2016-06-30
Excerpted from "The Rabbi and the Hit Man" by Arthur J. Magida. Published this month by HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. Copyright (c) 2003 by Arthur J. Magida.

This excerpt is a scene from Rabbi Fred Neulander's 2001 trial for hiring two hit men to kill his wife, Carol, in 1994. At the time of this first trial, the hit men, Leonard Jenoff and Paul Michael Daniels, had already been convicted of manslaughter and were serving prison terms. Neulander was eventually convicted of murder in a retrial in 2002 and is now serving a life sentence.


The next witness wore a bright orange jumpsuit, courtesy of Camden County jail. Leonard Jenoff--oval shaped, peering out of oversized glasses, bewildered at how his life had turned out--would testify for the next three and a half days. Dennis Wixted [Neulander's defense attorney] would hammer away at Jenoff, trying to shred whatever self-respect still resided in the ex-alcoholic, chronically prevaricating, publicity-seeking confessed killer-for-hire. He wanted jurors to find Jenoff unbelievable, erratic, risible, lying as he'd always lied. [Prosecutor Jim] Lynch, on the other hand, was hoping jurors would distinguish between a lifetime of lies and Jenoff's insistence that he was now telling the truth. Given Jenoff's history, Wixted had the easiest job.

Jenoff detailed the past twelve years or so of his life: [a] fatal accident that wasn't his fault, his subsequent drinking, his divorce, meeting Neulander in his study at M'kor Shalom, and being "overwhelmed" by the rabbi's "graciousness." Neulander was "taking my shame away," helping him "feel like a worthy Jew," Jenoff told the courtroom. Seeking to impress the rabbi, Jenoff explained he had lied to him about being in the CIA and committing assassinations. In 1994, Neulander began asking Jenoff about killing--"Would you kill for Israel" "Would you fight against the enemies of the Jewish State?" Then he confided that an enemy of Israel lived in Cherry Hill who had to be killed. Jenoff told the court that he asked Neulander for more details before taking the job. "There's no need for details," Neulander reportedly said. "Either you're the man for the job or you are not the man for the job. This woman is evil." In midsummer, Jenoff testified, Neulander identified the "enemy" as his wife--a deviation from Jenoff's confession back at Weber's Diner, where he'd said that he didn't know the real identity of his victim until he turned on the radio the day after the murder.

Neulander didn't deny his affairs: "I betrayed my community, my synagogue, my family. I betrayed my profession ..."

Jenoff stated that he kept stalling, not wanting to go ahead with the murder, at one point telling Neulander he needed an accomplice. Fine, the rabbi had said, but the payment would remain as they'd agreed--not a dime more. Jenoff explained that he'd then hired Paul Michael Daniels. They had gone to the Neulanders' house twice. The first time, Jenoff chickened out, but at least he established himself with Carol as a friendly presence by saying he was delivering a letter for the rabbi; the second time, Carol had invited him inside. Jenoff told all this mater-of-factly--no drama, no histrionics, no great emotion. But everyone in the courtroom knew what was coming up--they'd read his confession in the papers the year before--and they braced themselves for it.

Jenoff continued with his testimony, Carol, he said, had led him into the living room, where "she turned and put her back to me.I put my left hand on her shoulder. I pulled out the lead pipe.and whacked her on the back of the head."

For almost a minute, Jenoff was too choked up to speak. Carol's children and siblings were sitting about twenty feet in front of him--kneading their hands together in anguish, breathing quickly, almost painfully. Then Jenoff pulled himself together and continued. After he struck Carol, he said, "she started to stumble. I heard the words, 'Why? Why?'" Ignoring the plea, he had left the house and waited outside while Daniels finished the job. "I heard thumps," Jenoff said. "It seemed like forever." Then Daniels came to the front door and surprised Jenoff by saying he had to make sure Carol was dead. Jenoff walked into the living room. Afraid to touch Carol, he bent over her and heard "a noise. It was like a gurgling, a regurgitation, a hissing." It was the sound of blood pouring out of Carol's head.

Jenoff said that on one condolence call that he made to the Neulanders, the rabbi slipped him a manila envelope stuffed with about $7,000 in cash. Later, they had agreed to launder the balance that was due to Jenoff by having him bill the rabbi's lawyers for phony investigative work. But Neulander's attorneys eventually fired Jenoff when they chose their own investigator. After that, he received two personal checks from Neulander totaling $935, and in 1997, the rabbi paid him another $200. According to Jenoff, Neulander still owed more than $12,000 for the contract hit.

Jenoff was tailor-made for a cross-examination, and Wixted made the most of it. [.] Wixted [got] Jenoff to retract just about every story he had ever told in his life--except his involvement with Carol's murder. Cynics might ascribe such narrow determination to Jenoff's singular talents as a liar: he intuitively knew that to make that one story credible, he had to stick with it, even if that meant divesting himself of all the other crazy tales he'd told over the years. One lawyer who'd watched Wixted square off against Jenoff was impressed--with Jenoff. "Dennis never rattled Jenoff," the lawyer commented shortly after Jenoff stepped down from the stand. "Let's face it. At this point, the defense doesn't have much to work with. As of now, there's a very credible case against the rabbi. Everyone in this room believes Jenoff killed Carol. What they have to do is make the leap from Jenoff to Neulander."

