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The prosecution's star witness in the murder case against Shane Simpkins took the stand Wednesday morning, mumbling through 90 minutes of testimony about the April 2011 death of Estero resident Mary Ann Zarb.
Christopher Neuberger, who took a plea agreement in exchange for his testimony, told jurors he was doing remodeling work with Simpkins at Zarb's home when Simpkins explained the 64-year-old had died. Prosecutors have said Simpkins, 26, of Cape Coral, killed Zarb for her money, cashing $25,600 in her checks and taking her credit cards.
"I was in the back bedroom working and (Simpkins) came in and told me she was dead," Neuberger said.
Neuberger, 27, of Fort Myers, testified he then helped Simpkins dump the body in a wooded area near the Lee-Charlotte county line and was paid $6,000 by Simpkins. Zarb's body wasn't found for another two weeks, after both Neuberger and Simpkins led detectives to the body independent of one another.
Neuberger offered no testimony about how Zarb died, saying she wasn't bloodied or bruised when he found her. Prosecutors have said she was strangled.
Neuberger also said he didn't ask probing questions of Simpkins about the circumstances surrounding her death, accepting Simpkins' response of "don't worry about it." That left Simpkins' lawyer, Steven Smith, flabbergasted on cross-examination.
"You let it go at that?" Smith asked.
Neuberger's testimony was less than stellar for prosecutors. He mumbled throughout, slouching forward and swiveling in his chair, only occasionally making eye contact with lawyers questioning him. His answers were short and sometimes vague. Details often were elicited only upon prodding from lawyers. His criminal history -- six or seven felony convictions, Neuberger recounted -- came up, and jurors were told his plea agreement, resulting in a 10-year prison term, was contingent on testifying against Simpkins.
Still, Neuberger offers the only first-hand account of Zarb's death, and he provided some details that match up with the picture painted by prosecutors. His timeline of events on the day of Zarb's death was consistent. He described in detail the process of loading Zarb's body into a vehicle, picking up two shovels, then dumping her in palmetto bushes. He testified he returned to Zarb's home two days after dumping her body to continue construction work, hoping "to make it not look like we had anything to do with her missing."
Neuberger also denied some of the allegations made by Simpkins, saying he never rummaged through Zarb's belongings, touched her, or threatened to kill Simpkins.
Prosecutors will resume their case Wednesday afternoon. Simpkins is charged with second-degree murder, kidnapping, unarmed burglary and larceny between $20,000 and $100,000. The murder and kidnapping charges carry possible life sentences.
FORT MYERS — As he left town in early 2011, Greg Lewis hugged his mother and told her not to trust the man helping her move into a new Estero condominium.
“Ma, this guy has tattoos on his neck, hands and fingers,” Lewis recalls telling his mother, Mary Ann Zarb, in their last face-to-face conversation. “Change your locks on your doors and your house.”
But the work relationship between Zarb and Shane Simpkins carried on.
Simpkins painted Zarb’s walls. He built a screened-in porch and rigged electrical outlets. And he was in the process of installing countertops in April 2011 when the 64-year-old grandmother disappeared. She was found two weeks later, murdered, her body buried in a wooded area near the Lee-Charlotte county border.
Before a jury Tuesday, prosecutors started the process of tying Zarb’s death to Simpkins, a 26-year-old Cape Coral man who they say strangled Zarb in her home, dumped her body about 30 miles north, then cashed more than $20,000 worth of her checks.
Simpkins is charged with second-degree murder, kidnapping and two other felony counts. He faces life in prison if convicted.
In her opening argument, assistant state attorney Marie Scalise portrayed Zarb as a vibrant, family-oriented widow who was expecting money from the sale of her Vero Beach condominium. When Simpkins learned about the cash, Scalise said, he killed Zarb, wrote checks to himself from her bank account, then flaunted the money while living in her Country Barn Drive home.
“He’s actually passing out $100 bills,” Scalise told the jury. “He’s got thousands of dollars in (a) briefcase.”
Simpkins’ lawyer, Steven Smith, defended his client by pinning the murder on Christopher Neuberger, 27, a Fort Myers man who was helping Simpkins with work on Zarb’s home. Simpkins has said Neuberger killed Zarb after she caught him stealing jewelry.
Smith told jurors the murder occurred while Simpkins was out of the home, with Neuberger threatening Simpkins when he returned.
“Mr. Neuberger is a big and scary guy, and he tells Mr. Simpkins, ‘Shut up. I’ll kill you. I’ll kill your family. You’re going along with what I say,’” Smith said during his opening argument.
Smith said Simpkins had become reliant on the odd jobs Zarb threw his way, which were vital because Simpkins didn’t have a general contractor’s license.
“Mary Ann Zarb was the best thing that ever happened in Shane Simpkins’ life,” Smith said.
But prosecutors and Lewis said other evidence points to Simpkins’ darker motives.
Simpkins lied to Zarb’s family and friends regarding her whereabouts in the two weeks she was missing, prosecutors said. At one point, Simpkins said Zarb had gone on a cruise with a man — a virtual impossibility, Lewis said, for a woman still grieving the 2010 death of her husband of 36 years.
Lewis, one of several family members and friends of Zarb in attendance Tuesday, also testified Simpkins called him several times in the two weeks his mother was missing, asking for the family’s support.
“He tried to convince me he had nothing to do with this,” Lewis said. “I pretty much let him do all the talking. His stories just did not match up.”
Simpkins will also have to contend later this week with testimony from Neuberger, who has become a state witness in the case in exchange for a plea agreement. Neuberger has pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and will be sentenced to 10 years in prison, followed by 10 years of probation, after testifying against Simpkins.
Dressed in an ill-fitting blue button-down shirt and khaki pants, with bandages covering tattoos on his neck and hands, Simpkins actively participated in his case, helping select the jury. He didn’t have any supporters in attendance.
It hasn’t been disclosed whether Simpkins will testify. His lawyer has declined comment on the case until after a verdict is reached.
The state’s case continues at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday.