The Reporter and the Hit Man
Len Jenoff told Nancy Phillips that he had arranged the murder of a rabbi's wife--at the rabbi's request. But the confession was off the record. What should she do?
By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.
FOR FOUR MONTHS, Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Nancy Phillips kept an explosive secret. A secret the police would have liked to know. A secret the rabbi charged with arranging his wife's brutal 1994 murder certainly wouldn't want made public. A secret that, if true, could earn the rabbi the death penalty.
It was a secret Phillips told no one initially. "It was weird in the newsroom," she says. "I couldn't say extraordinary things were going on in my life."
The secret she harbored came on a December day in 1999. A source Phillips had cultivated for almost five years tearfully confessed to her that he had arranged the gruesome murder of Carol Neulander at the request of her husband of 29 years, Rabbi Fred Neulander. The source said he knew who struck Neulander numerous times with a metal pipe, who left the 52-year-old mother in a pool of blood on the off-white carpet in her Cherry Hill, New Jersey, living room.
But before he confessed, he insisted the conversation be off the record. She could not publish the information.
Phillips agreed. Rattled, she left his house, certain she had to find a way to make his story public. But she was just as certain she would not break her reporter's promise of confidentiality. For 18 years, Phillips, 37, has reported for only two newspapers. She loves the work and isn't going to do anything to jeopardize her reputation. Her word is all she has.
But what if he were telling the truth? What if she couldn't get her source to confess on the record? Prosecutors had only a circumstantial case against Neulander. What if the rabbi--who says he's innocent and who goes on trial in September--were acquitted before her source said a word about Carol Neulander's death?
What are a journalist's obligations in such a case?
Phillips thought about that often. It kept her up nights. She lost weight worrying. But she had a plan, a touchstone she fell back on in moments of angst. It was something her now-famous former colleagues, reporting legends Donald Barlett and James Steele, had shared with her many, many years ago.
T HE DAY AFTER HALLOWEEN in 1994, Nancy Phillips, then 30, was sitting at her desk in the Inquirer's Cherry Hill bureau immersed in covering a tight New Jersey Senate race. Since spring, she'd been traveling from one end of the state to the other. As the office buzzed about the grisly Neulander killing, Phillips was preoccupied with politics. She had covered Cherry Hill from 1986 to 1988, but didn't know the rabbi or his synagogue.
After she came back from vacation in December, Matt Golas, then the New Jersey editor, called Phillips into his office. The Neulander case had stalled. "We've got this really intriguing murder case, and no one seems to know what it's all about," Golas said. "Cherry Hill is a community you know well. Why don't you do some digging?"
Phillips would spend the next five-and-a-half years, off and on, covering the Neulander saga. During that time, three prosecutors handled the case, the rabbi resigned and her key source got married. A woman with whom Neulander had an affair married the bodyguard police hired when she testified against the rabbi. The Inquirer got a new editor, Golas became regional editor and Julie Busby took over as New Jersey editor. And Phillips' investigation of the mayor of Camden in 1997 and 1998 would help put him in jail.
But she never lost track of Carol Neulander's murder. Years passed. No one was arrested. "The story played out slowly," Golas says. "It stayed with me year after year. A lot of times you can lose a story. The only reason we didn't lose the story is because of Nancy. There are no heroes here in terms of editors."
Like the public, Phillips found herself captivated by a case with enough soap operatic turns to attract book and movie offers. It had murder, sex, adultery, mystery, religion, children compelled to testify against their father's interests. A convert to the Jewish faith after marrying, Phillips was particularly drawn to the story, although she won't speak about that.
On one level, Carol Neulander's death was a tragic story of an adulterous man who, according to law enforcement officials, wished to end his 29-year marriage to be with another woman. The rabbi, they say, hoped to skirt divorce out of fear his wife would learn of his extramarital affairs and strip him of his money and the synagogue the couple started in 1974. Murder-for-hire, the rabbi felt, was his only option, according to prosecutors.
