Jury Selection for Neulander`s Murder Trial

by 6 ABC - Action News | Aug 20, 2001
Jury Selection for Neulander`s Murder Trial CAMDEN, NJ - The story borders on the unbelievable: An adulterous rabbi. A wife beaten to death in their living room. Their son, an EMT, responds to the call for help. And years later, a guilt-ridden private detective confesses that the rabbi offered him $30,000 to kill the woman. But this is not fiction. These are the bizarre details of the murder trial of Rabbi Fred J. Neulander, which, nearly seven years after Carol Neulander was killed, begins Monday. Fred Neulander, who spent his 60th birthday last week in jail, is charged with murder and conspiracy. If convicted, he could become the first New Jersey clergyman to receive a death sentence.

The Neulanders were pillars of the community in Cherry Hill, a wealthy, leafy suburb of 70,000 residents about 10 miles southeast of Philadelphia. They founded Congregation M`Kor Shalom together in 1974 and watched it grow to include nearly 1,000 families.

Carol Neulander, a well-liked woman described by her son, Matthew, as "warm, gracious and kind," began baking in her home for restaurants in the early 1980s. When her business outgrew her kitchen, she opened a commercial bakery, which eventually expanded to three locations.

On Nov. 1, 1994, the rabbi was at the synagogue, sitting in on evening classes, something he did for the first time just two weeks earlier. Carol Neulander was at home.

While she was talking to her daughter, Rebecca, on the telephone, the doorbell rang. It was the same man, she told her daughter, who had come by a week before to deliver a business letter that Fred Neulander said he was expecting. That envelope turned out to be empty.

Carol Neulander told her daughter she would call her back. Within the hour, the rabbi arrived home to find her body in a pool of blood on the living room floor. She had been beaten several times in the head with a metal pipe from a dumbbell.

Among the first on the scene was Matthew Neulander, 21, an emergency medical technician whose ambulance responded to the 911 call. Co-workers kept him outside while they tended to his mother`s body.

Investigators initially thought robbery was the motive, but only Carol Neulander`s purse was stolen. No other valuables, including the jewelry she was wearing, were touched.

In the days after the killing, word that Fred Neulander had been unfaithful became public. Citing unspecified moral indiscretions, Neulander resigned his position as senior rabbi in February 1995, asking congregants to "press for no further detail."

"Quite obviously," he wrote in a letter, "I had no involvement in my wife`s death."

Six months later the acting Camden County prosecutor named Neulander a suspect, saying Carol Neulander was most likely killed by a hit man posing as a deliveryman and that the killer may have been sent by her husband.

Fred Neulander called the accusation "outrageous and outlandish."

Elaine Soncini, a talk-show host on a Philadelphia radio station, then acknowledged that she had carried on a two-year affair with the rabbi, whom she met when she sought counseling after her husband`s death.

She said she ended the affair a few months after Carol Neulander`s killing when she learned that Neulander was suspected of arranging it to continue their relationship.

Prosecutors said Soncini had pressured Neulander to leave his wife, but that he told her a divorce would threaten his position at the synagogue. He told Soncini that their problem would be solved by her birthday in December 1994.

Soncini told investigators that after Carol Neulander was killed, the rabbi whispered to her, "I told you to trust me."

Neulander was suspended from the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the nation`s Reform rabbinic organization, in March 1996 for breaching its code of ethics.

In the fall of 1997, more than a dozen people testified to a grand jury gathering evidence in the case.

Myron "Pep" Levin, a friend of the rabbi, testified that a few weeks before Carol Neulander`s death Neulander said he wished he`d come home one night and find his wife dead on the floor.

Neulander also asked Levin to help arrange the killing, Levin testified.

The grand jury expired without returning an indictment.

But on Sept. 10, 1998, Neulander was charged with conspiracy to murder and being an accessory to murder. He was released the same day after posting $400,000 bail.

In April 2000, just a month before the rabbi`s trial was to start, a private investigator called a reporter and said he needed to unburden himself. Leonard Jenoff, a 54-year-old friend of Neulander who had publicly proclaimed the rabbi`s innocence for years, asked Nancy Phillips of The Philadelphia Inquirer to call the prosecutor for a meeting at a nearby diner.

There, over coffee and fruit cup, Jenoff told them that the rabbi had offered him $30,000 to kill his wife.

Jenoff said he and his former roommate, Paul Daniels, 27, of Pennsauken, beat the woman to death. Jenoff came forward, he said, because he feared the rabbi would be acquitted.

Neulander`s lawyers immediately challenged Jenoff`s credibility, calling him a troubled man who was seeking attention.

Daniels and Jenoff pleaded guilty to aggravated manslaughter and agreed to testify against Neulander.

Charges against the rabbi were upgraded in June 2000 to felony murder, capital murder and conspiracy. Neulander has been held without bail ever since in a jail in Camden, the state`s poorest city, just 10 miles, but a world away from the suburb of Cherry Hill.

Neulander attorney Jeffrey Zucker said last week that his client is ready for trial and anxious to "get the matter behind him." He said the case hinges on the credibility of witnesses.

"The rabbi has always said he`s got faith in the system. He`s always denied having been involved in any way with this," Zucker said. "We`re dealing with the likes of Len Jenoff and Myron Levin and we believe there`s going to be some major gaps in credibility."

Assistant Camden County Prosecutor James Lynch would not comment on the trial.

About 1,200 Camden County residents will be called to select 12 jurors and four alternates, a process that is expected to take six weeks. Opening arguments are expected to begin Oct. 15.

The potential jurors must fill out a 174-item questionnaire asking them if they`ve ever had a negative experience with a Jew and whether an adulterous man is more likely to commit a crime against his wife.

Court TV will air the trial live. Marlene Dann, senior vice president of daytime programming, said the case should touch a nerve with people who were shocked by the story and wonder if it could happen in their town.

"That`s the element of any trial that always peaks interest in viewers," she said. "That element of, `Could that really happen?` You couldn`t make this up if you tried."

(Copyright 2001 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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Author: 6 ABC - Action News

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