatment facility for troubled boys, where his students voted him teacher of the year. After that, he went to Sci-Tech Academy (now called Collegiate Academy), a charter school in Jefferson County where, in 1997, students again elected him teacher of the year.

Zimmerman was popular with kids wherever he went, and they always addressed him by his first name. Despite the lack of formality, those close to him say Zimmerman knew where to draw the line between respecting his students and being their friend. He didn't tolerate troublemakers, whom he regularly expelled and suspended, and his students respected him for it -- even those on the receiving end of the discipline.

After a year at Sci-Tech, an administrator at the Rocky Mountain School of Expeditionary Learning, where Zimmerman had done his student teaching, encouraged him to apply for the dean of students position. At RMSEL, Zimmerman continued to practice tough love with his students. "Teens would get upset when he disciplined them, but he was still everyone's favorite," says Hillary Smith, who graduated from RMSEL last year. "The kids that got in trouble would get over it and realize that he was just doing his job."

After two years there, Zimmerman moved into an assistant principal position at Mrachek Middle School in Aurora.

Through all of this time and work with new students, he never forgot about the youth group kids. He'd even kept in touch with a few, including Mary, who called him sporadically. One of those calls came after she returned from a missionary trip to Chile. "She said they'd done exorcisms there and then told me that I was a false teacher in her life," Zimmerman says. "I asked her what she meant, and she said, 'You taught us to question way too much. You needed to just tell us right from wrong.' I told her they were old enough to think for themselves."

Zimmerman wondered whether it was her, her parents, or Grace Chapel talking. After all, Barnes had called him a heretic after he left. But Mary seemed to get over it, because she called him up crying in the spring of 2000; she had gotten pregnant, she said, and her parents wouldn't let her marry the father because he wasn't Christian. All Zimmerman could do was console her. He wouldn't hear anything more about Mary for another year.

When Zimmerman left Mrachek Middle School that Friday afternoon in June 2001, he was thinking about the weekend ahead and looking forward to spending time with his family. As he inched along in the rush-hour traffic on I-225, his cell phone finally rang. It was Steve Newell bearing bad news: Zimmerman was going to be charged with 25 criminal counts. He couldn't believe it. Suddenly it felt like everyone was looking at him as though they knew. Like he was wearing a big M for "Molester" on his chest. His fellow freeway drivers couldn't possibly have known anything then, of course, but they would soon.

Newell wasn't sure whether the deputies had really backed off or whether they were waiting for Zimmerman at his house, so he told his client not to go home. Zimmerman drove to a friend's house in Larkspur, where he spent the night. The next day, Carol and their two boys joined him, and they all drove to Estes Park. He and Carol put on a happy face for their kids and let them ride horses, but the two of them "just sat there dumbfounded all weekend."

With no choice but to turn himself in, Zimmerman went to the Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office Monday morning and posted a $50,000 bond, then headed home to watch his life unravel. The sheriff's office issued a press release that afternoon complete with Zimmerman's name, date of birth and home address. The release stated that Zimmerman's booking photo was available and supplied a phone number for other victims to call. That night and for three days after, every news station ran his picture and urged other victims to contact investigator Himes. None did.

In fact, just the opposite happened. Zimmerman heard from dozens of former students, youth group members and colleagues who offered to testify on his behalf if the case went to trial. "The fact that no other alleged victims came forward is pretty significant," says Mike Gallagher, who worked with Zimmerman at Sci-Tech and now teaches at Heritage High School in Littleton. "Randy suspended a lot kids in different schools, and you'd think some of them, out of sheer vindictiveness, would have come forward."

"I never thought for a moment that he did that," says former youth group member Henrich, who had been alone with Zimmerman on numerous occasions with nothing inappropriate happening. Smith seconds that. During Zimmerman's two years at RMSEL, she babysat for his kids several times; Zimmerman would drive her to and from her house and never did anything that made her feel uncomfortable.

"He was like a big brother," she says. "He's got the best character of anyone I know. He was always willing to lend a hand, and his shoulder was always there to cry on." When she heard about the accusation, she was in total shock. She never doubted for a moment that Zimmerman was innocent. And neither did Dana Miller, whose five- and seven-year-old daughters go to school with Zimmerman's boys. "He has taken care of my girls hundreds of times, and I've never seen any kind of sideways behavior from him," Miller says. "I'm 100,000 percent convinced that that accusation was complete garbage."

It was heartening for Zimmerman to know that so many people believed in him. And the people he worked with at Mrachek were equally supportive, even though the Aurora school district had to place him on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of the case. "I never, ever had any inkling that Randy was anything but a 100 percent solid guy," says Greg Reed, who was a co-assistant principal with Zimmerman at Mrachek and is now principal of Daniel C. Oakes High School in Douglas County.