On another level, it's a deeper story about human fallibility, betrayal and religious faith. Many of the 900-plus-member congregation found their belief in Judaism tested, first when the rabbi's wife was bludgeoned to death, and again, three months later, when the rabbi they had lionized resigned after temple leaders learned that he had had two affairs. And yet again, four years later, when Neulander was charged with planning his wife's murder.
Phillips missed none of the nuances. By all accounts, she is an excellent, poised, reliable reporter who won't quit digging until she uncovers the truth. She's a woman who dresses so elegantly in heels, suede jackets and short skirts, with nary a hair out of place, that some mistake her for a television anchor. Her desk, with every item carefully arranged and papers neatly stacked, is a paragon of tidiness in a newsroom teeming with clutter. Yet she's as tenacious as any of the best investigative reporters, and is much admired in the newsroom for her cool, her smarts and her ability to go deep into a story.
"She's the antithesis of the image of a rough-hewn, monomaniacal investigative reporter," says Baltimore Sun Editor William K. Marimow, one of Phillips' first editors at the Inquirer. "She's a very civilized, very cultured, very decent person."
Phillips joined the Inquirer more than 15 years ago after a two-year stint reporting for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. She'd landed that job after her professor at New College in Sarasota divined her talent for writing. He encouraged her, and she spent Tuesday and Thursday afternoons with him as he critiqued her work. At one session, he told her: "I really think you should think about writing for the paper. I think you would be great at this. Why don't we call them right now?"
He did, and then-Editor Ed Pierce told the professor and his protégé to stop by in 10 minutes. "I remember the day well because it was so bizarre," Phillips says. "Because New College was so bohemian, he was wearing sort of khaki walking shorts and thong-like sandals, and I was wearing this long gauze skirt and probably a little top with little ties on the shoulders. It was totally inappropriate. If it were today, I would say, 'No, I'm not going to do this.' "
But it was then. They marched into Pierce's office, and Phillips walked out with a summer internship. "Still to this day, I look back on it, and I think it's astounding because I had no idea how to write a news story," she says. "But I looked at what was in the paper and learned to do it by watching everyone around me."
That she's self-taught is not a surprise to those who know her, but that she'd go to a job interview in a flimsy skirt and skimpy top is much harder to fathom.
At the internship's end, Pierce asked her: "Well, kid, would you like to stay?" She was 19, had graduated and thought it was the best job offer she'd get at that age. She started in a bureau covering the school board, then moved on to night cops.
After two years, in November 1985, Phillips thought it time to move on. She was 21. "It got to the point where the editing was not at the level where I thought it would help me learn and grow," she says. "And one or two times errors were edited into my story, and I thought, arrogantly, well, enough of this little pond."
So she quit, moved home to suburban Philadelphia and called the Inquirer. Arlene Morgan, who left the Inquirer last year to teach journalism at Columbia University, was then the paper's assistant metro editor; Morgan met with the young reporter. Phillips recalls Morgan "was very sweet and did not say: 'Look, chick. You are way too young. We hire people with 10 years of experience. Go away.' "
Instead, Morgan "was very impressed with her maturity and how she seemed so in control and focused on learning all that she could about being a great reporter." Morgan offered Phillips a spot in the paper's correspondent program for journalism newcomers. "I look back," says Phillips, "and I think, 'Where did that audacity come from?' "
I T'S STILL THERE, just tempered by experience. Although Phillips has an almost Victorian demeanor, she goes after the grittier stories. While in the New Jersey bureau, Phillips investigated prisons, linked a mayor to a drug-related murder, reported on Camden's drug networks and exposed questionable patronage contracts with the Delaware River Port Authority.
Phillips has a natural instinct for developing sources, knowing where to go for information and how to gently pry it out, says Marimow. But above all, he says, she won't let go of a good story. "If something is undone, she can't rest."
Editors respect her incisiveness. "Nancy is not someone who gets too up or too down or too emotional," says Robert J. Rosenthal, the Inquirer's editor and executive vice president. "She's always cool. She's not a volatile personality. There never was a sense with Nancy that she was rushing to judgment. She simply had a gut instinct, and she was working a source. She was not obsessed by [the Neulander story]. Nor did it stop her from doing other stories."
