Hours before Neal Zumberge allegedly shot and killed his neighbor on May 5 in a long-running dispute over feeding deer, he skulked around the south side of his house in the spot where authorities later found four spent shotguns shells from the rounds they believe he fired later that night.
Zumberge’s actions, captured on a security camera mounted on the front of the victim’s house, were described by a state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension agent Wednesday on the third and final day of the murder trial of Zumberge’s wife, Paula Zumberge.
Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Anna Christie rested her case midmorning after calling a police officer and the BCA agent to the witness stand. Paula Zumberge’s attorney, Gary Wolf, had intended to have his client and her husband testify, but decided Tuesday evening against that tactic because he believed that there was enough reasonable doubt in the prosecution’s case.
Paula Zumberge, 50, is charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder, attempted second-degree murder and two counts of second degree assault for allegedly encouraging her husband as he fired at their neighbors.
“The case went in so well for the defense that there was no need to put any defense case on,” Wolf said after testimony and closing arguments Wednesday.
Ramsey County District Court Judge Lezlie Ott Marek said she anticipated issuing a decision in the case next week. Paula Zumberge waived her right to a jury trial, and was tried before the judge.
Wolf said in his closing arguments that shooting victim Jennifer Damerow-Cleven, who survived the attack, lied on the witness stand to exact revenge for the death of her longtime boyfriend, Todd G. Stevens. Stevens suffered multiple buckshot wounds in the shooting and died from massive internal bleeding due to a wound to his aorta. He was also shot in the head and spinal column.
“…it comes to [Damerow-Cleven] that this woman [Paula Zubmerge] needs to suffer just like she has to suffer without her Todd Stevens,” Wolf said in his closing arguments. “But she needed time to think about it. She needed time to compose a lie.
“This is a person who likes to get even, and she did,” Wolf said. “Paula Zumberge is here.”
Damerow-Cleven’s credibility, or lack thereof, factored into the decision not to put Paula and Neal Zumberge on the stand, Wolf later said. William Orth, who is representing Neal Zumberge and watched this week’s proceedings, said that the Zumberges were notified of the change early Wednesday.
Wolf said that Paula Zumberge wanted to testify. Neal Zumberge was in custody at the courthouse ready to testify.
“His only concern is his wife,” Orth said.
In three days of testimony, Christie tried to show that Paula Zumberge encouraged her husband as he allegedly shot at Stevens and Damerow-Cleven, who lived across the street from the Zumberges in New Brighton.
“Neal and Paula Zumberge were in it together,” Christie said in her closing arguments. “Together in life as partners in marriage, and together in life against those people across the street, Todd Gordon Stevens and Jennifer Damerow-Cleven.”
Christie said that Paula Zumberge plotted with Neal Zumberge and baited Stevens and Damerow-Cleven so her husband could shoot them. The Zumberges had reached a breaking point, Christie said.
Neal Zumberge, 57, is charged with second-degree murder with intent and attempted second-degree murder. He is being tried separately at an undetermined date in the future.
Earlier Wednesday, BCA agent Chris Olson testified about the contents of the surveillance video.
“He’s crouching down,” Olson said of Neal Zumberge’s actions at 2:35 p.m. that day, six hours before the fatal shooting. “He’s laying down. He’s going back and forth to the house.”
Olson said the activity carried on for about 40 to 45 minutes.
A portion of that color surveillance video was then played in court showing the shooting.
It did not show Stevens and Damerow-Cleven at the time of the shooting, but rather, the front yard of the Zumberge home as captured from a camera mounted on the front of Stevens’ house.
The quality was poor, with no sound, and Neal Zumberge could barely be identified in the far right corner of the screen at the side of the house at the time of the shooting. (Olson later said the visual quality was better on a small screen.)
The video started with Neal Zumberge returning home from walking his dog. Minutes later, Damerow-Cleven was shown driving into her driveway and walking past the camera. She quickly walked off screen and wasn’t visible for the rest of the clip.
