Paula Zumberge walked out of the Ramsey County jail Tuesday a free woman after being acquitted of all charges in the killing of one New Brighton neighbor and the wounding of another in a long-running feud about feeding deer.
Ramsey County District Judge Lezlie Ott Marek said in her decision that inconsistencies in the surviving victim’s testimony factored into her findings.
“Justice was done,” said Zumberge’s attorney, Gary Wolf.
Zumberge, who dodged reporters as she left the jail, was tried before Marek last week on four counts: aiding and abetting second-degree murder, aiding and abetting attempted second-degree murder and two counts of aiding and abetting second-degree assault.
Family members reached Tuesday at a suburban Twin Cities home where Zumberge is believed to be staying said that she didn’t want to talk about the case. Relatives said they were happy she was home, and declined further comment.
Shooting victim Jennifer Damerow-Cleven, who survived the attack that left her longtime boyfriend, Todd G. Stevens, dead, was visibly upset by the acquittal.
“I just don’t feel like justice was served today,” Damerow-Cleven said outside the New Brighton home where she and Stevens were gunned down. “I just know that what I said and what I saw is the truth.”
Authorities had alleged that Zumberge conspired with her husband, Neal C. Zumberge, to lure their neighbors out of their home on May 5 so he could shoot them.
Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Anna Christie said at trial that Paula Zumberge shouted words of encouragement as her husband fired a semiautomatic shotgun four times at Stevens, 46, and Damerow-Cleven, 48.
Stevens was shot multiple times, including in the heart, brain and spinal column. Damerow-Cleven was wounded.
In a memorandum explaining her judgments, Marek said that Damerow-Cleven’s testimony at trial was “inconsistent,” and that her allegations that Paula Zumberge shouted words of encouragement were not corroborated by witnesses.
“…the State did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Defendant spoke any words of encouragement to Neal Zumberge either before or during the shootings,” Marek wrote. “Ms. Damerow-Cleven’s testimony at trial regarding the timing and details of the events immediately surrounding the shooting differed between her direct and cross examinations.”
Christie said at trial that Paula Zumberge shouted, “Shoot, shoot, keep shooting.”
Under cross-examination by Wolf, Damerow-Cleven admitted that Paula Zumberge never said those exact words. Instead, she testified, Paula Zumberge said, “Shoot ’em, shoot ’em.”
Damerow-Cleven also said that it was her sister who wrote the phrase while helping her file a restraining order after the shooting.
Christie and Wolf acknowledged at trial that Paula Zumberge argued with Damerow-Cleven outside before Neal Zumberge fired shots.
Paula Zumberge’s calm demeanor during the attack, Christie said, was evidence of her guilt and collusion. But Marek disagreed.
Poor quality surveillance video of the shooting taken from Stevens’ home was shown at trial. It was soundless.
“While it is unusual that Defendant did not display a perceptible physical reaction with her body when the shooting began, due to limitations of the video evidence it is not possible to see whether shock registered on her face,” Marek wrote. “The notion that she had an ulterior motive … is a possible theory — perhaps plausible — but is not supported by proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”
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 feud came to a head the day of the shooting when Damerow-Cleven ran into the Zumberges’ son, Jacob, earlier in the day at a restaurant. She called the police on him because he was wanted for allegedly threatening on a previous occasion to kill Damerow-Cleven and Stevens and burn down their house.
Several pellet holes remained visible Tuesday in the facade and door of the modest blue house Damerow-Cleven shared with Stevens. A tall PVC pipe feeder filled with cracked corn stood in the yard, a reminder of what one police officer dubbed “the deer drama.”
The Zumberges’ home sat across the street, having recently been sold to help pay for Neal Zumberge’s legal costs. He is charged with second-degree murder with intent and attempted second-degree murder, and is scheduled to stand trial on Nov. 10.
Damerow-Cleven said she’s worried she’ll have to move out of the house she shared with Stevens because she can’t afford to make the payments by herself. Sitting at a small picnic table out front Tuesday, she was adamant that she told the truth on the witness stand, and was just frazzled by the experience.
“When you get up there, you just go blank,” she said of testifying. “I’m human, you know?”