One of the first articles Phillips wrote on the case ran in February 1995, when synagogue leaders learned of the rabbi's infidelities and privately demanded that he step down. Phillips was there when Neulander's son Matthew, then 21, talked about his father's ambiguous resignation letter, which had just been read aloud by the congregation's president.
"It was really very poignant. People were crying," Phillips says. "I guess this is really what helped me understand the connection people had to Fred and Carol Neulander. This is a room full of people whose connection to them was: He married them. He did the baby naming. He did their son's Bar Mitzvah. He was part of the fabric of their life, as was she. Now you have people still reeling from a very violent death...and suddenly the rabbi was resigning and there's this cryptic statement and it's not really explained."
Police discovered Neulander and Philadelphia radio personality Elaine Soncini had been lovers. (The rabbi had been counseling Soncini during the fatal illness of her husband, prominent Philadelphia disc jockey Ken Garland. Their affair began after his death.) By 1994, Soncini, who converted to Judaism for the rabbi, told police she had threatened to end the affair if Neulander didn't leave his wife. Neulander promised, "The problem will be solved by December 1994," Soncini said.
Phillips had heard rumors about the rabbi's extramarital activities. But she wasn't interested in Neulander's sex life unless it shed light on the murder. Adultery "is not the kind of story I go after. I tried to figure out how it may or may not have related to what happened."
When the Philadelphia Daily News' Marianne Costantinou learned about the Soncini-Neulander liaison, her tabloid splashed the news on its August 18, 1995, cover. Soncini held a press conference, but the Inquirer didn't run a story the following day. It published an article on Soncini's revelations on August 20, although Phillips had known about the relationship since February.
"We sat around the newsroom pondering, 'What purpose are we serving by naming Elaine?' " Phillips told the Philadelphia City Paper in 1995.
The Inquirer's story highlighted Soncini's statement to the police rather than the affair. "Soncini talked about the rabbi having encouraged her to lie about the relationship when questioned by the police," says Phillips. "I really felt that was much more interesting to our readers."
Phillips' real coup came from her intuition. She sensed a source she had first met in February 1995 knew more about that case than he was saying. His name was Len Jenoff, and he introduced himself to reporters as the rabbi's private investigator. "I, of course, began asking people I knew what they knew about Len Jenoff," says Phillips. "And did not get back very complimentary reports. So he struck me as a rather odd choice as an investigator for these purposes."
Jenoff, then 49, wasn't listed in the Yellow Pages. He had a license but no office. He worked out of a bedroom in an apartment shared with two men also recovering from substance abuse. Jenoff had lost his marriage, his family, his house and part of his life to alcohol after accidentally killing an intoxicated teen who was pushing a disabled car in the wrong lane in 1986. Jenoff was exonerated after a police investigation, but liquor provided another kind of prison.
Yet Jenoff clearly was in the rabbi's inner circle. He was often by the rabbi's side, insisting to reporters that the rabbi hadn't killed his wife. Instinct told Phillips to put up with Jenoff, a twice-divorced college dropout, even though he fed her dead-end leads.
"There were a number of lies in his accounts all along," Phillips says. "But at the same time, there was truth along the way and things I could confirm. That, coupled with the notion that he was so often in the company of Fred Neulander, who was not talking to reporters or giving any interviews, just led me to believe he was somebody valuable and worth pursuing."
And as she got to know the investigator better, she adds, "the hints were such, and the anxiety level was such, that I did begin to suspect that he might be involved."
PHILLIPS CULTIVATED JENOFF, buying him meals, listening to his murder theories, meeting his son, talking on the phone, discussing their shared Jewish faith, even giving Jenoff her recipe for latkes. She pushed him to talk about his secrets, she says, but allowed him to speak off the record. She wanted to learn the truth about Carol Neulander's death, and Jenoff was savvy enough to insist their conversations be kept between them.
Jenoff trusted the reporter. "She kept assuring me that anything in the world I would tell her was protected by the First Amendment, you know, the freedom of the press," Jenoff told police, "that she wouldn't be, she can't be compelled to tell authorities."
