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Tale of murder took years to unfold

Long before confessing, Len Jenoff hinted to a reporter that he held secrets surrounding the death of Carol Neulander

Len Jenoff testified that Rabbi Fred Neulander hired him to kill his wife, Carol, in the couple's Cherry Hill home.
Len Jenoff testified that Rabbi Fred Neulander hired him to kill his wife, Carol, in the couple's Cherry Hill home.Read more

This article was originally published in The Philadelphia Inquirer on May 7, 2000.

Len Jenoff had a secret.

When I first met him in February 1995, he said he was a private investigator working for Rabbi Fred J. Neulander. He said he was trying to solve the murder of the rabbi’s wife, Carol, who was killed in the couple’s Cherry Hill home on Nov. 1, 1994. Jenoff said he believed Carol Neulander was beaten to death during a robbery by someone who knew her habit of carrying large sums of money.

For months, he steered me down wrong paths, putting me on the trail of leads that went nowhere. He introduced me to a friend who he said was a psychic and produced a sketch of the killer the friend had made. Together, Jenoff said, the two men were trying to solve the case.

But the false trails and the psychic eventually gave way to long conversations about how troubled Jenoff was over a secret he was holding. The story came slowly as we spent hours discussing the crime over weeks, months and then years.

Finally, he told me that the rabbi had paid him to arrange the murder. Nine days ago, he confessed to authorities in a South Jersey diner as I sat next to him in the booth.

On Monday, Jenoff, 54, was charged with murder and conspiracy along with an accomplice, Paul Michael Daniels, 27, of Pennsauken. Both men are held in the Camden County jail.

As a reporter for The Inquirer, I had been assigned to look into the murder, which shocked and saddened the community, and which took a stunning turn when the rabbi became a suspect. As I got to know Jenoff, a fixture around the rabbi, I suspected he knew something and began to cultivate him as a source.

Rabbi Neulander, who pleaded not guilty to murder and conspiracy in September 1998, has denied any role in the crime and said Jenoff's story is a lie.

He stands accused of arranging his wife's death so that he could pursue a romance with Elaine Soncini, a Philadelphia radio host. Prosecutors say the rabbi feared that a divorce would cost him his job as senior rabbi at Congregation M'kor Shalom, a thriving Cherry Hill synagogue.

It was Nov. 1, 1996, two years to the day after Carol Neulander was killed, when Jenoff first made it clear to me that he might have more to say. He said he wasn't comfortable talking on the telephone and invited me to his office, which was set up on one side of his bedroom in the Cherry Hill apartment he shared with two other men.

As I sat on a metal folding chair, he showed me photos of his son, Marty, and pictures of himself as a young man. He lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply, then let the smoke out and told me he had information that could hurt Rabbi Neulander. He had been keeping this inside, he said, out of loyalty to the rabbi , who had helped him in a time of need.

At the same time, it was clear that he harbored some anger toward the rabbi . He said he was upset because Rabbi Neulander owed him thousands of dollars for "investigative services. " And there was more, he said. Something too terrible to tell.

Yet he wanted to tell. He pulled his chair closer to mine and leaned forward. Suppose hypothetically, he said, that the rabbi had told him there was someone he wanted harmed and asked whether Jenoff knew anyone who could do that. Suppose that Jenoff gave him the phone number of someone who might do that. And suppose that he later learned that Carol Neulander was dead, and feared that he had unwittingly been involved in the crime.

Jenoff said he and Rabbi Neulander often took long walks in the woods behind the synagogue after the rabbi counseled him about personal problems. One day, as the two men smoked cigarettes, Jenoff said, he and the rabbi talked about enemies of Israel. He said the rabbi asked him whether one of his roommates, a pharmacist, could recommend a combination of drugs that could kill a person and not leave a trace.

This all sounded rather dramatic and fanciful to me, but as Jenoff told the story it seemed he knew more than he was saying.

It also seemed odd to me that the rabbi would hire an investigator who did not advertise in the phone book and had an office in his bedroom. But there were things Jenoff told me about the Neulander case that I was able to confirm. I began to believe that he knew what happened on the autumn night when Carol Neulander was killed.

With his cryptic stories, always told off the record, Jenoff encouraged that view.

"I'm sitting on so many secrets," he said in November 1996, "that before I can reveal them, I might need prosecutor's immunity. "

Before long, Jenoff and I were speaking nearly every day. My goal was to learn what he knew, confirm its accuracy and report the story. At The Inquirer's expense, we had meetings in diners and restaurants, where he would sit across from me and smoke cigarettes and explain what a powerful force the rabbi had been in his life.

I told him I understood how compelling a rabbi 's influence could be because I am close to my own rabbi , whom I admire and view as a guiding force. Jenoff and I talked about Judaism and its role in our lives. It was central to mine; for him, it was a source of alienation, something that gave him a feeling of being unworthy.

