The bitter tale of a New Brighton feud that boiled over last year when Neal Zumberge shot Todd Stevens dead in his front yard kept the metro area riveted.
But for many residents of the neighborhood where the feud took place, Zumberge’s murder trial, which starts Monday, is a matter of indifference more than interest.
“It’s sensational, but in the end, I don’t really care,” said Karen Hammel, who has lived in the neighborhood for 20 years. “Good riddance to them both.”
Residents in and around the 2500 block of Knollwood Drive endured the yearslong feud between Zumberge and Stevens, politely retreating when the men’s bullish behavior erupted and making up rules for how to deal with them.
For months after the May 5, 2014, shooting, neighbors said, strangers asked them about “that deer murder” (authorities said Zumberge was frustrated with Stevens’ habit of feeding deer).
But locally, they said, people largely have put the drama behind them. There was no noticeable mention of Zumberge’s pending trial during the Aug. 4 National Night Out festivities, Hammel said.
“I think everybody’s just waiting for the trial to be over with,” said Steve Thompson, who has lived in the neighborhood for 29 years.
Thompson and Hammel said that they’ve enjoyed living in the neighborhood despite the ongoing clash between Zumberge and Stevens.
“It never really bothered me,” Thompson said of the men’s feud.
“It was a great neighborhood, and we were happy to be here,” said Hammel, who is moving now that her children are grown.
Claim of self-defense
Zumberge, 58, will be tried this week and next in Ramsey County District Court on one count each of first-degree premeditated murder, attempted first-degree murder, second-degree murder with intent and attempted second-degree murder with intent.
He plans to claim self-defense. One of his attorneys, William Orth, has said that Stevens created a “hillbilly hell” in the neighborhood by drinking in his yard, leaving beer cans strewn about, fighting with his father and threatening Zumberge, his wife and their three children.
Orth said at a July hearing that the entire Zumberge family planned to testify — including the defendant himself. He also said that Stevens and his longtime girlfriend, Jennifer Damerow-Cleven, 49, who was injured in the shooting, were “dangerous.”
“They’re trouble,” he said, adding that Damerow-Cleven mischaracterized the shooting. “She made it look like an execution.”
Orth and his co-counsel, Gary Wolf, plan to argue that Zumberge acted in defense of his safety and that of his wife, Paula Zumberge, who was standing on the edge of their property arguing with Damerow-Cleven just before the shooting.
The shooting occurred after Damerow-Cleven ran into the Zumberges’ son, Jacob, at a restaurant. She called police because Jacob was wanted for a previous incident in which he had threatened to kill Damerow-Cleven and Stevens (the terroristic threat charges were later dismissed after he pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct).
When Damerow-Cleven arrived home, Paula Zumberge verbally confronted her. Stevens walked out of his house and Neal Zumberge fired a 12-gauge semiautomatic shotgun at him from the side of his house, striking him in the heart, brain and spinal column.
When news of the shooting first broke, neighbors, police and the media reported that Zumberge had been upset with Stevens’ habit of feeding deer, and that Zumberge and his dog had contracted the tick-borne ailment Lyme disease. That formed the basis of the case against Paula Zumberge, who was tried in a bench trial and acquitted last August of aiding and abetting the shooting.
That wasn’t the reason his client shot Stevens, Orth said in July. Hammel agreed.
“It had nothing to do with those deer,” Hammel said. “They were both just mean.”
In fact, the origin of Zumberge and Stevens’ feud escapes neighbors who have lived there as long or longer than the men themselves.
What neighbors do know is that as long as they can remember, both men were inexplicably angry and prone to confrontation with anyone who dared cross their paths.
Stevens grew up in the neighborhood, where his family owned multiple homes. He eventually moved next door to his father. The Zumberge family lived across the street for about 20 years.
Hammel said that when her kids were young, Stevens yelled at them for setting up a lemonade stand by the trail next to his house. Zumberge yelled at the kids for walking their dog by his home.
“The rule was, if those guys talked to [my kids], just come home,” she said. “They just weren’t very tolerant of other people.”
Neither Hammel nor Thompson are buying Zumberge’s self-defense claim, even though they say both men provoked each other.
“When you’re sitting in wait with a shotgun … that’s hardly self-defense,” Thompson said.
On a recent afternoon, there was no sign of the drama that long had engulfed the neighborhood. The Zumberges sold their home to pay for Neal Zumberge’s defense, and Damerow-Cleven moved out of Todd Stevens’ home.
The new occupants of the Zumberge house have built a garage. Across the street, Stevens’ blue house sits vacant, although someone regularly shows up to mow the grass.
“They both kind of did themselves in,” Hammel said. “They blamed each other. Had it happened the other way around, I’m sure Todd would’ve said the same thing.”
Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708