Paul Michael Daniels testified on the last day of the prosecution's case. Pale, thin, barely monosyllabic from his antipsychotic medications, Daniels said he'd only had to think "a minute or two" when Jenoff asked him to help with the murder. On November 1, 1994, he "smacked" Carol twice in the head, then "ran out of the house." During cross-examination, Wixted asked if he personally knew whether Neulander had anything to do with the murder. No, Daniels said, then he remembered that when he'd attended Carol's funeral at the temple, "the rabbi came up to me and asked if I was OK."

"You took that to mean he was involved?" Wixted asked.

"Yes," said Daniels. "I think that's what he was trying to tell me."

Wixted would regret asking that last question.

While the prosecution rested, the defense stepped up and presented a case that was swift and almost surgical in its precision--witness after witness in quick succession, [.] and finally, of course, Fred Neulander himself. Dressed like a cleric--dark pinstripe suit, white shirt, red-and-green patterned tie--he sounded like one as well, confident, articulate, sincere, humble. At first.

Neulander was barely seated in the witness box when Wixted asked if he'd had his wife killed. "I'm innocent," Neulander emphatically declared. But he didn't deny his affairs: "I betrayed my community, my synagogue, my family. I betrayed my profession . . . I was selfish and arrogant." But it was a selfishness, he said, born from a need: he and Carol were no longer intimate. They'd agreed to an open marriage. Yet, with all his amorous activities, he never considered divorcing Carol, he said. As he explained, there was no need to. "The situation with Carol was stable."

On the stand that day, Neulander played many roles: grieving widower, contrite philanderer, innocent victim, and even preacher, looking at jurors occasionally to explain Jewish holidays and traditions. At one point, asked why he'd opened his house to Jenoff in 1997 for a marriage ceremony, he recited a parable that illustrated why Jews avoid succumbing to the gloom of death. Great sages, Neulander said, tell about a funeral and a wedding procession approaching an intersection at the same time. Who goes first? Neulander asked, then proceeded to deliver a sermon, almost like he was on the bima [the synagogue platform]. Common thinkers, Neulander said, humbly noting that he was among them, would let the funeral cortege go first out of respect to the dead and concern for the mourners. But the sages--the uncommon thinkers--taught that the wedding procession goes first: it represents life and hope and "the attempt to find meaning when it's very hard to find meaning, especially in a death that's tragic."

Judaism, continued Neulander, instructed him to choose life; that's why he offered his house for Jenoff's wedding. Judaism "knows we are all going to experience death and grief and sorrow and pain," but if we grieve too much "death wins ... and there's another death--not physical, but psychological or spiritual."

It was a good sermon and it proved why he had been such an effective rabbi; he was precise, pedantic, posed. In the afternoon, within minutes after Lynch started cross-examining him, he was a different person--barely audible, rarely capable of completing a sentence, constantly faltering when trying to keep pace with Lynch, who was famous for shredding witnesses under intense questioning. Why had he lied to police about his affairs the night Carol was killed? "I was humiliated," Neulander answered. "Humiliated and embarrassed."

"Your personal interests were more important to you than solving the murder of your wife?" Lynch asked.

Neulander was silent for almost a minute. "Yes," he finally answered.

The rabbi kept stammering and contradicting himself. He called Peppy Levin a "semi-friend," then admitted he'd invited him to his daughter's wedding. He denied he'd told [his mistress Elaine] Soncini that she was "the most wonderful thing that ever came into my life," then was made to listen to a tape from Soncini's answering machine on which he'd used those very words. Still, he insisted that he never loved her, then squirmed while Lynch read a romantic poem Neulander wrote to Elaine two months after Carol's murder. "I guess I loved her at the time," Neulander admitted.

"Did you love her?" Lynch continued to press the point the next day.

"I can't say," said Neulander this time, hedging. Then he paused. "Yes, you can say I didn't love her."

The denial caught Lynch as he was pacing away from Neulander. Wheeling toward the rabbi, Lynch shouted, "You weren't lying to this jury yesterday, were you, sir?"

"I gave the wrong impression," Neulander admitted. "I used the wrong words."

"Well, you said something a hundred and eighty degrees different than what you're saying right now, didn't you? It's totally and completely different, isn't it, sir?"

"I had feelings for her," persisted Neulander.

"Sir, excuse me," Lynch said sarcastically. "Do you recall my question?"

"Yes. And I don't' know what a hundred and eighty degrees means."

"Well, a hundred and eighty degrees--I'll explain it to you, sir. If I'm going in one direction and I turn around and go in the opposite direction, some people refer to that as a hundred-and-eighty-degree turn. Do you understand now?"

"I did not love her," he said.

Lynch, realizing the opportunity Neulander's admissions gave him, asked several times if the phrase Neuladner had used in letters to Soncini--"I will pay any price, wait any time, to keep my promise," "I need you to know that I will not, because I cannot, love another"--were "lies and misrepresentations." Each time, Neulander said, "I simply wanted to continue the relationship." Lynch finally asked the judge to direct Neulander to answer his questions.

"I don't know how to answer other than how I did," Neulander argued with Judge Baxter. "I wasn't--"

"The answer that the question calls for," explained Baxter, "Is 'Yes, Mr. Lynch, you're correct' or 'No, Mr. Lynch, you're not.'"

With that admonishment, Neulander quietly admitted, "Yes, they were lies."

The Fred Neulander who left the witness stand was chastened and tired, a shell of the man who'd walked into the stand the day before. Spectators and family who'd watched Neulander were astounded. Everyone had expected Jenoff to psychologically collapse on the stand; instead, it was Neulander, the brilliant man full of charm and charisma. One quality now united both the rabbi and the hit man: they were now admitted liars.


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