With that understanding, on November 1, 1996--exactly two years after the murder--Jenoff opened up. "He pulled his chair closer to mine and leaned forward," Phillips wrote of that day. "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. And suppose that he later learned that Carol Neulander was dead, and feared that he had unwittingly been involved in the crime."
She tried repeatedly to get Jenoff on the record, but each time he refused. "I remember a couple of conversations with things like: 'Whenever you are ready to tell this story on the record, I will come running with my pad and my pen.' "
On September 11, 1998, Neulander was arrested for arranging his wife's death and charged with being an accomplice to murder and conspiracy. He was released on $400,000 bail. Two months later, Phillips was transferred across the Delaware River to become the Inquirer's editor in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. While she says she thrived as an editor, the job gave her little time for the Neulander case.
"He continued to call me," she says of Jenoff. "But there was much less frequent contact because I was just too busy. I mean, I had an office with 12 reporters. It was a challenge to keep in touch with all my sources and run the bureau." But she made time in December 1999 when Jenoff asked her to come to his office. He was married now, and the secret was destroying him. Tearfully, he told Phillips he had arranged Carol Neulander's murder--at her husband's request, he claimed. Although Phillips had her suspicions, "I was still astonished when he did sit down and say, 'All these years I've been waiting to tell you this.' Then, boom, there it was. That was really a very stunning and difficult moment."
This is how Phillips wrote of that day:
" '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."
PHILLIPS KEPT THE CONFESSION to herself. She never considered going to the police with the explosive information, for two reasons. First, there was Jenoff's spotty track record. He had lied about serving in Vietnam. He said he had worked for the CIA, but she had no way to verify that. He showed her an autographed picture of Ronald Reagan he carried in his wallet, but the signature looked more like Jenoff's than Reagan's. She knew he liked to embroider his exploits; what was true and what wasn't were often hard to discern.
But there was a more important factor: Phillips had made a promise to Jenoff that she felt she could not break. Nor should she, say experts on journalism ethics. "The instinct is to say: 'You should go to the police,' " says Jane Kirtley, a University of Minnesota media ethics and law professor and AJR columnist. "But you shouldn't." (See "Keeping Secrets")
Camden County prosecutor Lee A. Solomon sees it differently. "Why is there any question about what a reporter should do if you have evidence that somebody committed a murder?" he asks. "Journalists have a moral and ethical obligation to come forward. To cloak themselves in privilege and allow someone to get away with murder is unconscionable to me. Maybe it is legally permissible, but it's morally unconscionable."
The issue spotlights the perennial question: Do journalistic responsibilities outweigh the exigencies of citizenship? Kirtley, for one, thinks so.
"The definition of good citizenship for a journalist is different because of the constitutionally protected role we enjoy in our society," Kirtley says. "One of the ways you fulfill your duty to the public is by maintaining your independence from the government. Police have a role to fulfill, but it's not identical to journalists'. Keeping the line firmly drawn is tremendously important."
Ethicist Louis Hodges of Washington and Lee University says there are exceptions, such as if a journalist knows that someone is planning a serious crime. And journalists who witness a crime could be held in contempt of court if they refuse to testify. But, overall, Hodges voices concern that if journalists act like arms of law enforcement, sources will dry up.
Inquirer Editor Rosenthal has a similar view. If the paper corroborates an on-the-record confession, he says, its responsibility is to publish a story--not furnish the information to the police. If Jenoff confessed on the record and editors trusted him and corroborated what he said, they would put the information in the paper--not give it to the police. Jenoff's credibility was a concern, says Rosenthal. "But the bigger issue was setting a precedent. We never go running to the authorities. It's crucial for our long-term credibility to not be seen as a branch of law enforcement."
O N APRIL 19, 2000, Phillips stopped by Camden County prosecutor Solomon's office late in the day. Solomon was trying to leave early for a Passover Seder. Phillips seemed nervous and worried, Solomon recalled.
"Her questions centered on Jenoff: What did we have on him, things of that nature," Solomon said in a deposition. "And based on her questions, it was pretty clear that she had information. I didn't know what it was, but I said to [lead homicide investigator Marty Devlin]--and it's almost verbatim--'Marty, you may be right. Maybe [Jenoff's] got more to tell us than what he's given us.' "
On April 28, a Friday, Phillips met Jenoff for lunch. She had been back on the story for a month. Neulander's trial was scheduled for June.
