CAMDEN, N.J. Oct. 16 (JTA) — It’s been almost seven years since the former head of one of the largest Reform congregations in southern New Jersey walked into his living room and saw his wife of 29 years lying face down in a pool of blood, the victim of a brutal beating with a lead pipe.
Since that time, Rabbi Fred Neulander quickly sunk from a revered member of the Jewish community into an inmate confined to a small jail cell, awaiting the verdict of a jury that could sentence him to death.
Although the long-awaited murder trial only began Monday, much of the events leading up to the Nov. 1, 1994 murder of Carol Neulander are already known.
Testimony is expected to dwell around infidelity and disreputable characters allegedly hired to be hit men.
The rabbi, now 60, resigned his pulpit at M’Kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, N.J., in 1995 after the world learned of his two-year affair with a famous radio personality who had come to him for counseling.
Elaine Soncini, whom Neulander helped convert to Judaism, has told police that the two met often and wrote love poems to each other. She is not the only woman Neulander is said to have had affairs with after counseling.
In 1996, Neulander was suspended from the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform movement’s rabbinic association.
The investigation continued and two years later, he was arrested on charges of being an accomplice to murder and conspiring to commit murder. He was freed on bail.
Then in May 2000, two men came forward and confessed to the murder, alleging that Neulander hired them to kill his wife.
In light of the confessions, a Camden County grand jury reindicted Neulander on charges of capital murder, felony murder and conspiracy, and the judge revoked his bail.
Besides lies and love, the trial also is expected to feature testimony from at least two of the rabbi’s adult children — Matthew, an emergency medical technician, and Rebecca, who was on the phone to her mother shortly before her death — and employees of the Classic Cake Company, which Carol Neulander had formerly owned and still worked for at the time of her murder.
The trial has enough intrigue to bring in Court TV cameras, which are expected to roll through much of the trial and is carried across the United States.
Local Jewish reaction has ranged from initial shock to sadness and anger.
Stuart Alperin, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey, says he is not particularly concerned about the attention now that the trial has started.
“I don’t think it has any effect on how it affects the Jewish community,” Alperin said. “It’s a controversial case, because he is a clergyman. But it would be no different if he was a prominent priest.”
Through it all, Neulander has maintained his innocence. No murder weapon has been found. No fingerprints were obtained. And almost all the witnesses against the rabbi come with enough baggage to undermine their credibility.
The two confessed hit men, Leonard Jenoff and Paul Michael Daniels, have pleaded guilty to aggravated murder and await sentencing following this trial.
Jenoff, a former congregant of Neulander who says the rabbi offered him $30,000 for the killing , once told people he worked for the CIA and now admits that he lied to offset his failures and low self-esteem.
He had a “severe, severe alcohol problem,” according to James Lynch, the attorney prosecuting the case for the state.
Daniels leads “a difficult life,” including drug abuse, Lynch said Monday during his opening statements in the trial.
Myron “Pep” Levin, Neulander’s racquetball partner who claims the rabbi told him he wished his wife was gone, has served prison time for fraud. And Soncini is now married to the Cherry Hill police officer assigned to her immediately following the murder.
The trial, expected to last four weeks, will feature testimony from these people as well as the rabbi himself.
On the trial’s first day, Neulander showed little if any emotion.
Family members were obviously pained by some of the first day’s proceedings, especially the airing of the 911 tape of Neulander’s gasping voice as he made the original call to police.
But Neulander’s gaze was fixed. His only movements came as his fingers brushed his lips and cheeks from time to time.
Shortly before the murder, Neulander and Jenoff spoke about “how to do it neat, how to do it clean and how to keep suspicion off Mr. Neulander,” Lynch said in his opening statement.
“This was no burglary ladies and gentlemen. They came into this house to kill. She opened the door to her killers. A series of blows rained down upon her head. They came to kill and they carried out their purpose,” Lynch told the jury.
Lynch also worked to discredit Neulander, noting that for a time, he lied to the police about his affair with Soncini. He said Neulander is guilty, adding, “He planned it. He plotted it. He paid money to have it carried out.”
But defense attorney Jeffrey Zucker said there were too many gaps in the case for any juror to find Neulander guilty.
He said Neulander may be “a person who betrayed, a person who disappointed. But that is not what he’s on trial for.”
He spoke harshly of the people who will testify, saying Soncini’s comments “get more and more detailed against Neulander the further she went along.” He accused Jenoff and Daniels of trying to lessen their jail sentences by testifying.
Of Jenoff, he said, “This is a man by his own admission could not sift out truth and fantasy. His whole life was a fantasy.”
Jenoff’s testimony will paint him as “a sick, demented person who was desperate for money,” Zucker said.
Zucker also questioned the police investigation against Neulander, noting that a sharp knife was found beneath a cushion about three days after the murder. It was also discovered that Carol Neulander’s purse with a large amount of money was missing; yet Cherry Hill police didn’t learn of this until later.
Testimony is expected to continue for weeks as many people, Jews and non-Jews alike, continually monitor the TV news and check their local newspapers to see if the prime witnesses are disreputable people out to get Neulander or if the former rabbi really hired someone to kill his wife to avoid a messy divorce.