New Brighton shooting victim takes the stand

  • Article by: CHAO XIONG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 12, 2014 - 12:09 AM

Testimony alters key quote in shooting rooted in deer-feeding feud.

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An ongoing dispute between neighbors over feeding deer erupted in gunfire in May in New Brighton, killing Todd G. Stevens, 46, and wounding his girlfriend, Jennifer Cleven, 48. Here, several bullet holes are visible in the side of the victims' house as well as the door.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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In the days after Neal Zumberge allegedly pulled a semiautomatic shotgun and aimed at his New Brighton neighbors, killing one and wounding another, authorities charged that his wife, Paula, shouted, “Shoot, shoot, keep shooting,” as he fired away.

That inflammatory quote was so powerful that it became the basis for the criminal charges filed against Paula Zumberge. Prosecutors charged that the May 5 shooting that killed Todd G. Stevens and wounded of his girlfriend, Jennifer Damerow-Cleven was rooted in a dispute over the feeding of neighborhood deer.

But on the first day of Paula Zumberge’s trial Monday in Ramsey County District Court, Damerow-Cleven acknowledged under relentless cross examination that she never said those exact words. Her eyes downcast for much of the questioning, Damerow-Cleven testified that Paula Zumberge had actually said, “Shoot ’em, shoot ’em,” instead. And even then, Damerow-Cleven said, that information was relayed not by herself, but by the wounded woman’s sister in a restraining order filed after the shooting.

The admission could deliver a blow to the prosecution’s case against Paula Zumberge, 50, who is charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder, attempted second-degree murder and two counts of second-degree assault in the killing of Stevens and the wounding of Damerow-Cleven.

The phrase has become so central to the case that Assistant County Attorney Anna Christie invoked it in her opening statements.

“Shoot, shoot, keep shooting,” Christie said. “That is what Paula Zumberge encouraged her husband to do. … She was a key participant.”

But Zumberge’s attorney, Gary Wolf, said in his opening statements that his client’s innocence would be corroborated by witnesses and surveillance video, even though the video has no sound.

“The reality is Paula Zumberge didn’t say anything regarding firearms or shooting, did she?” Wolf asked Damerow-Cleven.

“She did,” Damerow-Cleven adamantly said.

Damerow-Cleven testified under questioning by Christie that Paula Zumberge had also threatened to kill her. Wolf noted that in her call to 911 and in interviews with police that night she was specific about threats made by Neal Zumberge and the Zumberges’ son, Jacob Zumberge, but didn’t mention Paula Zumberge’s alleged death threat.

“That came later? That came today?” Wolf asked.

“I was trying to remember everything she said,” Damerow-Cleven said.

“Could it be that you’re so hurt and angry about the situation … that you’re simply exaggerating to punish the entire family?” Wolf asked.

“No,” Damerow-Cleven said.

Long-simmering feud

Court records allege that the shooting stemmed from the Zumberge family’s frustration with Stevens feeding deer on his property. The dispute was fueled by the family’s apparent belief that Neal Zumberge had contracted Lyme disease from a deer tick.

The long-simmering feud came to a head in May when Damerow-Cleven ran into Jacob Zumberge at a restaurant and called police on him. He was wanted for allegedly threatening on a previous occasion to kill Damerow-Cleven and Stevens and burn down their house.

Damerow-Cleven testified Monday that after she called police, she went home, ran an errand with Stevens, dropped Stevens off at home and went jewelry shopping.

When she got home, she said, Paula Zumberge was standing at the edge of the Zumberge property and yelling at her for calling the police.

Damerow-Cleven told the court that Paula Zumberge said, “[Expletive], I’m going to kill you myself,” prompting Stevens to step outside of his house to intervene.

Damerow-Cleven then dabbed a tissue to her eyes, taking several minutes to collect herself before she recounted how Neal Zumberge allegedly killed Stevens in the couple’s front yard.

“It just happened so fast,” she said. “[Neal Zumberge] was just standing there with a blank look on his face. I think I said, ‘Run,’ first. ‘He’s got a gun,’ and Todd said, ‘He shot me,’ and he took a few steps … and I just started running. It’s like [Todd] fell and just crawled up into a fetal position.”

Christie played the recording of Damerow-Cleven’s 911 call after the shooting. Damerow-Cleven is heard yelling for police to hurry. Near the end of the call, she brought up Paula Zumberge, but not by name.

“And take his [expletive] wife, too!” Damerow-Cleven yelled. “She’s the one who came out and started it!”

‘Stood and stared’

Earlier Monday, Wolf said the dispute was always with Neal Zumberge, not Paula, a point he tried to reinforce in cross-examination of neighbors, including Shawn and Jennifer Bortel, who live next door to the Stevens and Damerow-Cleven home.

Shawn Bortel testified that he heard women arguing and then four gunshots. Jennifer Bortel testified that she heard only the gunshots. Jennifer Bortel said she saw Paula Zumberge standing at the end of the Zumberge driveway for a minute or two after the shooting before driving away in a car. She said Zumberge appeared “calm.”

Neighbor Heidi Nauss testified that she heard a woman yelling before the shooting but couldn’t decipher the words.

“For quite a while [Paula Zumberge] stood and stared” after Stevens was shot, Nauss said.

Asked about Paula Zumberge’s demeanor, Nauss said, “It was calm, I guess.”

Paula Zumberge’s trial will resume Tuesday and could wrap up by Wednesday with testimony by Neal and Paula Zumberge, whom Wolf expects will testify.

Paula Zumberge waived her right to a jury trial, meaning Judge Lezlie Ott Marek will issue verdicts.

A trial date for Neal Zumberge, charged with second-degree murder with intent and attempted second-degree murder, has yet to be set.

 

Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708

Twitter: @ChaoStrib

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