Still, seeing his face on television and in the newspapers was the lowest point in Zimmerman's life. And the accusation cost him an opportunity to work at Columbine High School. He had been offered an assistant principal post -- something he'd wanted since the April 1999 shootings -- and was waiting for the Jefferson County school board to approve his contract when he got arrested. Since Sci-Tech Academy was just a half-mile away from Columbine, he already knew a lot of the students and "felt it would be a privilege to help out with the healing," he says.

Now he was looking for a little of his own. Zimmerman just kept asking himself why. Why would Mary make such an accusation? Why would authorities press charges without any evidence? He speculates that Himes didn't like him because of his religious beliefs. Plus, Barnes told the sheriff's office that Zimmerman had developed a "cult-like following" among the kids at Grace Chapel and "was becoming very influential in ways the church did not approve."

"You have a cop who's a Christian, a girl who's a Christian and a pastor who says I'm a cult leader," Zimmerman notes.

Himes deferred comment to Arapahoe County Sheriff Grayson Robinson, who reviewed his investigators' report and sat down with Himes and Hodgkin after Westword contacted him. "I think the investigation was done as thoroughly as possible," Robinson says. "The DA's office took the case, and the judge at the preliminary hearing determined there was probable cause to go to trial, so that tells me the judicial-review process was in place."

Robinson asked Himes about the tone of his interview with Zimmerman and says Himes doesn't recall any antagonism; in fact, he says, Himes doesn't remember even discussing religion with Zimmerman. "If Mr. Zimmerman has concerns about an investigation of mine, we have an internal process I'd be happy to talk to him about," Robinson says.

Prior to any hearings, the District Attorney's Office for the 18th Judicial District, which includes Arapahoe, Elbert, Lincoln and Douglas counties, offered Zimmerman a deal: If he pled guilty to two Class 3 felonies, he'd face a minimum mandatory prison sentence of twenty years to life. Zimmerman wasn't about to accept that. He wanted a jury of his peers to hear the case -- and fast. But his attorney's back surgeries and various scheduling problems kept delaying the trial. "The first three to four months were unbearable," he says. "There were times I'd wake up at night like, 'Is this really happening?' You try to mow the lawn and do ordinary things, and all of a sudden it hits you. It was crippling. If it wasn't for such good family and friends, I wouldn't have made it."

Despite his anguish, Zimmerman and his wife tried to maintain a normal life for their two sons, who were five and nine at the time. "My older son asked me why I didn't go to work anymore. I just told him I lost my job."

"For me, the last twenty months were extremely difficult. I watched our lives get turned upside down, and Randy lost the career he had worked so hard to establish," Carol Zimmerman noted in an e-mail message to Westword. (Zimmerman says his wife is tired of talking about the toll his case has had on their family and that she wished only to respond in writing.) "There were many times that I worried for Randy's safety and how I would raise our boys without him. I never thought I'd have to worry about such a thing."

For a while, at least, they didn't have to worry about his loss of income. Zimmerman is grateful to Aurora Public Schools, which kept him on the payroll for more than a year. But when August 2002 arrived with no trial date, the district had to cut him off. Zimmerman applied for all kinds of jobs that didn't involve children but wasn't offered a thing. "I don't know how much of it was the economy and how much was the trial," he says.

In December, a court date was finally set: February 3, 2003.

In previous statements she'd given the sheriff's office and court, Mary said Zimmerman started molesting her when she was twelve. She claimed he'd assaulted her numerous times -- in her parents' van, in a church van, in a cemetery, in a recreation center and in Zimmerman's townhouse -- but that it stopped before her freshman year of high school.

But attorney Newell started punching holes in her allegations with his opening statement, when he produced a purchase contract showing that Zimmerman hadn't even bought his townhouse until Mary's sophomore year of high school.

When she took the stand, Mary said she'd remembered incorrectly -- that the abuse actually started when she was in high school. But juror Jeramy Vierk wasn't sympathetic. "She changed her story to match the evidence!" says Vierk, who worked with male felons at a halfway house in Centennial before starting his own mortgage company. "The prosecution didn't do any due diligence to verify that what she said happened actually could have happened."

Christine Schober, the deputy district attorney who prosecuted the case, says Mary's definition of abuse differed from the legal definition. To Mary, Schober explains, the abuse really began when Zimmerman started grooming her by complimenting her and earning her trust.

But there were other inconsistencies in Mary's story. For example, she said Zimmerman molested her during sleepovers at his townhouse, but other youth group members testified that he never held sleepovers at his home; the only slumber parties they attended were at church. Another assault, Mary said, occurred late one night in Littleton's Chapel Hill Cemetery. However, that cemetery closes at sunset. She also said Zimmerman put his hand down her pants while they were riding in a van during a youth group ski trip; they were surrounded by other kids when it happened, she explained, and Zimmerman was talking to them while he touched her. Apparently, no one else noticed.

