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Rabbi Is Convicted in Wife's Murder

After a second trial, the New Jersey cleric is also found guilty of hiring two hit men to kill his spouse. He could face the death penalty.

November 21, 2002|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- Rabbi Fred J. Neulander, a charismatic religious leader who helped establish one of New Jersey's largest Reform congregations, was convicted Wednesday of hiring two hit men to murder his wife.

The four-week retrial brought closure to the long-running case, which attracted national attention and had resulted in a hung jury last year. Neulander, 61, is believed to be the first U.S. rabbi convicted of a capital offense, and he could face the death penalty. His verdict was seen as a bellwether of how severely juries might be willing to punish religious leaders for such crimes.

Neulander showed no emotion as the verdicts were read in a Monmouth County courtroom. Yet his wife's relatives, who had packed the small chamber each day, wept openly at first and then hugged each other emotionally as a jury found the rabbi guilty of murder and conspiracy charges in the Nov. 1, 1994, slaying of Carol Neulander.

"We are very pleased by the verdicts returned this afternoon," said Camden County Prosecutor James P. Lynch, who retried the case in northern New Jersey after Superior Court Judge Linda G. Baxter ordered it moved to ensure a fair jury pool for the second trial.

Lynch declined to comment further, however, noting that the "very critical" penalty phase of Neulander's trial will begin today. He has indicated that prosecutors will vigorously pursue the death penalty.

Michael Riley, Neulander's attorney, said, "We're very disappointed, obviously," with the outcome, and he added that Neulander -- who did not testify -- will "very definitely" speak on his own behalf today as the jury ponders the appropriate sentence.

Riley added that he would argue against the death penalty, largely because of Neulander's age, and the fact that he has no prior record.

The story of Carol Neulander's death was shocking enough when it first emerged: Her bludgeoned body was found in the living room of the affluent Cherry Hills, N.J., home that she had shared with her husband of 28 years. In 1973, they had founded Congregation M'kor Shalom, a thriving synagogue that quickly grew to more than 1,000 congregants.

Carol Neulander, 52, was a popular leader of the community who had also helped establish a successful bakery. At first, few suspected that Rabbi Neulander had anything to do with the crime. But sordid details of his private life began leaking out that stunned friends and congregants.

Neulander, it turned out, had been carrying on affairs with several members of the synagogue, including Elaine Soncini, a Philadelphia radio celebrity. Investigators alleged that she had threatened to break off their relationship unless Neulander left his wife, and that the rabbi had her killed to carry on the secret relationship.

He was forced to resign his post when members of M'kor Shalom learned of his trysts, some of which took place in his synagogue office. But linking him to his wife's death proved more difficult. Although he was charged with her murder in 1998, police were stumped because there was no hard evidence linking him to the crime.

The rabbi insisted he was innocent, but the case quickly came together in May 2000, when Len Jenoff -- who said he had been hired as the rabbi's private investigator -- told Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Nancy Phillips that he and another man, Paul Daniels, had been promised $30,000 by Neulander if they would kill his wife.

In a confession at a New Jersey roadside diner, Jenoff told investigators that he and Daniels had gone to Carol Neulander's home on a Thursday night when she was alone and had beaten her to death with a lead pipe. They stole her purse to make it look as if she had been killed during a routine robbery.

Jenoff's dramatic confession gave prosecutors the evidence they had been looking for, but he too, had a dark past. A recovering alcoholic, Jenoff was battered by defense attorneys in the two trials for being a habitual liar who regularly dreamed up stories about himself, including accounts that he was a member of the Israeli secret service and the CIA.

During last year's trial, Neulander insisted that Jenoff had acted on his own. But he conceded that "I betrayed Carol, I betrayed my family, I betrayed the community, I betrayed the synagogue."

Jenoff and Daniels pleaded guilty to aggravated manslaughter as part of a plea-bargain with prosecutors, and they could face 15 to 30 years in prison. They could, however, be paroled earlier, based on their cooperation with authorities.

Although jurors refused to discuss Wednesday's verdict, prosecutors produced several witnesses who may have had a great effect on the proceedings, which were televised on the Court TV cable channel. Chief among them was Matthew Neulander, the couple's second-oldest child, who could barely conceal his contempt for his father on the witness stand.

He expressed disgust at his father's cold, detached behavior in the traumatic minutes after his wife's battered body was discovered by police.

In other testimony, jurors listened intently as Rebecca Neulander, the couple's only daughter, described a crucial link between Jenoff and her father. Jenoff had testified that he planned to kill Carol Neulander a week or so before Nov. 1, 1994, and that he visited her house, but then lost his nerve. He returned to commit the crime on the second visit, Jenoff said.

Coincidentally, Rebecca Neulander recalled that she had been talking with her mother on a cell phone during each of Jenoff's visits. She testified that Carol Neulander told her both times that the rabbi had said a man would be coming to their house to deliver a package.

The first time, Rebecca Neulander testified that she was suspicious about the visit and waited for the unknown visitor to leave. But her mother assured her that everything was all right during the man's second visit, and she hung up the phone -- minutes before Carol Neulander was killed.

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