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She hired a worker; it ended in death

Mar. 14, 2013

An Estero woman apparently hired a man with a criminal record to perform handyman work at her house — a hire that officers say ended in robbery and strangulation — after seeing him work around her neighborhood.

Mary Ann Zarb, 64, who disappeared almost two weeks ago, was found dead Tuesday in a wooded area near the Lee and Charlotte county line.

Shane Steven Simpkins, 24, of Northeast 34th Terrace in Cape Coral; and Christopher Allen Neuberger, 25, of Pacific Avenue in North Fort Myers, admitted to disposing of Zarb’s body in the woods, according to sheriff’s reports.

A Lee County Sheriff’s Office report Wednesday stated Simpkins strangled Zarb after the duo forced her to write several checks totaling $25,600 on April 11.

Simpkins and Neuberger each face charges of felony murder, occupied armed burglary and grand theft.

Pamela Carmichael Goodwin, 56, of Brandon, Miss., said the killing of her first cousin was senseless.

“She would have given them everything she had,” Goodwin said. “They didn’t need to do this.”

Simpkins and Neuberger have told investigators conflicting stories about Zarb’s death.
Neuberger said Simpkins forced Zarb to go to SunTrust Bank to cash the checks. The three then returned to Zarb’s home. While Neuberger was in another part of the home, Simpkins strangled Zarb, Neuberger told investigators.

Simpkins, however, said he cashed the checks alone and found Zarb dead on the floor of her bedroom when he came back from the bank. Simpkins said Neuberger told him Zarb came home, found Neuberger going through her jewelry and confronted him.

When deputies arrested Simpkins, he said Zarb hired him to remodel her home and he was paid $25,000 to perform the work, according to reports. Simpkins said Zarb hired him after she saw him doing handyman work at a nearby home.

Zarb’s family reported her missing April 15 after not hearing from her for four days. Investigators found Simpkins and three others — Nicole Rae Durden, 19; Tiffany Sipp, 17; and Stephen Patrick Smutney, 19 — having a party inside Zarb’s home that day.
Smutney was charged with obstruction, and the others were arrested on various drug charges.

Credit card used

In the days between April 11 and 15, witnesses said they saw Simpkins driving Zarb’s car around North Fort Myers, and he was in possession of $20,000 in cash and two firearms he was trying to sell.

When Simpkins was arrested April 15, he had Zarb’s credit card in his wallet. Investigators said Simpkins had used Zarb’s credit card several times at various businesses since Zarb’s disappearance.

Sipp, Simpkins’ girlfriend, said Wednesday she doesn’t think he could have killed Zarb.
“He usually tells me everything, and I can’t imagine him keeping that from me. He’s too kind-hearted,” said Sipp, adding that she and the others in Zarb’s house worked for her for several months doing all kinds of handyman work — installing marble countertops, painting the inside of the home and fixing things.

Simpkins also helped Zarb move some items from Vero Beach in January, Sipp said.
“He would benefit more with her being alive than by killing her,” Sipp said. “All of a sudden, Chris came on the scene and this happened.”

According to Sipp, Simpkins and Neuberger met in jail and Sipp thought Neuberger and his girlfriend were shady.

“I’m just glad they found the body,” she said. “I really do feel sorry for her family.”

Past charges

Simpkins and Neuberger have had trouble with the law.

Simpkins was convicted in Lee County of multiple counts of grand theft and armed burglary in 2004, and Neuberger once faced the death penalty on a first-degree murder charge after a 2005 Thanksgiving Day home invasion, according to Samantha Syoen, spokeswoman for the state attorney’s office.

Neuberger was one of five people linked to the killing of Jose Gomez, 25, of North Fort Myers. Neuberger’s alleged accomplices — Miguel Pedraza, Dave Gaphoor and Anibal Morales — were all convicted.

The fifth accomplice, Elizabeth Reed, turned into a state’s witness.

Reed’s testimony was inconsistent before and during the trial and she was the only state witness who put Neuberger at the scene, said Kevin Shirley, Neuberger’s Punta Gorda attorney on the 2005 case.

There was no physical evidence that Neuberger was at the scene, Shirley said. Jurors found Neuberger not guilty.

— Staff writers Thomas Stewart, Pat Gillespie and Dennis Culver contributed to this report.

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