"She was talking about things that happened ten years ago," Schober explains. "Of course [her memories] faded over time."

Mary told the court that she only came forward after all this time because a friend of hers had seen Zimmerman on the 16th Street Mall with a middle-school-aged girl, then saw him another time drunk at a bar with a young woman and yet again at a restaurant late one night with a male friend and a different young woman. Mary explained that she didn't want anyone else to have to endure what she did. But the friend who supposedly told her all this testified that she'd only seen Zimmerman once, at a restaurant with a youth group supervisor and his girlfriend.

In a victim impact statement Mary's father submitted to the court, he describes his daughter's troubles. And he blames Zimmerman for them -- even though his time frame lines up with Mary's original story about the abuse beginning when she was twelve. "Shortly before Mary began her teen years (and the sexual abuse started), we saw her change," he writes. "School homework was hard for her to complete. She complained of many, many headaches and would sometimes leave school early. Angry outbursts and withdrawal from us were common.

"Later in high school, she told her mom that she was depressed. She complained of her brain not working well. She couldn't stay on one subject...her mind jumping all around," the letter continues. "At one point she said, 'I think I'm going crazy. There are demons in my head.' At our insistence, she got some counseling. When we saw our once happy child now needing anti-depressants just to make it through the day without nightmares, we were heart-broken." (Neither Mary nor her parents returned calls from Westword.)

After the prosecution rested, thirteen counts of sexual assault on a child were dropped, since Mary had altered her to story to say that the abuse began after she turned fifteen. And two other counts had to be dropped for lack of evidence during the preliminary hearing, leaving only ten of the original 25.

Only Mary's parents and a brother testified as to her character. But nearly a dozen former co-workers, students and youth group members took the stand on Zimmerman's behalf, and many more provided oral or written statements. "There were people saying they wouldn't be alive if it hadn't been for Randy. And yet you can't get one person to testify on her behalf? No teachers, not even the boyfriend she had a baby with?" Vierk asks.

When Carol Zimmerman was on the stand, she described how Mary had tried to interject herself into their lives. Once, when Carol was feeding her baby, Mary reportedly snatched him away from her and began feeding him herself. A series of similarly odd actions led Carol to call Mary's parents about her behavior. (At the trial, however, Mary's parents denied ever receiving such a call.)

Hilary Hungerford, a former youth group member who was in the Peace Corps in Africa during the trial (and is still there) gave a statement to Newell's investigator that was never entered into evidence. In it, she explained that Mary "wanted more from Randy" and seemed to be "pushing the boundaries that are set up between an adult and a kid." Hungerford guessed that Mary made the accusation because "she's upset that Randy didn't return the same feelings that maybe she had for him."

Juror Anne Rice felt that Mary's testimony was completely incredible. "This trial made me change my mind on all these sex-assault cases," says the retired nurse. "Whenever I read about people making these kinds of claims, I had believed them. This made me realize there are two sides to every story."

But not everyone agreed. "I fought with the other jurors about this," Vierk says. "There are some people who still believe that if you're on trial, you must have done something. A lot of the jurors thought he was guilty; they didn't necessarily believe Mary's stories, but they thought something must have happened."

Peter Lansing was one of them. "Why would someone at the age of 24 allow the charges to continue against this guy if there wasn't an issue? It just doesn't make sense," says Lansing, president of Universal Lending Corporation. Not only did he feel that there was no motivation for Mary to lie, but he also believed that her descriptions of the various assaults were too detailed to have been contrived.

"When I have a discussion with my kids and they're lying to me, the details aren't clear. The more you get into details, the more the truth becomes known, and that's what discerns someone's guilt or innocence," Lansing says. "Her details were extraordinary. If you just manufactured these charges, you couldn't have been as clear as she was."

Other jurors, like foreman Linda Newell (no relation to Steve Newell), weren't sure what to believe. She, too, found the details Mary provided to be indicative of the truth. But as more and more discrepancies appeared, Newell began to have her doubts. "To go to the extent to take someone to trial seemed very grandiose to me if it was all false," she says. "But if she was truly on the verge of borderline personality, it could be a possibility."

The many young people who testified about the difference Zimmerman made in their lives made her wonder whether this well-regarded man was capable of taking advantage of someone in his care, but when Zimmerman himself testified, it only confused her more. "Honestly, once he took the stand, it seemed so well rehearsed that it made me doubt again."

The jurors began deliberating on Thursday, February 13, and butted heads well into Friday. Because of the President's Day weekend, they didn't reconvene until the following Tuesday. "Those three days were hell," Zimmerman says. "I'd either become a prisoner on Tuesday or walk home. I had to prepare my kids for the worst."

His youngest son asked him if he'd get the death penalty. "That hit me pretty hard."