Over pizza, Jenoff snarled to the reporter that his secret was tearing him apart. At times he prayed for a heart attack or cancer. He had told his wife. Now he wanted to tell police. He'd do it after the weekend. But first he asked Phillips if she'd ride with him to Philadelphia so he could show her two places that figured in the crime. She agreed. They got into his silver Dodge Caravan, and Jenoff drove toward Philadelphia.
As they neared Camden, Phillips asked: "Are you sure you don't want to go now?"
"Do you have your cell phone?" Jenoff asked. She did. He nodded to go ahead. Phillips dialed the prosecutor's office and reached his secretary, Carol DiDomenico. Solomon had just left to get a haircut. But DiDomenico sensed an urgency in Phillips' voice. She patched the call through to Solomon's cell phone.
"I could tell by her voice that it was important," says DiDomenico. "But she never said anything. Just by her inflection. I've been here for 22 years, so I sort of think I can tell when something is serious."
Solomon had just parked when his cell phone rang after 2 p.m. "I'm with Len Jenoff and he wants to meet with you," Phillips said. Solomon, too, heard something in Phillips' voice and agreed to meet them, along with investigator Devlin, in a half-hour at Weber's Colonial Diner in Audubon.
Phillips and Jenoff drove to the diner. "Clearly I had been trying for months to get him to tell the story in a manner in which I could use it," Phillips says. "But it was he on that day who decided he was going to tell the police. We were in his car. Len was clearly in charge of this meeting. But it was unclear what was going to happen. Would this be yet another in a series of many long talks?"
Around 3 p.m., the four walked into the diner and asked for a table in the back. They were shown to what is now known as the "confessional booth." Solomon had eaten lunch, so he just ordered a fruit cup. Jenoff did too. A pot of coffee was ordered. As Jenoff talked, he rubbed his hands and gnashed his teeth, sometimes covering his face in his hands. He shifted uncomfortably in the red vinyl booth while smoking Newport Light after Newport Light.
Phillips sat next to him. She hardly said a word. The only time Phillips spoke, says Solomon, was to correct Jenoff. "I'm here with Nancy as a friend," he told the prosecutor. Phillips contradicted him: "I'm here as a reporter." It was the first time Solomon had heard a confession with a journalist present. But it never crossed his mind to ask her to leave.
Later, in an 89-page formal confession on May 5, Jenoff said he thought of Phillips as a friend or sister. "Should I have come to the authorities? Yes," Jenoff said. "But I was deathly afraid, deathly afraid. But yet it was burning inside me for somebody to hear me and know, so I felt safe with this woman. And when we originally met, I wasn't married, kind of had a crush on her and nothing went of it. But I had this fantasy or crush and I started trusting her and telling her, but with lies, like half-truths, half-lies. And then we continued on as friends."
About every 10 or 15 minutes their waitress, Sharon Willings, came to the table, asking if they wanted more coffee. Jenoff drank cup after cup, and got up several times to go to the bathroom. When he left, no one said anything. They only exchanged glances.
"Jenoff was a mess, twisting and turning," Solomon says. "I don't know if it was a reaction to what he said or the way he said it, but it was fairly convincing."
In the opposite booth, a family with young children about the same ages as Solomon's was eating a late lunch. "Ordinary life was going on around us in a diner, and sitting across from me a fairly unlikely guy was confessing to a murder," says Solomon. "It was very surreal."
In his formal confession, Jenoff poured out details, claiming the rabbi had befriended him when he was at his most vulnerable. He explained that Neulander "would come over and sit next to me and hold my hand, and this might sound stupid, I'm certainly not gay, but it was like instant love. This man just knew how to push every button, cause I was so, I had nothing in my life, nothing in my life," Jenoff said. "My wife had left me in disgrace, took my son away from me. Never Bar Mitzvahed. I was a Jewish alcoholic. I had no money, no job."
