ST. PAUL, Minn. – A Minnesota man was convicted Tuesday of killing his neighbor in a long-running feud over deer feeding and other disputes that boiled over last year.
A Ramsey County jury found Neal Zumberge, 58, of New Brighton, guilty of first-degree premeditated murder and other charges in the May 5, 2014, shooting death of Todd Stevens — who was arguing with Zumberge's wife, Paula — and of the attempted murder of Stevens' girlfriend, Jennifer Damerow-Cleven, who was wounded.
Prosecutors said Zumberge had a grudge against Stevens because of disputes including Stevens' practice of feeding deer, which Zumberge blamed for a case of Lyme disease he and his dog once contracted, and that the tipping point came when the victims had one of the Zumberge's sons arrested.
The defense contended Stevens was a troublemaking drunk who often carried a gun and routinely threatened the Zumberge family.
Zumberge testified Monday that he believed Stevens was threatening his wife during the argument and that he didn't intend to kill Stevens. He said he could hear Stevens and Paula Zumberge arguing across the street from him, though not their exact words. However, he said, using lip-reading and other skills he learned from growing up with a deaf brother, he could tell Stevens threatened to kill her. He also said he thought he saw Stevens reach for his belt to grab what he thought was a gun. However, police determined Stevens had no gun when he was killed.
It took the jury just more than three hours to return its verdict Tuesday following a four-day trial.
"This is not a 'Whoopsie, the gun went off,'" Ramsey County prosecutor Anna Christie told the jury in her closing argument. "He came out to the side of the house, leveled his gun and aimed at Todd Stevens and pulled that trigger at least four times.
"This was his chance," Christie said of the defendant. "He had been waiting for an opportunity to end this."
Defense attorney William Orth told the jury that Zumberge made a mistake in thinking Stevens was reaching for a gun and opening fire, but that he shouldn't pay for it criminally.
"This wasn't any given evening in 15 years (of feuding); there were all sorts of circumstances," Orth said. "Did he make a mistake? Yes, he did. But he was afraid if he didn't take the action he did, his wife would be killed."
Zumberge faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison when he's sentenced Oct. 14.