FORT MYERS — The way Shane Simpkins saw it, if he and his paralyzed father wanted to live, he had to follow the plan set by Christopher Neuberger.
He had to help dump the body of Mary Ann Zarb, who he said Neuberger killed in the Estero woman’s home in April 2011. He had to spend thousands of dollars of Zarb’s money on construction materials after her death, maintaining the impression she was alive. He had to stay away from the police, allowing Neuberger to skip town with $6,000.
“(Neuberger) told me he was going to kill me,” Simpkins testified Friday, taking the stand in his murder trial. “He had a gun. He told me I had to help him.”
Simpkins’ account of Zarb’s death, played out over nearly three hours of testimony, offered a story contradictory to the one presented this week by prosecutors. They have said Simpkins, 26, schemed to strangle the 64-year-old grandmother, disposed of her body near the Lee-Charlotte county line and cashed $25,600 in her checks. Simpkins, charged with second-degree murder, was doing construction work with Neuberger’s help at the time of the killing.
Closing arguments are expected during a rare weekend session this morning, with a verdict possible by day’s end.
In long, winding answers, sometimes muffled by sniffling and faint crying, Simpkins rebutted testimony from Neuberger earlier in the week. Simpkins said he went to Zarb’s home with Neuberger one Monday morning, left for the bank, then returned to find Zarb dead in a bedroom of her condominium. Simpkins said Neuberger admitted to striking Zarb after she found him rummaging through the house.
“When she caught him, (Neuberger) just blanked out and hit her and she fell and never got back up,” Simpkins said, recalling what Neuberger told him.
Neuberger, 27, who has pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in exchange for testifying against Simpkins, told jurors Tuesday that Simpkins killed Zarb and never provided details about how it happened. Neuberger will receive a 10-year prison sentence, plus 10 years of probation, under his agreement.
Simpkins said he continued working at Zarb’s home, buying tools and hiring other workers to finish construction. The plan, Simpkins said, was for Neuberger to take $6,000 of the money cashed from Zarb, then disappear by the end of the week. The entire time, Simpkins said, he feared Neuberger would harm him or his father.
On cross examination, prosecutors hammered Simpkins on why Zarb would write him five separate checks totaling more than $20,000 during the course of three days. They also questioned why Simpkins called and wrote a key witness in the case just before trial.
In the letter, Simpkins asks if the witnesses would repeat at trial what he wrote and mentioning potential blackmail. Simpkins said he never asked a witness to lie and called the blackmail reference “a joke.”
Simpkins’ testimony followed that of three Lee County jail inmates, all called as defense witnesses and all implicating Neuberger.
One inmate, James Ingelido, told jurors that while in jail, Neuberger said he “told (Simpkins) to help me with the body or I’d whack him too.” Another inmate, Trey Faison, said Neuberger told him he was “rummaging through an old woman’s house and he got caught doing something and he blacked out when I guess he got caught.”
Prosecutors questioned the character of the inmates, who were all charged with or previously convicted of felonies, and questioned their lack of specificity regarding Neuberger’s conversations.
Jurors will likely begin deliberations Saturday, and they hardly have an open-and-shut case. No eyewitnesses to the killing have been produced, no DNA evidence has been presented and Simpkins’ account isn’t implausible. Still, significant circumstantial evidence has been mounted against him, and Simpkins’ contact this week with a witness could prove damaging.
If convicted, Simpkins faces life in prison. He’s also charged with unarmed burglary and larceny between $20,000 and $100,000. A jury won’t consider a kidnapping charge after Lee Senior Circuit Judge Thomas Reese granted a judgment of acquittal.