A few times a month, a man’s voice calls out to Neal Zumberge from the darkness of his jail cell.
“Help! Help!” the man cries.
Zumberge is dreaming. He steps out of his New Brighton home and sweeps a flashlight from side to side. Frogs croak in a nearby swamp. The man keeps calling.
“I can’t find him, because it’s really dark,” Zumberge said in a jailhouse interview Tuesday afternoon. “My cellmate said I wake up screaming sometimes. It’s a scary dream.”
Zumberge shared the dream Tuesday on the eve of his sentencing for the May 5, 2014, murder of his neighbor, Todd Stevens — a killing he said that he deeply regrets and for which he faces life in prison.
The man in the dark doesn’t sound like Stevens. And even though Zumberge believes he acted in self-defense, he knows the dream that’s haunted him for six months is a reminder of that day when a yearslong dispute between the two households boiled over.
“I’m sorry for his family and my family, and all the hurt that I’ve caused,” Zumberge said. “It was my fault, too. I was being pigheaded.”
Zumberge was at times pensive, and fidgeted with his eyeglasses in his hands as he reflected on Stevens’ murder, and the possibility of spending the rest of his life behind bars.
A jury convicted Zumberge, 58, in August of first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder, second-degree murder with intent and attempted second-degree murder with intent.
In doing so, jurors found that he acted with premeditation when he fired a semiautomatic shotgun at Stevens, 46, and Stevens’ longtime girlfriend, Jennifer Cleven, 49, who was injured.
Zumberge’s apology rang false to Cleven, who won’t be at his sentencing but submitted a victim-impact statement.
“It’s just too late,” she said Tuesday. “The whole thing is, he had planned it. Todd was the love of my life. I’m shattered and heartbroken.”
Zumberge’s attorney, William Orth, filed a motion for a new trial, which a judge hasn’t ruled on but will likely address Wednesday.
Although Zumberge said he wants the case and its publicity to fade away so Stevens’ family and the Zumberges can begin healing (a producer working with the Discovery Channel has expressed interest in the case), part of him isn’t ready to give up the fight.
He fired Orth and Orth’s co-counsel, Gary Wolf, on Monday, citing ineffective assistance of counsel.
Zumberge said that Orth’s cancer treatment left him forgetful and ineffective at trial.
“It just really put me at a disadvantage,” Zumberge said.
Cleven said that Zumberge doesn’t deserve a new trial.
“I think he got a fair trial,” she said.
His own attorney
It had been revealed in open court long before Zumberge’s trial that both Orth and Wolf were diagnosed with cancer. With Zumberge’s approval, his trial had been delayed to accommodate the attorneys’ treatments.
Orth could not be reached for comment. Wolf said he couldn’t comment because of attorney-client privilege.
Zumberge plans to ask Ramsey County District Judge Margaret Marrinan on Wednesday to extend the time he has to file post-conviction motions so he can claim ineffective assistance of counsel and motion for a new trial. He’ll represent himself, and hopes that should the judge grant his request, he’ll qualify for a public defender.
“I’m just going in there kind of blind tomorrow,” Zumberge said. “I’m fighting for my life.”
He said he didn’t fire Orth and Wolf sooner because he sold his New Brighton house to pay for their services, and was committed to them.
Zumberge believes he and his family have been unfairly portrayed by the media as monsters, but he understands why the public might not support his cause.
“This guy, he didn’t deserve to die,” Zumberge said. “At one time, we were neighbors in the true sense.”
Zumberge’s self-reflection came too late for Cleven.
“You don’t kill somebody,” Cleven said. “That’s not a solution to a problem.”
Zumberge claimed self-defense at trial. Orth told jurors that Stevens drank heavily, carried a gun and had threatened the Zumberge family.
Years of that behavior caused Zumberge to fear for his and his wife’s safety the day he shot Stevens, Orth said.
Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Anna Christie told jurors that Zumberge was frustrated with Stevens’ habit of feeding deer in his yard. (Zumberge had circulated a letter in the neighborhood stating that he and his dog had contracted Lyme disease, an ailment transmitted by deer ticks.)
He cracked the day of the shooting, Christie said, when Cleven called the police on Zumberge’s younger son, Jacob, who was wanted by police for threatening her and Stevens.
When Cleven arrived home that evening, Zumberge’s wife, Paula Zumberge, confronted her verbally from across the street.
Stevens stepped outside to investigate the commotion. Neal Zumberge fired on the couple from across the street, testifying at trial that he saw Stevens’ voice a threat toward Paula Zumberge.
Zumberge testified that the gun went off repeatedly as he brought it up. Christie said he fired intentionally.
“That week, there were so many things happening it just felt out of control,” Zumberge said. “I wish things could have happened differently.”
Zumberge said his family should have moved — something he considered just months before the shooting.
“There are things that could’ve been done,” he said. “Just talking. Just communicating. You don’t talk and things just get worse.
“I was busy judging him when I should have been judging myself. I guess, ultimately, God will be my judge.”