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South Jersey

Thursday, November 21, 2002
Rabbi arranged his wife's murder, jury says

Rabbi Fred Neulander listens Wednesday to the guilty verdicts at the courthouse in Freehold, Monmouth County. DAVID M. WARREN/Associated Press
DAVID M. WARREN/Associated Press
Rabbi Fred Neulander listens Wednesday to the guilty verdicts at the courthouse in Freehold, Monmouth County.

Courier-Post Staff

Fred J. Neulander, a philandering rabbi whose charm won over women and a down-on-his-luck alcoholic who became his hired killer, was found guilty Wednesday of orchestrating his wife's murder eight years ago.

This afternoon, Neulander is expected to use that same eloquence to try to convince a jury he shouldn't die for breaking the Sixth Commandment: Thou shalt not kill.

The same Monmouth County jury convicted him of capital murder, felony murder and conspiracy, resolving a mystery that was one of South Jersey's most intriguing crime stories.

Neulander almost got away with murder. He carefully built an alibi for his whereabouts the night two hit men bludgeoned his wife to death in a plot designed to let the rabbi continue a torrid affair. Charges weren't filed until 1998, the hit men didn't come forward and confess until 2000, and his first trial ended in a hung jury.

The first jury deliberated 44 hours over seven days before it deadlocked.

The new jury took 27 hours to convict Neulander and now must decide whether the 61-year-old rabbi deserves at least 30 years behind bars or death by injection.

Neulander stood stoically - his hands folded, his eyes darting about the courtroom, his body wobbling a bit - as he learned his fate. The family of his murdered wife, 52- year-old businesswoman Carol Neulander, remained silent as they heard the verdict, then hugged.

"We are very pleased by the verdicts returned this afternoon by this jury," said Camden County First Assistant Prosecutor James Lynch, who was the prosecutor at the first trial.

Michael Riley, the rabbi's attorney, said he plans to appeal.

"We're disappointed with the result, obviously," Riley said. "Beyond that, there's not much I can say."

The jury, seven men and five women from Central Jersey, deliberated over four days before unanimously agreeing the rabbi was guilty of all three charges he faced. As jurors individually stated that they agreed with the verdict, two women on the panel held hands and fought back tears.

This morning, the attorneys and Superior Court Judge Linda G. Baxter will iron out details of the penalty phase. Jurors will return to the courtroom at 1:30 p.m. to hear testimony that will help them decide the rabbi's sentence. If even one juror concludes he shouldn't be executed, Neulander will be sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 30 years.

Outside the courthouse, Riley said the penalty phase shouldn't last beyond Friday.

Last fall, a Camden County jury deadlocked 9-3 - the majority favoring guilt - over whether the former senior rabbi at Congregation M'kor Shalom in Cherry Hill hired Leonard Jenoff and Paul Michael Daniels to kill his wife. Carol Neulander was found bludgeoned and in a pool of blood in the couple's Cherry Hill home Nov. 1, 1994. The hit men later confessed.

Baxter moved the retrial to Monmouth County because of the difficulties of seating an impartial jury in Camden County, where the case dominated headlines.

Prosecutors accused Neulander of promising Jenoff $30,000 to kill his wife so he could continue a relationship with former Philadelphia radio host Elaine Soncini. Jenoff paid his roommate Daniels $7,500 to help with the murder.

Riley argued Jenoff and Daniels killed Carol Neulander while trying to rob her of thousands of dollars she often brought home from Classic Cake Co., the bakery she co- founded.

Unlike the last trial, Neulander chose not to take the stand in his own defense this time.

"The theory of the defense was to focus all the attention on Jenoff," Riley explained Wednesday. "I felt, and Rabbi Neulander agreed, that if he testified, the focus would be a comparison between the two. It was a tactical decision and I wouldn't do it again any other way."

Riley wanted jurors to concentrate on Jenoff, a serial liar who admitted on the stand to dozens of past false statements. Among them: He'd worked for the CIA, knew Ronald Reagan and attempted to assassinate Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.

Riley said he'll present three factors to jurors in an attempt to avoid the death penalty - Neulander's age, his otherwise spotless criminal record and the statement he'll give to the jury.

Riley didn't say whether any of the Neulanders' three children would take the stand to help their father. During the 3-week trial, son Matthew Neulander and daughter Rebecca Neulander Rockoff testified for the prosecution. None of the rabbi's children was in the courtroom for the verdict.

But Carol Neulander's two brothers, Robert and Ed Lidz, and her sister Margaret Miele attended every day. Miele testified Nov. 12 that the rabbi didn't cry or show emotion in the days after the murder, but that he predicted the killers would never be found.

Daniels and Jenoff pleaded guilty to aggravated manslaughter and robbery after Jenoff came forward in April 2000 to admit his role. They haven't been sentenced; Daniels faces 25 to 50 years and Jenoff 10 to 30 years under plea agreements they made.

