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Rabbi Spared Death Penalty in Contract Slaying of Wife

N.J. man gets 30 years to life and insists he loved the woman he paid two men to kill.

November 23, 2002|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

FREEHOLD, N.J. — Invoking biblical imagery and begging a jury to keep him alive, a philandering New Jersey rabbi on Friday received a sentence of 30 years to life for the brutal murder-for-hire of his wife.

Fred J. Neulander -- who is believed to be the first American rabbi to be convicted of a capital crime -- was spared the death penalty when jurors could not agree unanimously on such a punishment.

The once-prominent religious leader was convicted this week of orchestrating his wife's death so he could continue an affair with a Philadelphia radio show host. He looked stoic as the jury's decision was read, as he had for much of the four-week trial in central New Jersey.

Yet the rabbi appeared to stun many in the courtroom when he insisted that he still had a profound love for Carol Neulander, the woman he paid two men $30,000 to kill.

Neulander, 61, had declined to testify in his trial, but he spoke for 20 minutes Friday during the allocution. As the room fell silent, the rabbi talked in the same comforting tones he had used many times before at bar mitzvahs, weddings and funerals. He vowed that he could make valuable contributions to society by teaching inmates to read.

"I am here to offer a plea for my life," he said quietly, sitting in a witness chair and facing the jury.

It was a stunning fall from grace for a man who, along with his wife, co-founded M'Kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, N.J., one of the state's largest Reform congregations. Neulander's friends and supporters were grief-stricken when Carol Neulander was found beaten to death in her living room, but their reaction turned to shock when police named her husband a prime suspect in her Nov. 1, 1994, slaying.

Investigators learned that he had several affairs with congregants, and the case against Neulander came together when Len Jenoff and Paul Daniels confessed that the rabbi had paid them to murder his wife. Neulander's first trial, last year, ended in a hung jury; the retrial was moved by presiding Judge Linda G. Baxter to Monmouth County to help assure an untainted jury pool.

Neulander's speech was one of the high points of a trial in which two of his children offered damning testimony. The case featured a bizarre cast of characters, including an elegant-but-scorned mistress, a delusional hit man who claimed to be in the CIA, and a shadowy figure linked to organized crime who said Neulander wanted to know who he could pay to kill his wife.

In recent days, local newspapers revealed that "Miss Vicky" Lombardi, former wife of the late entertainer Tiny Tim, had become romantically linked with the rabbi. Veering from the tragic to the tawdry, the case has held New Jersey spellbound.

As he faced the jury Friday, Neulander began his comments with a quotation from the book of Genesis. He talked about the importance of doing "great things" with the days one is allotted on Earth. Alluding to his affairs, he acknowledged his "reprehensible behavior" toward his wife. But then the rabbi said that he would sorely miss her, because "I loved her and I love her. Carol Neulander was a remarkable woman. Carol Neulander had class."

His comments drew glares from several jurors, and Margaret Miele, Carol Neulander's sister, wept as he spoke. Clearly irked by Neulander's statement, prosecutor James P. Lynch addressed it squarely during his closing arguments to the jurors before they decided the rabbi's fate.

"You heard him say he loved her and still loves her, but you don't have to believe that," Lynch said. "You must decide if you believe him."

One juror, who insisted on remaining anonymous during an interview on Court TV, said he was bothered by Neulander's profession of love for his wife. But since his fellow jurors had a variety of opinions on what might be the best punishment, he said, there was no chance of a unanimous vote to impose the death penalty.

"I would have liked him to say more about his three children," the juror said. "He didn't have much to say about them at all."

After the jury's recommendation was read, one of Neulander's children voiced rage about his father. Matthew Neulander, who testified about Rabbi Neulander's cold, detached behavior in the hours after the murder of his wife, blasted his father's comments about his mother.

"We know Fred to be arrogant and cold, but his words this morning were absolutely galling, so maddening, and yet so like him," the son said. "That he would sit here in the courtroom, a convicted felon, and then begin to eulogize my mom, this should really tell you the kind of man he is."

It also shows how deeply the Neulander family has been traumatized by a mother's death and, now, a father's conviction. A third child, Benjamin, testified Thursday, asking jurors to spare his father's life.

"I'm a teacher because of him," said the 26-year-old son. "He led me down an amazing path. And I know that there are other people for whom he can do that still. Just give him a chance to show he can do that."

During the trial's penalty phase, Lynch outlined to the jury a so-called aggravating factor that, under New Jersey law, could result in the death penalty. In this case, that was the murder-for-hire offense.

Baxter said she will formally sentence Neulander on Jan. 16. Jenoff and Daniels, who have already pleaded guilty to aggravated manslaughter and have cooperated with prosecutors, will be sentenced a week later. Both men could receive 15 to 30 years in prison.

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