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New Brighton wife found not guilty of urging husband to kill neighbor

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New Brighton wife found not guilty of urging husband to kill neighbor
Fargo ND 101 5th Street North 58102

ST. PAUL – Paula Zumberge, wife of the man accused of shooting his deer-feeding neighbor Todd Stevens in New Brighton, was acquitted Tuesday of aiding and abetting murder and assault.

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Zumberge’s case was decided by Ramsey County District Judge Lezlie Ott Marek. Marek issued a written decision Tuesday morning, and ordered that the defendant be released from custody immediately.

The state did not prove “beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant spoke any words of encouragement to Neal Zumberge either before or during the shootings,” Marek wrote.

Stevens’ longtime girlfriend, Jennifer Damerow-Cleven, 48, testified at trial that Paula Zumberge egged on her husband, saying, “Shoot him, shoot him!” But no one else heard those or similar words.

And even if she said such words, the state did not prove that Neal Zumberge would have heard them over the loud gunshots, the judge wrote.

Nor did the state prove that Paula Zumberge knew ahead of time what her husband was going to allegedly do May 5, Marek wrote.

Paula Zumberge, 50, was charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder, aiding and abetting attempted murder and aiding and abetting assault. Those pertain to Stevens, 46, who was fatally shot in the torso and head, and Damerow-Cleven, who was injured in the shooting. Paula Zumberge was acquitted of all charges.

Neal Zumberge, 57, has been charged with second-degree murder and attempted murder. His trial is scheduled for Nov. 10.

Witnesses testified at trial that the Zumberges had an ongoing feud with their neighbors who lived across the street on Knollwood Drive. Neal Zumberge told police that he had contracted Lyme disease. He blamed that on the fact that his neighbors habitually fed the deer in their yard.

Paula Zumberge’s attorney said he was not surprised by the verdict, and felt justice had been done.

But “nobody’s high-fiving each other,” Gary Wolf said. “It’s been traumatic for everybody. Both families are basically destroyed by this.”

Marek related the facts of the case in her order. The dispute between the neighbors began in early 2012 and soon escalated. Stevens and Damerow-Cleven discovered dead animals on their property, including two deer, over the following months. Their wildlife feeder disappeared. They suspected Neal Zumberge.

His behavior became frightening, Damerow-Cleven testified. She filed for a harassment restraining order against him in April 2013. Paula Zumberge was not included in that order.

Neal Zumberge repeatedly blew an air horn, sometimes at night, after the order was issued. Police were called to the area numerous times.

Days before the May 5 killing, Stevens and Damerow-Cleven ran into the Zumberges’ son, Jacob, at the Spring Lake Park VFW hall. Jacob Zumberge, 23, told them he was angry over his father’s Lyme disease. He threatened to kill them and burn their house down. He then shoved Stevens, Damerow-Cleven testified.

The couple left the VFW and called police to report Jacob Zumberge. Officers put out a hold on him and told them to call if they saw him again.

On her way home from work May 5, Damerow-Cleven stopped at Acapulco restaurant in New Brighton to get some takeout food, she said. On her way out, she saw Jacob Zumberge, his brother Nicholas and another man coming in.

She immediately called police and waited for them to arrest Jacob.

When Damerow-Cleven pulled into her driveway later that evening, about 8:30, Paula Zumberge walked to the edge of the Zumberges’ yard.

Furious about her son’s arrest, she began yelling at Damerow-Cleven, saying, “You (expletive), you put my son in jail!” Damerow-Cleven said.

Stevens came out of the house. As he stood on the doorstep, Neal Zumberge crept around the back of the Zumberge home and began firing a shotgun, witnesses said. Buckshot pellets hit Stevens in the head and torso; he fell to the ground and died quickly.

Paula Zumberge then left in one of the family’s vehicles and resisted police efforts to find her.

Prosecutor Anna Christie argued at trial that Paula Zumberge conspired with her husband to “lure” Stevens out of the house and into the ambush.

The judge said that “it is clear” that Paula Zumberge initiated a verbal altercation with Damerow-Cleven after her son’s arrest.

“The notion that she had an ulterior motive in doing so is a possible theory – perhaps plausible – but is not supported by proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” Marek wrote.

And while it is true that Paula Zumberge should have called 911 and stayed at the scene after the shooting, “she is not charged with any crime related to these actions or inactions,” the judge wrote.

Marek noted that video evidence from cameras mounted on the victims’ home was poor in quality. It was not possible to see the defendant’s facial expressions at the time of the shooting, and determine whether she looked shocked, the judge said. Witnesses had testified that Paula Zumberge appeared “calm.”

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.

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