The jury hinted after lunch Wednesday that it was leaning toward a guilty verdict. At 3 p.m., it asked for clarification on the felony murder charge; a half-hour later, the rabbi's fate was sealed.

Earlier in the day, jurors sent a note to Baxter asking if they could pose a question with only the judge and attorneys present. Baxter explained it would be illegal for her to clear the courtroom of media, family and public during a jury question. Lynch and Riley also objected to the request.

At 3:30 p.m., Baxter announced the jury had reached a verdict.

Eleven armed sheriff deputies rimmed the courtroom, including four at the back door. One side was packed with reporters, the other with the victim's family and officials from the prosecutor's office.

After the verdict, Neulander sat alone at the defense table, his glasses removed and his right hand resting on his chin.

Outside the courthouse, Riley described a conversation he had with Neulander after the decision.

"He essentially thanked me and thanked my staff," Riley said. "He's a very courageous, strong man. I think you'll see that tomorrow."

At a news conference after the verdict, Carol Neulander's family stood shoulder to shoulder but did not speak. Lynch gave a short statement but took no questions.

He said Neulander should be treated fairly during the penalty phase.

"It is extremely important that we are mindful of this defendant's rights as we begin this phase," Lynch said.

Riley said he still believes Jenoff was the weak link in the state's case. Riley said he was unsure if the guilty verdict resulted from changes made by the prosecution since the last trial or from other new evidence.

Mitchell Medoff, president of M'kor Shalom, said in a statement that the synagogue has persevered through times of profound sadness and confusion, often in a harsh spotlight.

"The love and dedication of clergy, lay leadership and our membership as a whole have enabled Congregation M'kor Shalom to thrive as a vibrant congregation," he said. "We have emphasized throughout this ordeal our embrace of both justice and compassion as reflected in the great biblical teaching of Micah - `To do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy god" - and of Deuteronomy - `Justice, justice shall you pursue.'

"We also recognize that our American legal code requires that an accused be presumed innocent unless and until found guilty by a jury of one's peers. Now a jury has spoken, and as a congregation that respects the rule of law we accept its verdict."

As details of the case emerged, Neulander's once-sterling image was shattered. No longer was the sixth-generation rabbi a respected clergyman with a great rapport with his religious community. He became known as a womanizer rather than as a charismatic speaker and community leader.

One of his lovers was Soncini, the former Philadelphia radio personality, who made a public confession a half-year after the murder that she had a long affair with the rabbi. Prosecutors used her testimony in both trials in an attempt to prove the rabbi wanted his wife killed so he could continue the relationship.

Prosecutors had long suspected Neulander arranged for his wife's death but couldn't find the killers. As their investigation seemed to founder, Neulander began to lose support within his community. He was forced to resign from the congregation in February 1995 but continued to teach and counsel.

In September 1998, the prosecutor's office decided it had sufficient evidence to arrest Neulander for conspiracy to murder his wife. A trial date was set for June 2000.

Six weeks before jury selection was to begin, a man who used to attend services at Neulander's synagogue, Jenoff, emerged as a new key witness in the state's case against the rabbi. Jenoff, a private investigator who pretended to search for the killers, while maintaining the rabbi was innocent, admitted his involvement to Camden County Prosecutor Lee Solomon. Jenoff said he was convinced by Neulander that the murder would be for the glory of Israel.

The investigator also implicated Daniels, a onetime roommate. Daniels admitted playing a part in the crime but said it was Jenoff who struck the first blow with a long metal pipe.

Neulander's bail was revoked June 22, 2000.

That set the stage for one of the most highly anticipated trials, and retrials, in the region's history. Among highlights of the retrial, which began Oct. 21:

•Jurors heard an audiotape of the rabbi's frantic 9-1- 1 call after discovering his wife's body. His voice quavering, a breathless Neulander told a dispatcher "there' s blood all over everything" and begged for advice on what to do next.

•Soncini recounted her passionate affair with the rabbi. Her damning testimony included Neulander's statement months before his wife's death that he dreamed "violence was coming to Carol." He said he wished his wife were gone, and with autumn approaching he warned it would be a " tumultuous fall," Soncini testified.

•The rabbi's former racquetball partner, Myron "Pep" Levin, said that shortly before the murder the rabbi said he wanted to come home to find his wife dead on the floor. Levin said the rabbi asked if he knew a hit man for the job.

•Matthew Neulander testified that his parents argued loudly and talked of divorce just two nights before the murder. In a change from the first trial, he referred to his father only as "Fred" throughout his angry testimony.

•Jenoff detailed how he came to kill Carol Neulander. "I put my left hand on her shoulder, that way she couldn't turn around and look at me," he said. "With my right hand I grabbed the pipe. I smacked her head in. I heard her say `Why, why?'"

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