That final stretch was hard on Zimmerman's supporters, as well. "Randy was Christlike to us," says Henrich. "He came and saved us, and then we had to watch him be taken down."

Vierk agonized over the tremendous power he and the eleven other jurors held. "I dreamt about it throughout the trial," he says. "Jurors don't always understand the seriousness of what they're doing. We could be sending this man to prison for life. Each count carried a sentence of four to ten years. Obviously if you do something like this, you belong in prison. But let's put the right ones there."

When the jurors returned on February 18, they continued to go back and forth. Because the remaining counts were all the same -- sexual assault on a minor by a person in a position of trust -- they had difficulty determining which particular assaults Zimmerman may or may not have committed. "Some offenses were clearer than others," Lansing says. "If one of the counts had been for oral sex in a van in a cemetery, we could have determined if he was guilty of that or not. But we were left to define what count went with what offense."

Initially, seven of the jurors thought Zimmerman guilty; further into the deliberations, however, seven thought he was not guilty. So when the judge asked them if they had any questions, Lansing asked why all ten counts were the same. 'He said, 'Wow, we'll have to look into that,' but he never came back with an answer," Lansing recalls.

On the last day of deliberations, the jurors still couldn't agree, and the judge came in and told them they needed to make a decision. After that, the number of jurors leaning toward not guilty shifted to eleven. Lansing, the last to hold out, finally folded. Because of the ambiguity of the counts, none of the jurors, he says, felt they could prove Zimmerman committed them beyond a reasonable doubt. And so they voted to acquit him of all charges. "If we had known which offense went with what count, I can tell you the outcome would have been different," Lansing says.

Vierk remembers watching Carol Zimmerman as the verdict was read. She squeezed her mother-in-law's shoulder harder with the reading of each count. Not guilty, not guilty, not guilty.... When it was over, everyone in Zimmerman's camp had tears in their eyes and looks of great relief on their faces. Neither Mary nor her parents were present.

Afterward, Vierk felt compelled to meet Zimmerman, but first he had to go back to the jury room to collect his belongings. The court reporter walked with him. "She told me she has 26 years of experience in this and said, 'I don't normally tell people this, but I think you guys made the right decision.' I think that said a lot," Vierk says.

Schober is disappointed with the outcome but says she felt the sheriff's investigation was thorough and that her case was strong. "Nine times out of ten, it's the victim's word against the perpetrator's. You couple that with the fact that the jury has to decide that something happened beyond a reasonable doubt, and that makes these kinds of cases tough, because jurors often want more than someone's word," she explains. "Often there's no evidence in these cases. Just because someone's found not guilty doesn't mean they're innocent. I truly believe that what she said happened happened, and I'd take him to trial again in a heartbeat."

Lansing also remains convinced of Zimmerman's guilt, even though he didn't have the legal ground to convict him. And no amount of praise from Zimmerman's students could make him think otherwise. "What a guy with charisma. I get what he's good at; he really knows kids," Lansing says. "I feel he overstepped his boundaries with a young woman who didn't know boundaries, and I have to live with knowing I helped acquit him. I just hope like hell he doesn't do anything again to another child."

As soon as the trial ended, Zimmerman looked to clear his name publicly, too. He called the Fox radio morning show, and Rick Lewis and Michael Floorwax gave him ample time to tell his side of the story. Channel 7 interviewed him, and other television stations announced the outcome. The Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post also ran articles about it.

"In Randy's case, the system worked, but look at how long it's taken and how much it's cost," says Reed, Zimmerman's former colleague at Mrachek Middle School. "A jury can find you not guilty, but no one's there to pick up the pieces afterwards. Everyone else has moved on, and poor Randy's still out here trying to put his life back together.

"I've been in this business 27 years, and I've seen many accusations made, most of them unfounded. I've seen many lives and careers ruined over stuff like this," Reed continues. "I tell my colleagues that we're all one accusation away from losing our jobs."

In late April, Zimmerman received a letter with no return address that was simply signed "A juror." "I have thought about writing you for some time," it read. "It has been months since the trial, and I still find myself thinking of it often. I can't imagine how difficult it was for you and your family. I hope you are able to recover the life that you had before this trial. I don't claim to speak for God, but I believe He kept you free. I'm sure another jury could have found you not guilty within one hour. Perhaps another jury could have found you guilty. I hope you find the joy of Christ once again. God took care of you, and I hope you are grateful."

Zimmerman, now 39, is hoping to publish a book about his experience and is working on a Ph.D. in education at the University of Denver. He just accepted a job at a community college and has applied to almost every school district in the metro area; if he gets an offer, he'll consider taking it. He knows that if he does return to teaching kids -- which is what he feels he's best at -- he'll be vulnerable to further accusations. But it's a risk he's willing to take.

"Why should I let one disturbed person and one legal system that wasn't thorough stop me from doing what I love?" he says. "You just have to have faith in people."


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >