Weeks after a jury convicted her husband for fatally shooting a neighbor and wounding another, Paula Zumberge is still trying to come to terms with the verdicts and the reality that Neal Zumberge will likely be imprisoned for life.
“It has been very hard,” she said on a recent evening. “You know, this is my family.”
Surrounded by the couple’s three children and her sister-in-law, in her husband’s suburban childhood home, Paula Zumberge spoke publicly for the first time about the yearslong dispute that came to a head in May 2014 when Neal fired a semiautomatic shotgun across the street, killing Todd Stevens and injuring Stevens’ girlfriend, Jennifer Cleven.
She talked about the friction between the neighbors, and the financial and emotional toll it had taken on the family; the couple had to sell their New Brighton home to pay for his defense.
And she touched on the burden of having been tried and acquitted herself of aiding and abetting her husband’s crimes.
In her husband’s case, she thinks the jury got it wrong despite overwhelming evidence against him and the fact that jurors took only two hours to find him guilty.
Cleven could not be reached for comment. But the Zumberges’ belief in Neal’s innocence frustrates Stevens’ cousin, Kim Higgins, who attended the trial.
“It upsets me a lot, because you know what?” Higgins said. “This is America, and we have 12 people to make a decision.”
Looking back, Paula Zumberge said, the family should have moved away as her husband once had considered.
But she added: “This could happen to anybody. I can’t think of anything we could have done to change it.”
Hope for a new trial
Zumberge was convicted in August of first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder, second-degree murder with intent and attempted second-degree murder with intent. His attorney, William Orth, filed a motion last week for a new trial, a common post-conviction strategy that is rarely successful.
Still, the Zumberge family is hopeful. “I expect that he’ll get a new trial, and he’ll come home,” said Neal Zumberge’s sister, Karen Wassermann.
Home for the Zumberges is no longer on a large, partly wooded lot in a quiet New Brighton neighborhood near a nature trail and Rice Creek, where they used to spot turkeys, owls, turtles, salamanders and deer.
It was Stevens’ habit of feeding those deer that frustrated Zumberge — who said he had contracted Lyme disease — to the point of shooting him, according to police and Ramsey County prosecutors.
He finally snapped, Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Anna Christie said at the trial, when Cleven called the police on May 5, 2014, about his younger son, Jacob Zumberge, who was wanted for making threats against her and Stevens.
The Zumberge family had moved from northeast Minneapolis to the 2500 block of Knollwood Drive in 1997 for the school system, which they felt was better suited for their children and particularly Jacob, who is dyslexic.
“We’re just people who wanted to get up, go to work and raise our family,” Paula Zumberge said. “That’s all we wanted to do. I know a lot of people out there — that’s all they want to do.”
Jacob became good friends with Cleven’s son, whom Stevens raised as his own. The boys spent time at each other’s homes. Jacob accompanied Cleven, her son and Stevens on family outings to the State Fair and snow tubing.
Although the adults weren’t close, they were cordial. At least until, according to 22-year-old Jessica Zumberge, her mother told Jacob he couldn’t spend time at the Stevens home because of Stevens’ drinking.
Paula Zumberge said she recalled making that decision when Jacob, 25, was about 12.
‘A very good life’
In the years that followed, according to courtroom testimony and police reports, the families argued over feeding deer and signs in the Zumberges’ yard. Threats were traded, and evidence at trial showed that both households antagonized each other.
The feud culminated when Cleven arrived home after calling police about Jacob and was yelled at by Paula Zumberge.
Stevens stepped outside to investigate the commotion — not knowing that Neal Zumberge had grabbed a loaded shotgun from under his couch, climbed out of an egress window and had positioned himself along the Zumberge home.
Neal Zumberge testified that he saw Stevens threaten Paula, so he brought up the gun and it “just kept going off.”
Christie asserted at trial that he intentionally squeezed off four shots, striking Stevens with eight pellets.
Neal claimed self-defense. But other neighbors who had endured years of the Zumberge-Stevens feud had no sympathy for his situation.
That’s a reality Paula Zumberge, who lost her job as an administrative assistant at an elder care facility after her arrest, also lives with.
“I guess acquitted doesn’t mean innocent,” she said of the fallout from her trial.
Neal Zumberge faces an automatic term of life in prison when he is sentenced on Sept. 16. A judge has yet to rule on Orth’s motion, and although a first-degree murder conviction is automatically appealed, his family is bracing for the possibility of never seeing him outside of prison walls.
Paula Zumberge said that her husband called her recently and told her not to despair because he “had a very good life.”
“It’s kind of hard to wrap your head around the fact that somebody that’s always been there your whole life isn’t going to be there the rest of your life,” said Jessica Zumberge.