The video also showed Paula Zumberge standing at the edge of her yard near the mailbox apparently engaged in some type of conversation with Damerow-Cleven. The shooting occurs at some point, but is difficult to discern.
Toward the end of the clip, Paula Zumberge is seen walking into her home, exiting and going to two cars parked in her driveway, re-entering her home and then exiting one last time. She eventually drove off in one of the cars.
Damerow-Cleven previously testified that she and Stevens installed the security camera because of the dispute with Neal Zumberge.
Christie has said Paula Zumberge yelled words of encouragement as Neal Zumberge squeezed off four rounds. But Wolf maintains that no such words were ever uttered by his client.
Paula Zumberge allegedly fled the murder scene before a throng of sheriff’s deputies and police officers poured into the 2500 block of Knollwood Drive known for the “deer drama” that was poisoning relations between the two households.
When police finally caught up with her a few days later at her mother’s home in Columbia Heights, she refused to show her face. She refused to talk. Her mother handed her lawyer’s business card to a police detective and shut the door.
The Zumberge family had been frustrated with Stevens for his habit of feeding deer, according to court and police records, and believed that Neal Zumberge and the family dog had contracted Lyme disease from a deer tick.
The dispute came to a head on May 5 when Damerow-Cleven called police on the Zumberges’ son, Jacob. Jacob Zumberge was wanted by police for a previous incident in which he allegedly threatened to kill Damerow-Cleven and Stevens.
In his opening statements Monday, Wolf said that his client didn’t know what her husband was going to do because she was at the front of their property while he was further back.
Wolf said that Paula Zumberge would testify that she confronted Damerow-Cleven: “What’s wrong with you, [expletive]? You don’t go after my children.”
Then the shots rang out.
“She was stunned,” Wolf said of his client’s reaction to the shooting. “She didn’t know what was going on.”
Wolf said Neal Zumberge told his wife, “Leave, just leave.” But Paula Zumberge was so “frantic” she couldn’t find her car keys, prompting her husband to hand over his keys, Wolf said.
New Brighton police detective Michael Lochen testified Tuesday that Neal Zumberge spoke with BCA agents after turning himself in to authorities the night of the shooting, while Paula Zumberge has observed her right to remain silent.
What she said or didn’t say that night is at the heart of the criminal case against her. Authorities allege in a criminal complaint and at trial that she yelled, “Shoot, shoot, keep shooting,” while her husband allegedly fired at Stevens, 46, and Damerow-Cleven, 48.
But the phrase was called into question by Wolf in his cross-examination of Damerow-Cleven on Monday, and it was revealed by Damerow-Cleven that Paula Zumberge never uttered those words.
Instead, Damerow-Cleven testified, Paula Zumberge said, “Shoot ‘em, shoot ‘em.” Wolf latched onto that discrepancy in the prosecution’s key phrase, and solicited testimony from police officers that Damerow-Cleven never shared either alleged phrase with them despite the fact that she openly railed against Neal and Jacob Zumberge.
Multiple police officers also testified that as they tried to help her the night of the shooting, Damerow-Cleven swore at them and threatened to sue them because she felt they didn’t do enough to protect her and Stevens from Neal Zumberge. Wolf keyed in on Damerow-Cleven’s behavior and comments about police and Neal and Jacob Zumberge in an attempt to draw a contrast with her apparent reticence on the topic of Paula Zumberge.
Wolf reinforced both issues in his closing arguments Wednesday.
“If a person is telling the truth, they don’t need to change their story,” he said.
But under direct questioning by Christie on Monday, Damerow-Cleven said Paula Zumberge started the confrontation by threatening to kill her for calling the police on Jacob Zumberge. In a panicked 911 call that was played in court that day, Damerow-Cleven can be heard referring to Paula Zumberge: “And take his [expletive] wife, too! She’s the one who came out and started it!”
Five neighbors who witnessed parts of the shooting and aftermath testified about what they saw and heard, providing little clarity to Paula Zumberge’s alleged comments. Some heard shouting. None could decipher what was being said.
Two neighbors testified that Paula Zumberge appeared “calm” throughout the incident and then fled in a car.