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By RENEE WINKLER and BILL SHRALOW
Perspiration beaded on the forehead of a frail Myron " Pep" Levin as he testified Wednesday how his former racquetball partner, Rabbi Fred J. Neulander, revealed a wish to come home one night and find his wife "dead on the floor."
Levin told jurors health problems have robbed him of his ability to read and impinged on his memory.
But Levin said he remembers in detail the day seven years ago when Neulander confided in him at a Cherry Hill health club that he wanted his wife dead and asked if Levin could help find someone to murder her.
"We just got done playing racquetball," Levin testified, "and he threw his racket on the floor ... and says, `I wish I could get rid of my goddamn wife. I would have her killed on the ground one day when I get home.'"
That's exactly what Camden County prosecutors say the rabbi orchestrated about three months later. The rabbi's wife, Carol, was beaten to death inside the family's Cherry Hill home on the night of Nov. 1, 1994. Her husband discovered the body on a blood-soaked living room carpet.
The rabbi, charged with hiring two hit men to carry out his wife's murder, faces a possible death sentence if convicted. Among other witnesses called by prosecutors on the trial's third day were the rabbi's daughter, who testified about her phone conversation with her mother moments before the slaying, and a colleague who detailed unusual behavior by Neulander hours before he discovered his wife's body.
Levin, 76, was spirited Wednesday but stumbled through some testimony, mixing up dates and even failing to remember the federal crimes that landed him in prison for more than two years. Levin was convicted in 1978 of food stamp fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy in a racketeering case. The Cherry Hill resident now owns an outdoor advertising company.
Since testifying before a county grand jury in 1997, Levin suffered a stroke and underwent two heart bypass operations.
In testimony heavy with expletives, Levin said his first reaction to Neulander's comments was: "What are you, crazy? Are you nuts?"
He said the rabbi next asked if Levin knew anyone who could carry out the killing.
"You've got a lovely wife. Stick with her," Levin said he replied. "I ain't talking about nothing. Forget you even told me what you said."
Levin repeatedly wiped sweat from his brow and neck Wednesday, and prosecutor James Lynch and Superior Court Criminal Presiding Judge Linda Baxter asked him several times if he could continue. Each time, he said yes.
Under cross-examination by defense attorney Jeffrey Zucker, Levin admitted he didn't tell investigators about Neulander's statements when interviewed in December 1994 or February 1995. Not until a third interview, in March 1995, did Levin provide some of those details to investigators.
And it wasn't until September 1997, just before testifying to the grand jury, that Levin told them Neulander asked for help finding a killer. That was after he learned from a prosecutor's investigator that Neulander had cheated him in the purchase of a Torah for the rabbi's Cherry Hill synagogue, M'kor Shalom.
Zucker suggested Levin changed his story in retaliation.
In earlier testimony Wednesday, the Neulanders' daughter, Rebecca Neulander Rockoff, recounted for the jury two phone conversations she had with her mother shortly before the murder. One call ended only moments before the slaying, she said.
Rockoff, 31, lived in Philadelphia at the time, but now lives in Connecticut.
She testified that her mother invited two men into the family's Highgate Lane home while talking to Rockoff by phone on Nov. 1, 1994. Rockoff said her mother told her one of the visitors was the same man who had stopped by two weeks earlier to leave a package for the rabbi. Coincidentally, Rockoff and her mother were talking by phone during that visit, on Oct. 18, she said.
Carol Neulander told her daughter the man asked to use the bathroom during the first visit. When Carol Neulander called her daughter back that night, she said the envelope delivered by the man was empty, Rockoff testified.
On the night of her mother's murder, Rockoff said, they again were talking by phone when Carol Neulander said a visitor walking up the front steps was the "bathroom guy." Their conversation ended shortly afterward.
Rockoff's next contact with the family, she said, was a call from her father - he told her there had been an accident at the house.
Rockoff described her father's demeanor that night at the family home as "quiet, just very quiet, and hurting."
Earlier on Wednesday, the jury viewed color autopsy photos as Camden County Medical Examiner Robert Segal described in grim detail the injuries that killed Carol Neulander. Segal spoke in technical medical terms, describing how a blunt instrument tore and bruised the 52-year-old victim's head, broke her skull and injured her brain.
Segal said Carol Neulander suffered about a dozen blows, including a series of seven wounds that were "all parallel and all clustered," indicating the blows were delivered while she was on the floor and not moving.
During Segal's testimony, the rabbi sat leaning on the defense table, his mouth set in a hard line and turned down at the corners, his eyes glistening at times.
Also on Wednesday:
Jurors heard a tape of Fred Neulander, made the morning after his wife's murder, in which he told investigators he wasn't involved in any extramarital affairs. Former Philadelphia radio personality Elaine Soncini testified Tuesday about a two-year affair she had with the rabbi before the murder. Prosecutors allege Neulander had his wife killed so he could get out of his marriage and be with Soncini.
The panel heard testimony from Lt. Art Folks of the Camden County Prosecutor's Office, an investigator on the case. Five weeks after the murder, Folks said, Neulander again denied having any affairs, even after investigators asked him about Soncini.
Folks also testified that in the interview, Neulander told investigators he didn't know about a delivery to his house two weeks before the murder. Prosecutors say the deliveryman who used the bathroom that day is Leonard Jenoff, who claims the rabbi hired him to kill Carol Neulander. Jenoff and an associate, Paul Daniels, have confessed to the murder and await sentencing after they testify in the Neulander trial.
M'kor Shalom's cantor, Anita Hochman, testified she was leading choir practice the night of the murder when Fred Neulander interrupted the session. Unlike the rare occasions when he had entered a practice prior and waved silently to her, that night he entered the room and greeted the 40 or so people, she said. "He had never done it in that way before," Hochman said.
She also testified Neulander met with her in her office six to eight weeks after the murder and admitted having affairs with two congregants. He identified one as Robin Gross, Hochman testified, but did not name the second woman. The cantor testified she later learned from other sources the second woman was Soncini.
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