It began with the animal parts. Then came the dead squirrels, apparently shot with a BB gun and tossed in the driveway, followed by dead birds. When the doe and fawn were found slain on a lawn, residents in the quiet New Brighton neighborhood began to realize they had a serious problem in their midst.
Shortly before 8:30 p.m. Monday, it got a whole lot worse.
That’s when police arrived at the 2500 block of Knollwood Drive to find 46-year-old Todd G. Stevens and his longtime girlfriend, Jennifer Damerow Cleven, 48, on the ground in their front yard. Both had been shot, apparently by a neighbor who had once sent out a rambling, derisive note warning his neighbors about the risks of feeding deer.
Despite lifesaving efforts, Stevens was declared dead at the scene. Damerow Cleven was taken to Hennepin County Medical Center for treatment. She was released Tuesday afternoon but said she was too distraught to speak with reporters.
Police identified the shooter as Neal A. Zumberge, 57, a neighbor who lived across the street. Zumberge turned himself in about an hour after the shooting and was being held Tuesday in the Ramsey County jail. He is expected to be charged Wednesday with second-degree murder and attempted second-degree murder, said Bob Jacobson, New Brighton’s director of public safety.
“He was a time bomb waiting to go off,” said Bob Comer, who lives around the corner from Zumberge.
Neighbor Cathi Williams, who gathered with others Tuesday morning near the shooting scene, described both households as “fully armed. … We were just waiting for the grenade to explode.”
Tucked among the parks and lakes that dot northwestern New Brighton, Knollwood Drive winds through a quiet neighborhood that hugs Rice Creek, a seemingly idyllic corner of wooded peace amid the din of bustling suburbs.
In recent years, however, the street had become something of a simmering demilitarized zone between Zumberge and the couple, who lived in the house once owned by Stevens’ grandmother, and next to the house where he grew up.
According to police and neighbors, much of the tension focused on the couple’s feeding of deer — which is legal in the city, but which apparently enraged Zumberge. It is legal to feed deer in Minnesota, but the state’s Department of Natural Resources discourages it.
“He hated deer. He hated deer with a passion,” Comer said of Zumberge. “And we have deer all over around here.”
Jacobson said the dispute had been going on “for two or three years.”
In late 2012, an unsettling letter was circulated throughout the neighborhood warning residents not to feed deer.
“In particular, this letter’s focus is Todd Stevens (Mr. Corn),” it said, adding, “For years Mr. Corn has been feeding deer with blatant disregard for his neighbors well being.”
The letter was unsigned, but accompanied by a page from a medical chart with Zumberge’s name, explaining that he and his dog had been treated for Lyme disease, which is caused by deer-borne ticks.
Jacobson did not say how many times police had been called to the neighborhood to respond to complaints, other than to say “There’s a whole lot. There’s a long history.”
New Brighton police spent much of Tuesday combing through reports of calls to the residences, but did not release the information.
But Damerow Cleven’s petition last year for a restraining order against Zumberge, which was granted and was in effect for another year, provided insight into the mounting tension. It included references to dead animals apparently being shot with a BB gun and deposited in the yard of the home she shared with Stevens; three specific instances when Zumberge threatened to beat her up; repeated threats to kill more deer at their feeder.
Zumberge was cited last August for violating the order, records show.
“I am scared of him,” Damerow Cleven wrote. “I have had New Brighton police go over to his residence at least two times.”
After Stevens found two dead deer in his yard, he installed surveillance cameras on his property, Comer said. It’s not known if the cameras captured Monday’s shooting. Comer said his son had seen Zumberge walking by with his dog minutes before it happened, then heard the shots. A shotgun was later recovered by police, who also executed two search warrants of the property.
Police have not provided an account of what sparked the bloodshed, but Stevens and one of Zumberge’s sons apparently had a heated exchange at the VFW Post in Spring Lake Park a week earlier, said bartender Sam Even, who witnessed the argument.
She said Jacob Zumberge was talking with Damerow Cleven when Stevens came up and began insulting the younger Zumberge’s mother.
“It’s just really sad,” Even said. “But this has been going on for years.”
About two hours before the shooting Monday, Jacob Zumberge was arrested at a New Brighton bar at the request of Spring Lake Park police on suspicion of making terroristic threats and fifth-degree assault.
Neighbors said Tuesday they suspect the arrest stemmed from the confrontation at the VFW.
“In some ways, it’s not shocking,” said Williams, thinking of the long-running rift between Stevens and the alleged shooter.
“Who would let deer get in the way of …” Williams said, her voice trailing off. “It’s deer, and [to] take a life over that?”
Staff Writers Nicole Norfleet and James Walsh contributed to this report.