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South Jersey

Wednesday, October 30, 2002
Witnesses describe rare visit by rabbi

By MICHAEL T.BURKHART
Courier-Post Staff
FREEHOLD

Rabbi Fred J. Neulander rarely stopped by his Cherry Hill synagogue on Tuesday nights. Yet on the evening his wife was murdered, he made his presence known with a cheerful appearance at choir practice.

A parade of prosecution witnesses Tuesday said Neulander, charged with hiring hitmen to kill his 52-year- old wife, Carol, hardly ever visited Congregation M'kor Shalom those nights because he had no duties then at the temple. Congregants were surprised to see him there the night of Nov. 1, 1994, the same evening his wife was murdered in the couple's Cherry Hill home.

Two other prosecution witnesses Tuesday repeated testimony they gave last year at the rabbi's first murder- for-hire trial. Those witnesses, Anthony Federici and Cynthia Sharp-Myers, said they were told Neulander had discussed his desire to find his wife dead just weeks before that scenario came true.

Both admitted under cross-examination by defense attorney Michael Riley that they originally lied to police, denying any knowledge of the rabbi's eerie discussion with his racquetball partner, Myron "Pep" Levin. Again, Riley hammered several witnesses about why they didn't tell the truth from the start of the murder investigation, or waited for years before coming forward with details that could have been helpful.

The busy day of testimony on the trial's sixth day also included three new witnesses, all members of the Evesham Road synagogue, and the presentation of graphic autopsy photos.

And the day ended with a surprise announcement from Superior Court Judge Linda G. Baxter, who told jurors testimony won't resume until Thursday afternoon because " legal issues" must be worked out. Lawyers for both sides wouldn't elaborate as they left the Monmouth County Courthouse, although Riley said no plea agreement was in the works.

Prosecutor's office spokesman Bill Shralow wouldn't discuss the reason for the delay but said, "It's something the defense has generated." The legal issues Baxter mentioned will be addressed today while court isn't in session, and possibly during a court hearing Thursday morning, he said.

Neulander's first trial ended last November when a Camden County jury deadlocked. The retrial was moved to Monmouth County due to the vast publicity generated by the case, one of the most sensational murder mysteries in South Jersey history.

The prosecution contends Neulander wanted his wife dead so he could continue an affair with Philadelphia radio host Elaine Soncini. The rabbi, who maintains he had nothing to do with the murder, could be sentenced to death if convicted.

Len Jenoff - a private detective and a friend of the rabbi's - and his former roommate, Paul Michael Daniels, confessed to the beating death. Both pleaded guilty to aggravated manslaughter. Jenoff is expected to take the witness stand this week.

On Tuesday morning, M'kor Shalom cantor Anita Hochman agreed with others witnesses who've said it was particularly unusual for the rabbi to be at the synagogue on a Tuesday night. Prosecutors contend Neulander made the Nov. 1 appearance to help establish his alibi.

When Neulander in the past peeked in on a choir practice - and it was rare - he would wave from the back door or summon Hochman to the side door for a question, she said. On the night of the murder, though, he made his presence known, she said.

Hochman described the rabbi as "happy-go-lucky" and in " a good mood" that fateful evening. "Somebody said, `How you doing, Rabbi?' and he said, `Great,'" the cantor said.

Later that night, Hochman learned of Carol Neulander's death.

Hochman also described the rabbi's mood during shiva, the Jewish mourning period, at the Neulanders' Highgate Lane home.

When she visited during the day, the rabbi was quiet. But in the evening, she said, when people came to pay their respects, he greeted visitors warmly.

"His energy level was up," Hochman said. "Not celebratory, up, but he clearly had more energy."

Earlier in the day, Federici related three conversations where Levin said Neulander wanted to come home and find his wife dead on the floor. Levin later told investigators that the rabbi wanted to hire a hitman.

"I was awestruck," said Federici, Levin's former driver. "I didn't know what to say. I told (Levin) to keep away from the whole situation."

Riley asked why Federici didn't tell the whole story when investigators first approached him.

"I told them what happened," Federici said. "But what they didn't ask, I didn't tell them. I didn't want to get involved."

Sharp-Myers, a friend of Levin and an attorney, also said she was told of Neulander's comments about wanting to find his wife dead. When first approached by investigators, she too denied it.

"I did not take the conversation seriously," Sharp-Myers said. "I considered it a flip remark."

Former Camden County Medical Examiner Dr. Robert Segal testified Carol Neulander suffered skull fractures from being hit seven times on the top of her head, and several other times on the sides of her skull, probably with a tire iron or possibly a pipe, he said.

"The weapon was used with the intent to inflict significant damage to Mrs. Neulander," Segal said.

Segal said the victim also suffered severe wounds on her arms and right hand while trying to defend herself.

The rest of Tuesday's testimony came from three M'kor Shalom congregants, all new witnesses:

•Marylee Alperin, who described herself as Carol Neulander's "best buddy," denied the rabbi's claims that he and his wife of 29 years had an open marriage that allowed them to seek other sexual partners.

Alperin said she was angry when Neulander told her husband in the months after the killing about an open marriage arrangement and about having had two affairs. The three set up a meeting at a restaurant to talk about it, Alperin said.

"The first thing I did, I punched him in the arm," she said. "He told us that he and Carol had an open marriage.

"I knew Carol very well. No way would she agree to an open marriage."

•Beverly Weiss was a friend of Soncini. The two went to lunch on Dec. 17, 1994 - Soncini's birthday - and Soncini told her about the affair with Neulander. During a lunch in February 1995, Soncini told Weiss that she was frightened about the rabbi's prediction to her before the murder that he and Soncini would soon be a couple for good.

On cross-examination, Riley asked why Weiss did not come forward until an Aug. 19 interview with investigators, just two weeks before jury selection in the retrial started. Weiss said she was called by the prosecution only recently.

•Sheila Goodman said she went to the Neulander home the night of the murder and asked the rabbi what happened. The rabbi's response, she said, was that his wife was having problems at work with "Colombians," whom she apparently hired at her bakery, Classic Cake Co.

"Fred said it was `those Colombians,'" Goodman said. Neulander also remarked that "Colombians would rob you for a nickel," Goodman testified. The rabbi didn't offer a more detailed explanation, she said.

Testimony is scheduled to resume Thursday afternoon when Goodman returns to the stand.

Baxter told jurors that even with the 1 1/2-day delay, the retrial should wrap up by Thanksgiving.


The Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach Michael T. Burkhart at (856) 486-2474 or mburkhart@courierpostonline.com

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