A Ramsey County jury took only two hours Tuesday to make the final call in a bitter dispute between neighbors that troubled a New Brighton neighborhood for years and cost a man his life.
After four days of courtroom testimony, the jury of eight women and four men found Neal Zumberge guilty of first-degree murder for fatally shooting Todd Stevens last year, a conviction that carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison.
Stevens' girlfriend, Jennifer Cleven, was injured in the May 5, 2014, attack and said Tuesday that she would never forgive Zumberge."All I can say to him is, 'I don't forgive you. I never forgive you, and I hope you rot in hell,' " she said. "That's it, and I mean it."
The jury also found Zumberge, 58, guilty of all other charges against him — attempted first-degree murder, second-degree murder with intent and attempted second-degree murder with intent.
Zumberge fired four shotgun shells at Stevens and Cleven as Cleven argued with Zumberge's wife, Paula, outside their homes that night. Stevens died at the scene.
Jurors received the case about 10:45 a.m. Tuesday following closing arguments, and returned verdicts about 2 p.m. after an hour lunch break. By convicting Zumberge on all four counts, jurors agreed with the prosecution's argument that Zumberge planned to shoot Stevens and Cleven, and rejected the defense claim that he acted in self-defense and was protecting his wife from a threat made by Stevens.
Jurors declined to comment after their verdicts were read.
Afterward, an upset Cleven said that Zumberge had previously threatened to kill them and that she took all of the legal steps possible to protect herself and Stevens. She expressed frustration with the legal system and law enforcement.
Stevens died, Cleven said, despite a restraining order she filed against Zumberge in 2013, multiple calls to police and having security cameras installed on Stevens' house in the 2500 block of Knollwood Drive.
"All I can tell you is there's more than Neal Zumberge that I blame for this," she said. "I believe it could have been prevented. … You're not putting up cameras, you're not doing restraining orders, you're not calling the cops over and over for fun.
"Justice was served for Todd today, but we shouldn't be here today."
Cleven urged authorities to take reports of harassment more seriously.
Police officers testified that the strife between the two households sometimes involved incidents authorities believed were unfounded or not prosecutable.
Stevens' cousin, Kim Higgins, said that Zumberge's eldest son was aware of his father's growing anger and that he should have intervened.
"It could have been stopped," Higgins said.
In closing arguments, Zumberge's actions were described by the prosecution as "coldblooded murder" worthy of life imprisonment and by the defense as the "mistake" of a protective husband deserving of a full acquittal.
Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Anna Christie urged jurors not to spare Zumberge, whom she said retaliated because he was frustrated with Stevens' habit of feeding deer.
To drive home the callousness of his actions, she repeatedly invoked a phrase Zumberge said to investigators in an interview hours after his arrest: "They should give me a medal for this."
Zumberge reached a breaking point last year, Christie said, when Cleven called police on the Zumberges' younger son, Jacob, who was wanted for prior threats he made toward Stevens and Cleven.
"He saw his opportunity that day," she said. "This is a man who hated his neighbors."
When Cleven returned home, Paula Zumberge went outside to confront her. Neal Zumberge grabbed a loaded semiautomatic shotgun from under the living-room couch, descended the basement stairs and climbed out of an egress window.
Zumberge hid behind the side of his house and peeked around the corner five times before stepping into the open and shooting Stevens and Cleven across the street, spraying them with 32 pellets, eight of them removed from Stevens' body.
"In his mind, there was only one way this was going to end," Christie said.
Made a mistake
Zumberge's attorney, William Orth, told jurors that his client made a mistake. Zumberge thought Stevens was reaching for a gun to harm Paula Zumberge, so he fired, Orth said.
Evidence at trial showed that Stevens was unarmed that night, that a cellphone was recovered from the scene and that a black cellphone case was clipped to Stevens' waist.
Orth pulled a comb out of his pocket to demonstrate how quickly an object could be drawn from a person's side.
"That black carrying case could handle a weapon," he said. "It could also handle a cellphone."
Orth urged jurors to consider Zumberge's mind-set that night, and how it was affected by years of living across the street from Stevens, whom Orth characterized as a "bully" and a drunk.
Christie told jurors that other neighbors' testimony about Stevens' behavior largely did not corroborate claims made by the Zumberge family.
Zumberge, his wife, one of their sons and their daughter testified that Stevens drank regularly to the point of intoxication and that he harassed the family. Some of them testified that they saw Stevens in his yard with a handgun several times.
Cleven said after the verdicts were read that other neighbors did not have issues with Stevens.
"Not everybody's perfect, but you're allowed to have a beer in your yard," she said.
Zumberge's claim of self-defense was a lie, Cleven added.
Zumberge testified that he fired at Stevens after he read Stevens' lips and body language and that he saw Stevens voice a threat to harm Paula Zumberge.
Christie attacked that in her closing arguments, noting that Zumberge was about 145 feet — nearly half the length of a football field — from Stevens at the time.
"This was not self-defense," she said. "This was coldblooded murder."
Zumberge is scheduled to be sentenced on Oct. 14.