Rabbi Fred J. Neulander spoke softly and slowly on the witness stand. It was the night of Nov. 1,1994, he told the jury, and he had come home from his Cherry Hill, N.J., synagogue to find his wife, Carol, in a pool of blood on their parlor floor, bludgeoned to death. “Her face was pale,” he said. “I assumed the worst…and called 911.”
The rabbi, whose quiet eloquence had inspired his congregation for two decades, was not just any witness. In a long-awaited trial that pitted one of the most respected members of the community against an assortment of sometimes troubling witnesses, he was the defendant, fighting for his life on a murder charge. His task: to convince a jury that although he did have a passionate love affair with Philadelphia radio host Elaine Soncini, he did not hire the two men who confessed to killing his wife of 29 years. “I did not,” Neulander, 60, said firmly in a hushed superior court in Camden, N.J.
His testimony on Oct. 30 was the latest contradiction in the two-week-old trial, which was expected to end in early November. Leonard Jenoff, 56, and his accomplice Paul Michael Daniels, 27, said that the rabbi had offered them $30,000 to murder his wife, then steal her purse to make it look like a robbery. Days after the killing, Jenoff tearfully recalled, the rabbi embraced him. “Everything will be all right now,” he claims Neulander whispered. “She’s dead.”
But the two men were hardly ideal witnesses. Each had agreed to testify if prosecutors lessened their charges from murder to aggravated manslaughter. An ex-private eye and recovering alcoholic, Jenoff admitted to being a serial liar (among other fabrications, he once claimed to have been a CIA agent). Daniels is a drug addict diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Defense attorneys also offered a different scenario. They say Jenoff knew that Carol, who ran a bakery, often brought home large sums of money and that he meant to rob her. Instead, Daniels snapped and killed her. Dismissing Jenoff as a “demented person desperate for money,” defense lawyer Jeffrey Zucker said his client “is as innocent as I am.”
However it plays out, the case has shocked affluent Cherry Hill, a suburb of Philadelphia. The Neulanders moved there from New York City in the early ’70s, when Fred founded the congregation M’Kor Shalom (Hebrew for “source of peace”) and Carol started the Classic Cakes bakery. They had three children—Rebecca, 31, Matthew, 29, and Ben, 25. It seemed an ideal marriage, but Neulander said it was an open one. He and Carol agreed they could see other people, which Fred, at least, said he often did. Neulander said he and Carol “had very infrequent sexual congress.”
Not so he and Soncini. They met in December 1992 at the hospital where Neulander had prayed over Ken Garland, Soncini’s husband and fellow radio host, who lay dying of a cerebral hemorrhage. Widowed 10 days, Soncini, now 54, accepted his invitation to have lunch. Before leaving, she recalled, he gave her a “romantic” kiss. In a week they began their affair. “Some other grieving widow,” she said ruefully on the stand, “would have said no.”
By mid-1994 Soncini, tired of being the “other woman,” vowed to end the liaison. “He would say, ‘Please hang in,'” she said. “‘We’re going to be together.'” The obstacle was Carol. “He said to me that he just wished she was gone, poof.”
By then, Jenoff had entered the picture. Conflicted about his faith, he said, he had been referred to Neulander in the fall of 1993. The next summer, he said, the rabbi asked if he would be willing to kill an enemy of Israel. Jenoff said he would, only later learning that Neulander’s wife was the target. After a $7,500 down payment, Jenoff claimed, he went to Neulander’s house on the pretense of delivering an envelope for the absent rabbi. Jenoff asked Carol if he could use the bathroom so he could search for her purse. Unable to find it, he left. A week later, at 8:45 p.m. on Nov. 1, he returned. “It’s the bathroom man,” Carol told her daughter on the phone before admitting him. Then, Jenoff recalled, “I pulled out the lead pipe and whacked her on the back of the head.” His accomplice added other blows.
Neulander denied the killers’ story as well as Soncini’s claim that he wished his wife dead. After Soncini admitted their affair to investigators in December 1994 (she later wed a detective on the case), the rabbi resigned. Neulander, who faces the death penalty if convicted, proclaimed he was innocent of murder but he was not without guilt. “I was selfish and arrogant,” he admitted on the stand. “I betrayed Carol, I betrayed my family, I betrayed my synagogue, I betrayed my community.”
Bob Calandra in Camden