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Wife of alleged New Brighton shooter awaits verdict in accessory to murder trial
Ramsey County District Court Judge Lezlie O. Marek will deliver her verdict in the accessory-to-murder trial of Paula Zumberge sometime the week of Aug. 18.
Since Monday, Marek has heard arguments concerning Zumberge's role in the May shooting that left a New Brighton man dead and his girlfriend injured. The shooting, allegedly by Zumberge's husband Neal, was apparently the bloody end to a longtime neighborhood feud over deer feeding.
Zumberge, 50, who waived her right to a jury trial, is charged as an accessory to second degree murder for the May 5 shooting allegedly carried out by Neal, 57, that killed their neighbor Todd G. Stevens, 46, and wounded his longtime girlfriend, Jennifer Damerow-Cleven, 48.
Assistant Ramsey County District Attorney Anna Christie based much of the state's case against Zumberge on the defendant's alleged exhortation to her husband to "Shoot, shoot, keep shooting," during the incident, arguing throughout that Zumberge was a knowing participant in a plot with her husband to ambush their neighbors.
However, surviving witness Damerow-Cleven, who is the person who said Zumberge yelled "Shoot, shoot, keep shooting" as her husband fired at Stevens' house, seemed to waver on the point when, during close cross examination by defense attorney Gary Wolf, she admitted Zumberge may not have said those exact words during the shooting.
Damerow-Cleven said the words may have been "Shoot 'em, shoot 'em," a phrase which she admitted had been supplied by her sister for a restraining order filed following the shooting.
The defense chose to offer no case of its own, with no testimony from Zumberge, who waived her right to testify, or her husband. Wolf instead argued the prosecution had not presented sufficient evidence to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt and it hadn't proven Zumberge had an active role in the shooting beyond witnessing it.
Wolf characterized Damerow-Cleven's description of events as "a Johnny come lately claim," fabricated by Damerow-Cleven as a means to exact revenge and settle the score with Paula Zumberge, who reportedly started the confrontation May 5 that ended in Stevens' death.
Wolf's closing argument rested on four claims beyond Damerow-Cleven's in-court changing account of what had been said, the first being that during her 911 call, Damerow-Cleven only mentioned Paula Zumberge in passing.
"If Paula Zumberge had one iota of responsibility," Wolf said, "Ms. Cleven would have said that to the 911 operator."
Wolf commented on Damerow-Cleven's coherence on the 911 call, in which she repeatedly identified Neal Zumberge as the shooter, accused police of not doing enough to prevent the shooting and threatened to sue them.
Wolf noted Damerow-Cleven's main reference to Zumberge on the call was "Take his wife too; she's the one that came out and started it."
Wolf next cited Damerow-Cleven's interaction with first responders at the scene, saying she railed repeatedly against the police as they treated her, but didn't mention Zumberge. Wolf argued that those utterances should be considered heavily, as they were "still in that aura of the truth, the moment."
Third, Wolf said the phrase "Shoot, shoot, keep shooting," only came to light when Damerow-Cleven was later interviewed at the hospital, after she'd spoken to a handful of people, including her sister.
Finally, Wolf cited the established shot sequence: one shot followed by a brief pause and then three shots in quick succession, as attested to by neighborhood witnesses who heard them. Wolf said the shots were fired so quickly there wouldn't have been time to yell anything - or hear yelling - between them.
"In this country [we] do not punish a wife for what her husband does," Wolf said, adding,"Our law does not exact revenge."
On redirect, Christie said, "Paula Zumberge is here because of her actions," and urged the judge to look at the situation as a whole, from the feud to the shooting to how Zumberge reacted afterward, fleeing the scene in a vehicle, and not to base the verdict on a dispute over one sentence.
Video of the shooting
The prosecution showed a surveillance camera video of the shooting, filmed from a fixed vantage point on Stevens' front porch, with no audio recording.
Bureau of Criminal Apprehension investigator Christopher Olson testified the video showed Zumberge approach Stevens' house, with Neal Zumberge later emerging from his own house, firing shots and retreating back inside.
Olson said the video showed Zumberge went back inside the house after the shooting, reemerged and tried to get into one car before driving off in another.
Witnesses described Zumberge's exit as "calm," something the prosecution said was evidence she was not surprised by the shooting, while the defense said if the shooting had been planned she would have left more smoothly.
Investigators attempted to find Zumberge for two days following the shooting, before encountering a relative of Zumberge's at a Columbia Heights home, who told investigators that she had retained a lawyer.
Marek ordered Zumberge, who had been in custody for 98 days up to Aug. 13, when the three day trial went to recess, to continue to be held pending filing of the verdict.
Wolf said Neal Zumberge was ready to testify on behalf of his wife, whom he hasn't seen since the shooting, and was in the building that morning before the defense decided he would not appear in court.
"His only concern is his wife," Wolf said.
Neal Zumberge's attorney, Bill Orth, said that much of the evidence shown at Zumberge's trial would be shown at his as well.
"That was the dry run," Orth said.
Neal Zumberge's trial is scheduled to begin Nov. 10.
Deer feed to buckshot
Neal Zumberge and Stevens had clashed for some time. Part of the dispute was detailed in a Bulletin story from December 2012, which explained Neal Zumberge's belief that Stevens was responsible for his contraction of Lyme disease, due to Steven's pastime of feeding the deer that passed through the neighborhood. Black-legged ticks, or, as they are often called, "deer ticks," carry the bacteria that causes Lyme disease.
The events of May 5, according to court documents and testimony, were set in motion when Damerow-Cleven encountered 23-year-old Jacob Zumberge, Neal and Paula's son, at the Acapulco Restaurant in New Brighton earlier that day.
There, Jacob allegedly got into a heated discussion with Damerow-Cleven, accusing Stevens of causing his father's illness, and threatening to burn down Stevens' house.
Damerow-Cleven called police, and Jacob, who was already wanted in Spring Lake Park for a run-in with the couple a week prior, was arrested and charged in Anoka County with two counts of making terroristic threats and one count of fifth-degree assault.
Returning home, Damerow-Cleven allegedly encountered Paula Zumberge, and the two got into a loud argument, as attested to by witnesses.
Stevens, hearing the confrontation from inside his home, came outside, at which point Neal Zumberge allegedly emerged, firing a 12 gauge semi-automatic shotgun loaded with buckshot, as described in the criminal complaint, repeatedly at the couple and wounding Damerow-Cleven, who fled into the house.
Stevens was pronounced dead on the scene. He was shot in the head, chest, stomach and extremities, and the medical examiner testified his cause of death was ruled to be blood loss and brain injuries.
Mike Munzenrider can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 651-748-7824. Follow him on Twitter @mmunzenrider.