By Thomas Fields-Meyer
October 19, 1998 12:00 PM

On the night after Halloween 1994, Rabbi Fred Neulander came home from a class at his Cherry Hill, N.J., temple to find his wife of 29 years, Carol, dead in a pool of blood on the living room floor. “I was lost, just lost,” Neulander, 57, says of finding his wife so viciously bludgeoned that her blood spattered the walls. “It shattered my world.”

As it turned out, his world would soon be shattered further. When days passed with no suspect emerging, police turned their focus to Neulander. And within weeks—after revelations emerged about an unseemly secret life the rabbi had hidden from his 900-family congregation—he stepped down from the pulpit he had held for 21 years. Not long before Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, police arrested the rabbi and charged him with conspiring to murder his 52-year-old wife. “I can’t describe the level of shock when something like this happens,” Rabbi Richard Address, a member of Neulander’s synagogue, says of the slaying. “It upsets the balance of the community.”

Though violent crimes are rare in leafy Cherry Hill, police first assumed Carol Neulander’s murder was a robbery gone awry. She ran a successful bakery, often carrying large sums of cash, and her purse and its contents—though nothing else—were missing from the crime scene. What turned investigators’ suspicions toward her husband was a mysterious incident that had taken place shortly before her death. That evening, Carol Neulander had just returned home from her bakery and was on the phone with her daughter Rebecca when a deliveryman rang the bell. “Oh, this must be the man with the package Daddy said would be coming,” she told Rebecca. But the man asked to use the bathroom, then left, leaving an envelope that turned out to be empty.

Exactly two weeks later, around 8:15 p.m., Carol was again on the phone with Rebecca when there was a knock at the door. “Oh, it’s the bathroom man,” she said, telling her daughter she would call right back. She never did. Rabbi Neulander, who had been at the synagogue, returned home to find the door unlocked and his wife’s lifeless body.

The investigation was only weeks old when Cherry Hill police, surveying the rabbi’s telephone records, noticed numerous calls to Philadelphia radio personality Elaine Soncini. After repeated questioning, she admitted that she and Neulander had been carrying on an affair for two years. Later, police identified another woman they say had an affair with Neulander. In February 1995, he resigned from his congregation, expressing regret in a statement for “behavior that brings no honor to me.”

The resignation marked the end of a lifelong dream for Neulander, who had grown up in Albany, N.Y., and then New York City, the only child of a homemaker mother and a dry-cleaner father who was himself descended from a long line of rabbis. In his senior year at Hartford, Conn.’s Trinity College, where he studied religion and philosophy, he met Carol Lidz, one of four children of an affluent Long Island button manufacturer.

Married in 1965 while Neulander was studying to become a rabbi in Judaism’s liberal Reform movement, the couple moved three years later to the growing Philadelphia suburb of Cherry Hill, where he found work as assistant rabbi at a large temple. The couple raised three children: Rebecca, now 28, a hospital administrator; Matthew, 25, a medical student; and Ben, 22, who recently graduated from college. But by the mid-’70s, Neulander grew restless and started his own small congregation—M’kor Shalom, Hebrew for “source of peace”—offering a less formal style of religion. “The community needed a sense of tradition but not so intimidating that people wouldn’t feel comfortable,” he told PEOPLE last year.

Neulander quickly attracted a wide following. “He was always a leader,” says a synagogue member. “He had this awesome, quiet power.” Few congregants, however, knew how he had come to use it. When Elaine Soncini’s husband was dying of leukemia in 1992, a friend suggested that she call Neulander. He showed up at the hospital hours before her husband’s death. Soncini, now 51, recalls being scared and angry: “I said, ‘I want a message [from God].’ And [Neulander] said, ‘Maybe I’m the messenger.’ ” After officiating at the funeral, Neulander repeatedly called to check on Soncini, then asked her to lunch. Just weeks after her husband’s death, she says, they began an affair.

To those who knew him, Neulander hardly seemed the type. “It was a tremendous shock,” says Carol’s brother Edward Lidz. “This was a very close family.” When he would walk among the congregation during services, Neulander would often stop to kiss his wife or publicly compliment her. “If he was living a lie,” says one congregant, “he was certainly doing his best to hide it.”

Soncini told police she saw the rabbi almost every afternoon but that shortly before the murder she had told him she planned to break off the affair and find a man who wasn’t married. “Trust me,” she told police he responded. “Something will happen by the end of the year.”

The rabbi’s regular racquetball partner, Myron Levin, 72, who has a criminal record, says Neulander was more specific with him. Levin reportedly told a grand jury that just weeks before Carol’s slaying, Neulander had told him, “I wish I would come home one day and find my wife dead on the floor,” then asked if Levin could arrange to have her killed. Neulander, whose attorney denies he made such a statement or request, has repeatedly maintained he had nothing to do with the murder. “The thought of killing my wife is both inconceivable and repulsive,” he said at a 1995 press conference.

Though Neulander’s presence at the temple the night of the murder gave him a solid alibi—and a November 1997 grand jury failed to indict him—police continued to suspect he was behind his wife’s death and painstakingly pursued an investigation. Finally, on Sept. 10, they arrested him.

“The evidence is both compelling and overwhelming,” says Camden County prosecutor Lee Solomon, though he refused to be specific. “I’m not trying to be evasive,” he says. “We are limited as to what we are permitted to say about a case pretrial.” Lawyers for Neulander hope to learn more by means of two recently filed motions—one requesting that the prosecution show probable cause, the other calling for an early indictment so the state will be forced to lay out its case.

Neulander is free on $400,000 bail awaiting an Oct. 23 hearing on defense motions, and, according to his attorney Jeffrey Zucker, his children are standing by him. Other relatives, though, appear to be reserving judgment. “This is like a raw edge that never goes away. It demands closure,” says Ed Lidz of Neulander’s arrest. “If he’s guilty, then justice needs to be served.”

Thomas Fields-Meyer

Julia Campbell in Cherry Hill