Rabbi Neulander, he said, brought him back to Judaism and welcomed him into his synagogue.

Jenoff was a broken man then, he said, a recovering alcoholic who had lost his family and his job and was openly questioning his faith.

Rabbi Neulander comforted him. Jenoff said he grew to love the rabbi , whom he considered a powerfully charismatic man.

"If I was a woman, I would have been sleeping with him," Jenoff said in an interview last month. "If he asked me to jump off a bridge, I would have said, 'Which one? ' "

At times, it was hard for me to know what to make of Jenoff. Many people, including some law enforcement officials, were inclined to dismiss him as prone to embellishment if not outright fabrication. Some Inquirer editors also were profoundly skeptical.

Jenoff told me he spent years working for the Central Intelligence Agency, but CIA officials said that was not true. It was hard to know how much stock to put in that dismissal. If Jenoff had been a spy, the CIA could hardly be expected to blow his cover.

He showed me a photograph he carried in his wallet of Ronald Reagan on a horse. "To Len Jenoff, a loyal friend and comrade in arms," read the inscription, which was signed "Ronald Reagan. " I compared the handwriting against samples of the former president's and it did not appear to match. In fact, it appeared to be Jenoff's handwriting.

Jenoff told me he had served with military forces in Vietnam, but records I consulted showed that he was a cook in the Army Reserve in this country.

These misrepresentations added to my misgivings, but I held firm to the feeling I had in our meeting on the second anniversary of Carol Neulander's death: He had more to tell.

From the beginning, Jenoff was careful to speak off the record about his secrets, meaning that this information could not be published. In that manner, he told an evolving tale centered on the premise that Rabbi Neulander had hired someone to kill his wife.

Though I make every effort to conduct interviews on the record, I allowed Jenoff to go off the record because I believed he could shed light on a terrible crime. If I could confirm his information or persuade him to go on the record, that would move me closer to explaining to our readers what had happened.

I spent years meeting with Jenoff and talking to him about his relationship with the rabbi and his theories of the murder . During that time Jenoff introduced me to his son and later to his wife, June, whom he married in August 1997 in a ceremony Rabbi Neulander performed in his living room. They took their vows only feet from where Carol Neulander was killed.

I received postcards from their vacations in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, among other places, and holiday cards at Hanukkah. One year, when his wife told him she did not know how to make latkes, I sent them recipes. I believe Jenoff came to think of me as a friend. More than once, he told me I was like a sister to him. I made clear I was there as a reporter, not as a friend, and that I was trying to develop a story.

I pursued the story even after I went to work as editor of The Inquirer's Bucks County bureau in November 1998. We still talked, though our telephone conversations grew shorter and less frequent.

Jenoff's need to tell his story seemed to grow more urgent in recent months. This past December, in a tearful conversation at his new home in Collingswood, Jenoff finally told me he had arranged Carol Neulander's death.

He explained that one day, when he was thanking Rabbi Neulander for his counsel, the rabbi replied: “Maybe one day there will be something you can do for your rabbi.”

Not long after that, Jenoff said, the rabbi asked for help: He wanted him to plan a murder.

"I can't believe I'm telling you this. I've held this in for so long," he said as he fought back tears and reached for my hand. "You don't know how close I've come to telling this to you so many times. "

Moments later, the gravity of what he had told me seemed to sink in.

"Please don't hurt me with this, Nancy," he said. "I can't ruin my life. I may have to take this to the grave. "

I left his house shaken, believing there was some truth to his story. But I was in a bind. He would not give me permission to tell the story and because I had agreed to keep his confidence, I had to honor that and could not tell the authorities. I wanted Jenoff to keep talking to me, with the hope that I could persuade him to go on the record.

After that meeting, he phoned me with a clue: The killer's initials, he said, were PMD. Later, he told the name: Paul Michael Daniels, whom I learned had been one of his roommates in 1994.

In subsequent meetings, again punctuated by his tears and seeming anguish, Jenoff told me he planned the murder and enlisted Daniels to carry out the fatal beating after the rabbi promised to pay him $30,000. Jenoff said that he paid Daniels $7,500.

Jenoff said he was afraid that if he told authorities about the crime, Rabbi Neulander would harm him or his family.

Jenoff told me that the rabbi resented my efforts to learn about the crime.

"Fred hates you," he said in January. He told me - and later repeated to authorities - that the rabbi told him to try to lure me into some sexual indiscretion so the rabbi could discredit me by making it appear that I had inappropriate relationships with sources.

"That's absolutely untrue," said Jeffrey Zucker, one of the rabbi 's lawyers. "There's just no truth to it. "

Even as Jenoff told me his story, he insisted that The Inquirer could not print it because although he wanted to tell what had happened, he feared the consequences and worried that he might have to go to jail.

In February, Jenoff and Daniels made an unannounced visit to my office. Jenoff had called earlier in the day to tell me he was meeting Daniels for lunch and asked whether I wanted to come along. I was frightened, and I declined.

