Neal Zumberge didn’t shoot and kill his New Brighton neighbor last year over the man’s long-standing habit of feeding deer. Rather, Zumberge’s attorney said Wednesday, he shot Todd Stevens because of the “hillbilly hell” his family endured for years living across the street from Stevens, an inveterate drinker who fought with his father and the entire Zumberge family.
That alleged “hell” should be admissible as evidence at Zumberge’s murder trial next month, his attorney, William Orth, argued at a hearing Wednesday in Ramsey County District Court.
Stevens, 46, died after being shot in the heart, brain and spinal column. His longtime girlfriend, Jennifer Damerow-Cleven, 49, was injured.
“These two, Jennifer Damerow-Cleven and Todd Stevens, are bad actors,” Orth said. “They’re always in trouble with the police, and they’re dangerous.”
Orth and his co-counsel, Gary Wolf, are expected to argue at trial that Zumberge, 58, acted in self-defense and in defense of his wife, Paula Zumberge, when he fired a 12-gauge semiautomatic shotgun at Stevens and Damerow-Cleven from his yard across the street on May 5, 2014.
Among Stevens’ behaviors that alarmed the Zumberges, Orth said, was a habit of ordering his Doberman pinscher and boxer dogs to run up to the Zumberge mailbox and then back to his own property.
Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Anna Christie said much of the evidence Orth proposed admitting at trial was old and “irrelevant.”
“It doesn’t matter if Mr. Stevens may not have been a good person,” Christie said. “Mr. Stevens has every right to be drunk in his home.”
Wednesday’s hearing provided a deeper glimpse into the defense strategy, which will attempt to deflate the notion that Zumberge shot because he was mad at Stevens for feeding deer in his yard. That narrative was consistently repeated by neighbors, police, the criminal charges, the media and finally, the Ramsey County attorney’s office when it tried Paula Zumberge last August for aiding and abetting the murder. She was acquitted on all counts.
In 2012, neighbors received a letter that warned them to abstain from feeding deer.
It was not signed, but included a medical chart with Zumberge’s name stating that he and his dog had been treated for Lyme disease, which is caused by deer-borne ticks.
“It didn’t happen that way,” Orth said of the reason his client shot Stevens.
While Stevens and the Zumberges had lived in their respective homes for about 20 years, the incidents Orth sought to admit at trial occurred over the past decade.
Stevens drank heavily, littered his yard with beer cans and fought with his father, who had lived next door, Orth said.
The attorney said Steven’s home was “a neighborhood blight” and that there was “this hillbilly hell” between Stevens and his father.
That atmosphere is relevant, he argued, because it added to Zumberge’s concerns about his family’s safety and Stevens’ stability. Orth said that Stevens verbally abused Neal and Paula Zumberge, their two sons and their daughter and walked up to their mailbox, pointed at them and warned them that if they came across the street, “It’s a different story.”
On another occasion, Orth said, Neal Zumberge saw Stevens and a friend point crossbows over trees on the Zumberge property.
“I think the jury is entitled to know the years of torture Mr. Zumberge went through to get along with his neighbor,” Orth said.
Christie argued that only in one police report did the Zumberge children, who are grown, say that Stevens had called them names. Orth’s proposed evidence would confuse jurors, she said, and does not contribute to Zumberge’s state of mind during the shooting.
How could Zumberge know the details of Stevens’ fights with his father, and how could he factor that into his decision to pull the trigger? she asked.
Ramsey County District Court Judge Margaret Marrinan did not decide Wednesday what, if any, of the evidence could be admitted at trial.
“With regard to some of them, I’m very skeptical,” Marrinan said of Orth’s proposed evidence. “With regard to some of them, I can see your point.”
Marrinan asked Orth to whittle down the evidence to incidents that occurred no earlier than 2010. Orth said he may have older incidents he wanted to address, and would alert the judge by Friday.
Also Wednesday, Orth told Marrinan that Neal Zumberge’s brother, who is deaf, will testify that Neal Zumberge can read lips, and that there would be evidence that Stevens made comments to Damerow-Cleven just before the shooting.
Although Orth did not make a direct link, the implication was that Neal Zumberge may have reacted after reading Stevens’ lips.
Christie, however, said that Neal Zumberge’s ability to read his brother’s lips did not translate into an ability to read Stevens’ lips, especially from 40 to 45 yards away.
Christie also filed a motion stating that if self-defense is claimed and Neal Zumberge’s character is at issue, she will introduce evidence that in 2010, he threatened to “beat the [expletive]” out of a meter reader, along with evidence from a 1987 assault case and a 2009 assault case.
The May 2014 shooting occurred after Damerow-Cleven ran into the Zumberges’ son, Jacob, at a restaurant. She called police on the son, who was wanted for a previous incident in which he allegedly threatened to kill Damerow-Cleven and Stevens.
When Damerow-Cleven arrived home later, Paula Zumberge stood on the edge of the Zubmerge property and verbally confronted her. Stevens walked out of his home, and Neal Zumberge fired from between bushes and his home.
Neal Zumberge is scheduled to go to trial on Aug. 10 on charges of first-degree murder, first-degree attempted murder, second-degree murder and attempted second-degree murder.