A New Brighton man convicted of shooting and killing one neighbor and injuring another after a yearslong dispute was sentenced Wednesday to life in prison for firing the fatal shots, admitting at his sentencing that he had lied on the witness stand.
Neal Zumberge, 58, received the life sentence for a conviction of first-degree murder. As a symbolic gesture, Ramsey County District Court Judge Margaret Marrinan also gave him a consecutive sentence of 15 years in prison for an additional conviction of attempted first-degree murder.
Jurors had also convicted Zumberge in August of second-degree murder with intent and attempted second-degree murder with intent in the May 5, 2014 killing of Todd Stevens, 46, and wounding of Stevens’ longtime girlfriend, Jennifer Cleven, 49. He did not receive sentences for the two lesser counts.
“The prison is in your own mind,” Marrinan told Zumberge before she handed down the sentences. “It is your mind that has to confront what happened here.”
In a victim-impact statement read by a victim advocate, Cleven said that Stevens’ murder left her heartbroken and scared for her safety.
“This has left my life shattered,” wrote Cleven, who could not attend the sentencing. “I live in fear everyday of my life.”
During his approximately 20-minute address to the court, Zumberge apologized for his actions and made the startling claim that he had lied on the witness stand when he testified at his trial.
He also recounted how, when his family moved to the 2500 block of Knollwood Drive in the late 1990s, he and Stevens were on good terms. They helped each other with yard work. Stevens attended bonfires at the Zumberge home. And the two held Fourth of July firework “duels,” Zumberge said.
“We were just two guys struggling to make it…,” he said. “Todd was never a bad man in my opinion. He was a good man.”
But, Zumberge added, sometimes Stevens did bad things, “like most men do.”
Zumberge claimed self-defense at trial, saying that he shot Stevens based on years of experiencing Stevens’ drunkenness and threats, and after seeing Stevens voice a threat to his wife, Paula Zumberge, the day of the shooting.
Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Anna Christie said Zumberge shot his neighbors because he was fed up with them feeding deer, and angry that Cleven had called the police on his younger son, Jacob, that day.
“I can’t imagine how I would feel if my wife or one of my kids was suddenly taken from me from a — the result of a violent crime,” Zumberge said. “If I could trade places with Todd, I would. I’m sorry. Todd didn’t deserve to die.”
Zumberge’s voice cracked as he recalled the life he led with his wife and their three children at the New Brighton house they sold to pay for his defense. He blasted the media for hounding his family in the wake of the shooting and for characterizing them as “monsters.”
His address took an unexpected turn toward the end when he said that he wanted to “right a wrong” and tell the truth to “possibly start the healing for myself, make peace with God.”
“I think the victim’s family is entitled to this,” Zumberge said. “When I was on the witness stand, I didn’t tell the truth …”
Zumberge said he was coached into making statements on the witness stand that were not true. He testified at trial that he raised a semiautomatic shotgun and it “just kept going off.” Wednesday, he said that statement wasn’t true.
Zumberge also said that his testimony that he saw Stevens reaching for a cellphone that he thought he was a gun was also a lie.
“It’s a result of all the coaching I received,” Zumberge said of his testimony.
Zumberge testified at trial that growing up with a deaf brother allowed him to read Stevens’ lips from across the street — nearly half a football field’s length from the Zumberge home. He testified that he saw Stevens voice a threat toward Paula Zumberge, who was standing on the edge of the Zumberges’ yard yelling at Cleven, who had returned home after calling the police on the Zumberges’ son.
Cleven was standing in her yard, and Stevens stepped outside to investigate the commotion.
Zumberge testified that he saw Stevens say, “I’m going to kill that [expletive] [expletive].”
But Zumberge confessed Wednesday: “I did talk about I could read his lips, but I really couldn’t, but I could read his body language, his facial expressions.
“I had seen him say the same words so many times before that I knew what he was saying.”
Zumberge said years of observing Stevens allowed him to decipher the meaning of Stevens’ body language the day of the shooting, and based on that, he raised the shotgun up.
Zumberge said the first shot did go off on its own, striking Stevens, who held up his hand and yelled, “Ouch!” But, he said, he fired the three other shots.
Zumberge has maintained that he never meant to shoot Cleven, and he reiterated that claim Wednesday. He told the court at sentencing that he fired the second shot at Stevens, who then fell down his front steps, and that he fired the last two shots at Stevens’ dog because it appeared at the door and was “vicious” toward the Zumberges. (The dog was struck in the foot.)
Christie has maintained that Zumberge intended to shoot Cleven.
“…beyond that, I mean, I have — I have this recurring dream — ,” Zumberge said, stopping as his voice cracked, “ — in the jail here.”
His voice cracked and he cleared his throat several times as he told Marrinan that he often dreams of a man calling out for help in the darkness of his New Brighton neighborhood.
Zumberge said that in his dream, he searches unsuccessfully for the man.
“I can’t find him,” he said. “I just — I can’t find him. That’s all I have to say. I’m sorry.”
He added that he hoped people would learn from his case, and not be afraid to back down from conflict or admit when they’re wrong.
“It appears to the court that you really are sincerely sorry about what happened here,” said Marrinan, who did not address Zumberge’s claims that he lied on the witness stand.
After the sentencing, Orth said that Zumberge’s statements about his testimony were the result of his feeling desperate and mixed up.
“He’s not thinking straight,” Orth said. “His idea that he lied on the witness stand, that’s humility to the extreme.
“Much of what he said was brilliant, and much of it was inappropriate. I don’t know what he was talking about …”
In a jailhouse interview with the Star Tribune Tuesday, Zumberge had said he fired Orth and his co-counsel, Gary Wolf, because Orth was ineffective at trial due to side effects of his cancer treatment. After Marrinan explained to Zumberge Wednesday that he could make that claim after sentencing, Zumberge decided not to fire the attorneys.
A first-degree murder conviction is automatically appealed to the state supreme court, and Marrinan told Zumberge that he could make additional motions and claims at that time.
Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708