It was one of the most notorious contract killings in the history of New Jersey.

And now, 15 years later, the hit man is changing his story.

Len Jenoff, a private investigator with a checkered past, says in a sworn affidavit signed this year that the 1994 bludgeoning of Carol Neulander was a robbery gone bad, and not a murder ordered and paid for by her husband, prominent Cherry Hill rabbi Fred Neulander.

"Fred Neulander never asked me to kill his wife, and to the best of my knowledge he never had any idea of any attempt on his wife's life," Jenoff said in a two-page affidavit dated Jan. 26.

The recantation is part of a post-conviction relief motion filed by Neulander's court-appointed lawyer, Patrick T. Cronin, that is winding its way through state Superior Court in Camden County. A hearing on a related issue was held Friday, but it could be months before the substantive issues are argued in open court.

The mere fact that Jenoff has changed his story is not enough to win Neulander a new trial.

In court documents filed this month, in fact, Assistant Camden County Prosecutor Robert K. Uyehara Jr. pointed out that recantations are "not uncommon" and that courts have held they are "inherently suspect."

Jenoff, 63, who is serving a 23-year sentence after pleading guilty to aggravated manslaughter and agreeing to cooperate with authorities, also alleges that prosecutors reneged on a "sweetheart deal" promising him a five-year sentence.

Authorities deny there was any such agreement.

The post-conviction relief motion may be Neulander's last chance at freedom. The once charismatic but now disgraced South Jersey religious leader has exhausted his legal appeals. The New Jersey Supreme Court declined to hear his case in 2007.

An inmate at the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton, Neulander, 67, is serving a life sentence with no parole eligibility for at least 20 more years.

The request for relief is based on two arguments.

The first is that Neulander's trial lawyer and his appellate lawyer were ineffective. The second is that Neulander was denied due process because authorities withheld the fact that Jenoff had been promised a light prison sentence for his testimony.

While hardly the final word, Jenoff's new story has provided yet another bizarre twist in one of the most sensational murder cases in state history.

And it has again brought his credibility into question.

The key prosecution witness at two trials - the first ended with a hung jury - Jenoff testified under oath that the rabbi had hired him to kill his wife, Carol, 52, so Neulander could be with a woman with whom he had been having an affair.

A onetime private investigator and recovering alcoholic who at various times claimed to have contacts with the CIA and the Israeli secret service, the Mossad, Jenoff withstood an assault on his character and truthfulness by defense attorneys at both trials.

In each case, they hammered away at his background, his fanciful boasts of political and governmental connections at the highest levels, and his motivations for testifying.

Through it all, Jenoff insisted he was telling the truth.

Now he's done an about-face.

In his affidavit, Jenoff says it was law enforcement that wanted Neulander tied to the killing.

Jailed for nine years, Jenoff says in his affidavit that he has had "a great deal of time to think about what I did in implicating Fred Neulander, an innocent man, and I wanted to set the record straight."

"I made up a story implicating Fred Neulander because I was promised leniency if I cooperated with the Prosecutor's Office."

This is not the first time that version has surfaced. Two inmates with Jenoff in the Camden County jail after his arrest in 2000 testified for the defense that he had told them the rabbi had nothing to do with the murder.

But the prosecution's case, built around Jenoff's account and the testimony of several other key witnesses, carried more weight with the jury.

Neulander's former mistress, Elaine Soncini, a onetime radio personality, testified that she had been trying to end their affair at the time of Carol Neulander's death.

She said that the rabbi had promised her they would be together by her birthday, in January, and that after his wife was found slain in November 1994, he told her, in effect: I told you so.

A second key witness, Myron "Pep" Levin, a frequent racquetball partner of the rabbi's and a convicted felon with ties to the underworld, testified that Neulander once had asked him if he knew someone who could arrange the murder of his wife.

Levin said the rabbi had told him he wanted to come home someday and find his wife dead on the floor.

That testimony, coupled with Jenoff's account of how the rabbi had enlisted him to carry out the hit, formed the basis of the state's case.

Cronin, Neulander's court-appointed lawyer, said a key issue in his relief argument was whether "promises were made for favorable testimony."

Acknowledging that Jenoff has now offered conflicting accounts, Cronin said: "We have a right to ascertain which is true."

If the recantation is the true version, he said, Neulander "is innocent . . . wrongly convicted" and entitled, at the very least, to a new trial.

Cronin likened the situation to that of the former boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, whose conviction in a double homicide was overturned after a series of appeals and a 20-year legal battle built in part on a witness' recantation.

The Prosecutor's Office has insisted that there never was any secret, unwritten deal and that Jenoff knew what he faced when he pleaded guilty.

In May 2008, Jenoff filed a motion challenging his sentence, claiming ineffective counsel and alleging he had been promised significantly less time than 23 years. At that time, the lawyer who handled the plea negotiations disputed Jenoff's assertions.

Late last year, Jenoff dropped his appeal. He then wrote a letter to Cronin.

An unsigned copy of that letter is part of Cronin's latest motion. In it, Jenoff said Neulander had "never instructed me, hired me or paid me to kill his wife."

Jenoff, who had been attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings at the rabbi's Congregation M'Kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, said he had learned that Carol Neulander, who had her own business, "kept large sums of cash" at home.

He said he had planned a home burglary with an accomplice, Paul Michael Daniels. Like Jenoff, Daniels confessed to the murder.

"This was not intended to be a murder or a killing, just a home robbery or burglary," Jenoff said in the letter. He said Daniels had struck Carol Neulander with a lead pipe.

Jenoff first confessed to Inquirer reporter Nancy Phillips in April 2000. She then arranged for him to meet with Camden County authorities.

The rabbi had been charged with murder a year earlier, based on evidence supplied by Soncini and Levin. Jenoff's testimony strengthened that case and offered a firsthand account of the killing.

Jenoff said county officials had told him that "I would get life in prison or lethal injection unless I totally implicated Fred Neulander in the contract murder of his wife." He said he had been told if he linked the rabbi to the killing, he would be out of jail in five years.

At Friday's hearing before Superior Court Judge Thomas A. Brown Jr., Uyehara said: "No five-year offer was ever tendered to Leonard Jenoff in exchange for his testimony."

Uyehara said Jenoff had known he faced up to 30 years when he pleaded to aggravated manslaughter.

In imposing a 23-year sentence with a stipulation that he could not be paroled for at least 10 years, Judge Linda Baxter said: "Jenoff was and is a calculating murderer who killed Carol Neulander in the most brutal manner. He plotted the murder with defendant, Neulander. He, like Neulander, deserves a lengthy and severe sentence."

Jenoff, according to prison records, will be eligible for parole on May 1, 2010.

Contact staff writer George Anastasia at 856-779-3846 or