So I was startled when the two men arrived. Jenoff introduced me to Daniels, and asked me to join them at a nearby restaurant. I said I was too busy. He then handed me an envelope and asked me to give it to my rabbi . The envelope was empty.

That was scary because it mirrored what authorities said about the killer's visit to the Neulanders' house. They say Carol Neulander, 52, a mother of three and the founder of two popular South Jersey bakeries, was killed by a man who posed as a deliveryman and visited her house twice. The first time the man appeared, authorities say, he told her he had an envelope for her husband. It was empty. Prosecutors say the man returned a week later and killed her.

A few minutes after handing me the empty envelope, Jenoff phoned me from a restaurant.

"Don't be mad at me," he said. "I just felt that after all these years of wanting to know who did it, that you would want to meet him, but that you were afraid. So I thought you needed a push. "

I began to worry about my safety. What if that office visit was a message that if I broke my promise and told the story without Jenoff's permission, the killer would know where to find me?

Over the next several weeks, Jenoff said the secret was keeping him up at night.

"This is like a nightmare," he said. "It's been a nightmare for five years, trying to put it out of my mind. There's been times when I thought of killing myself, times when I prayed for cancer, prayed for a heart attack so I wouldn't have to go on keeping this inside of me. "

Nine days ago, as Jenoff and I met for lunch at a Cherry Hill restaurant, he said he had decided to come forward and admit his role in the crime, but that he would probably wait until after the weekend. After we shared a pizza, he asked me to take a ride with him into Philadelphia to visit two places that figured in the crime.

As we neared Camden, I asked whether he wouldn't rather go to the prosecutor's office right then. He pulled up in front of a restaurant on Market Street near the office of Camden County Prosecutor Lee A. Solomon. He asked me to call Solomon and ask whether he would meet us for coffee. I reached the prosecutor on my cell phone.

Solomon, who was out of his office, agreed to meet us at a nearby diner. Thirty minutes later, at Weber's Colonial Diner in Audubon, Jenoff and I met with Solomon and homicide investigator Martin Devlin.

Jenoff told me he was frightened. "I haven't been this scared since Nov. 1," he said as we waited for the prosecutor.

For the next three hours, over coffee and a fruit cup, Jenoff calmly confessed that he had arranged the murder of Carol Neulander. He insisted that he did not know at the time that the woman he had targeted was the rabbi 's wife. Rabbi Neulander, he said, told him the woman was an enemy of Israel, and that she had to die for the good of that country.

Jenoff said he planned the murder with precision, working out the details over several months. It was, he said, his "raid on Entebbe. "

(The crime came off almost without a hitch. Authorities have not found the weapon. And until Jenoff confessed, and Daniels followed, law enforcement officials had charged no one with carrying out the fatal beating. )

As Jenoff admitted his role in the murder that day in the diner, he told the prosecutor that he knew he had done a terrible thing and said he was afraid that he would be arrested. He said he hoped that by coming forward voluntarily and without a lawyer he might win leniency.

Solomon said he would take Jenoff's cooperation into account. As we left the diner, Solomon and Devlin said they would try to corroborate Jenoff's account and would need to talk to him again.

After the meeting, Jenoff told me I could finally tell this story. That freed me to write this account.

I called my editors that evening and told them of Jenoff's confession and that the prosecutor's office intended to investigate his claims. On Saturday morning, I again talked to the editors, who remained skeptical of Jenoff. But they told me to start sketching out a story.

We decided that we could not publish until we were certain that authorities took Jenoff's confession seriously.

On Monday, I met with editors again and discussed how to put the story in the paper. Hours later, we learned that Jenoff was behind bars, and the story he had told me became front-page news in Tuesday's Inquirer.

By that time, Jenoff had hired a lawyer, Francis J. Hartman, and agreed to cooperate with authorities.

Daniels' lawyer, Craig Mitnick, said Friday that the two men knew their victim was Carol Neulander and that it was a contract murder paid for by Rabbi Neulander. He said both men struck her and Jenoff hit her first.

Hartman confirmed that in an interview yesterday.

Rabbi Neulander's trial has been postponed at least until September. The confessions make it likely that prosecutors will upgrade the case against him to a capital crime and seek the death penalty.

After Jenoff confessed to Solomon but before he was taken into custody, he called from his home to thank me for listening to him over all these years as he struggled with his conscience.

"Without you, I don't know whether I could have done it," he said a few hours after the meeting with Solomon. "I guess I want to say thank you, but I'm afraid of the outcome.

"Say a prayer for me, Nancy," he said just after the sun went down at the start of the Jewish Sabbath. "Say a prayer that God will help us and that I won't be that badly punished."

* I haven’t spoken to Len Jenoff since his arrest. I’d like to talk to him about his reaction to recent events, including the shocking revelation that he knew his victim was Carol Neulander and that he participated in the beating. I know the story has not been fully told.