Neal Zumberge stood in his New Brighton yard with a loaded shotgun and strained to listen as his neighbor, Todd Stevens, allegedly threatened his wife from across the street.
Zumberge couldn't make out Stevens' exact words in the din of an argument between his wife and Stevens' longtime girlfriend, Jennifer Cleven. But, Zumberge testified at his murder trial Monday, he read Stevens' lips and body language using skills he mastered growing up with a deaf brother, and didn't like what he saw.
"It wasn't good," Zumberge said.
In a loud, forceful tone, Zumberge repeated in court what he believed Stevens said regarding Paula Zumberge that night in May 2014: "I'm going to kill that [expletive] [expletive]."
Seconds later, Neal Zumberge opened fire, killing Stevens and injuring Cleven.
"I was bringing the gun up, and it went off," he said. "It was just a blur. … The gun kept going off. … It just kept going off."
Zumberge's much-anticipated account came in Day 4 of testimony in his murder trial in Ramsey County, where he is charged with first-degree premeditated murder, attempted first-degree murder, second-degree murder with intent and attempted second-degree murder with intent.
His attorneys, William Orth and Gary Wolf, maintain that Zumberge shot his neighbors across the street because of a culmination of bad experiences that made him fear for his wife's life as she argued with Cleven.
Zumberge, 58, testified that he didn't intend to kill Stevens. He said he wanted to stop Stevens from harming his wife when he thought he saw Stevens reaching for his waist. Zumberge testified that Stevens regularly carried a small handgun in a phone case on his belt.
The defense rested its case early Monday afternoon after calling Neal Zumberge's deaf brother, Frederick Zumberge, to testify that Zumberge could read lips.
Afterward, Wolf made a motion to allow jurors to also consider a third-degree murder charge in addition to the more serious counts. A conviction on that charge would give Zumberge a guideline sentence of 12½ years in prison instead of life, which he faces if convicted of first-degree murder.
Ramsey County District Judge Margaret Marrinan granted Wolf's motion over an objection from Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Anna Christie.
Christie has argued that Zumberge shot Stevens and Cleven because he was fed up with their habit of feeding deer and because they called police on his son, who was wanted by authorities for threatening the couple on a previous occasion.
Loading the gun
Zumberge's testimony is key to his self-defense claim, which is reliant on his state of mind. He was at times uncooperative and resistant during cross-examination by the prosecution, prompting Judge Marrinan to intervene several times to compel his answer.
Zumberge dodged direct answers when Christie asked him if and when he had loaded the semiautomatic shotgun, and whether he loaded one shell into the chamber and the rest into the magazine, or whether all four shells were in the magazine. (A gun expert previously testified that the gun could hold one shell in the chamber and four in the magazine and that it self-loaded after every shot.)
Zumberge eventually testified that he had loaded four shells into the gun a week before the shooting. It had been revealed earlier that because of growing tensions between the neighbors, Zumberge had removed the gun from the rafters in his basement a week before the shooting, removed the trigger lock and stored the gun under his living-room couch.
"I thought things were going downhill," Zumberge said of why he loaded the shotgun.
Zumberge became combative when Christie asked him about a 2012 incident in which he lied to two state Department of Natural Resources officials and said that he had no firearms in his house, when he had three guns stored in the rafters. "I was under distress," he said.
Christie pressed him further.
"You have it recorded," he said. "We should listen to it."
Marrinan intervened, and Zumberge admitted to the lie.
'Stood there stunned'
Earlier Monday, Paula Zumberge, and the couple's son Nicholas Zumberge took the witness stand.
Paula Zumberge testified that the night of the shooting, she went outside to confront Cleven because she was "livid" at Cleven for calling police on her other son, Jacob. She said shots rang out from behind her, catching her by surprise.
"I just stood there stunned," Paula Zumberge said. "I couldn't even move."
It could be argued that determining Neal Zumberge's state of mind is perhaps a product of perception as much as it is a product of verifiable facts and events. However, an interview he had with authorities after the shooting and other details could pose a challenge to the defense argument of self-defense.
Orth and Wolf have encountered hurdles in their attempt to show that Stevens was a troublemaking drunk who carried a gun openly and routinely threatened the Zumberges.
Several neighbors who testified, including a young couple who lived next door to Stevens, said they never saw him carrying a handgun. One neighbor said he had seen Stevens carry a small handgun inside his home a few times and once outside. Neighbors said Stevens was a regular drinker, but none testified to having problems with him because of it.
In an interview with two state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension agents after his arrest, Zumberge said nothing about seeing or hearing Stevens make a specific threat to his wife's life. He also did not mention seeing Stevens reach for a gun.
Closing arguments are expected Tuesday morning.