He had loved the rabbi and would do anything for him. In late 1993 or early 1994, Jenoff said in his confession, Neulander asked if Jenoff could kill an enemy of Israel--Jenoff's inflated résumé included a stint as a CIA gunman. If Jenoff would kill a specific target, he said in his confession, he thought the rabbi would help get him a job with the Israeli secret police. Jenoff agreed and enlisted a former roommate, Paul Michael Daniels, 26, a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, to kill Carol Neulander.
At the diner the waitress kept returning. "More coffee?" Willings asked. Solomon would nod, drinking about six cups.
Friday evening is the diner's busiest night during the spring. "If you have somebody who is staying that long, it's customary to go ahead and turn the table over because you might have people waiting," says Teri Patterson, a manager at Weber's who was working the front counter that day. "If the waitress was being attentive, it was because she was trying to turn the table."
No one else in the diner knew what was happening. Several customers recognized Solomon and asked Patterson why he was there so long. The four finally left at 6 p.m.
Jenoff was not arrested. Devlin first had to corroborate his story. It wouldn't be the first time someone confessed to a prosecutor purely for the attention. They also needed to find Daniels.
"I walked out of there," Solomon says, "saying to Marty that it was like a scene in a movie."
PHILLIPS DROVE TO the Cherry Hill bureau and called Julie Busby. It was after 7 p.m. Busby was at a neighbor's eating dinner. Phillips left a message saying there was important news on the Neulander story, Busby recalls.
Jenoff had confessed to the prosecutor in front of Phillips. What a story. If he was lying, then he was perjuring himself. But did the prosecutor believe him? Why hadn't Jenoff been arrested?
"I called her at the office. It was 10 p.m. or 11 p.m.," Busby says. "I was sort of stunned when she related what had occurred that day. I was not aware that she was meeting with him that day. My first thought was that she hadn't taken any notes. The editor in me told her to sketch things out and write down recollections of what had been said. Nancy, of course, had already started doing this."
Busby telephoned her boss, Golas, now regional editor. It was Friday night; he was out. Busby left a message and returned to her husband and three kids. She never said a word about what she'd just learned, even though everyone in the South Jersey/Philadelphia area knew about the sensational Neulander case.
Golas eventually returned Busby's call. "We talked about what we had and decided we would not write the story at that point," Golas recalls. "From my vantage point, no arrests had been made. Some pretty serious charges had been made, especially with the accomplice Daniels. The prosecutor hadn't taken any action, and I was pretty skeptical of Jenoff."
Golas also raised the issue of fairness. At that time, Jenoff said Daniels had beaten Carol Neulander to death. (Later, after he was arrested, Jenoff admitted he too had struck her with a lead pipe.) Phillips had met Daniels only once, briefly. She'd never interviewed him.
"As far as I was concerned that was the only call to make," says Golas, who had worked on the Neulander case since its inception. Busby concurred. "Just because somebody said something, you have to check it out," she says.
No calls were made to other editors higher in the chain of command. Editor Rosenthal was in California and first learned of the confession on Monday.
Saturday morning, Phillips, Busby and Golas had a long conference call. Phillips was told the paper needed confirmation that the prosecutor's office had corroborated Jenoff's tale.
"There was never a conversation between us that said we are not going to put it in the paper," Busby says. "I had some concerns about Len Jenoff's credibility and the fact that he had said some untrue things to Nancy. If you get a confession, then you go to the other person involved and get their comments. We are not a one-source newspaper. There was another person [Daniels] involved that none of us had spoken to."
Phillips says--and Solomon concurs--that the Inquirer made no deal to hold off on the story until investigators questioned Daniels. "I don't recall any question about protecting the prosecutor," Busby says. "It simply was that we were going to run it when we felt comfortable that we had everything."
It took investigator Devlin two days to find Daniels.
Monday morning, Busby and Phillips met at 10 a.m. in the paper's main newsroom with Golas and Phillip Dixon, an assistant managing editor. While the journalists discussed what approach to take, police wired Jenoff and took him to talk to Daniels. After the two discussed the crime, police moved in to arrest them. By the time Phillips was out of her meeting, Jenoff and Daniels were in handcuffs. She sat down and wrote the story, including many of the details she'd long wanted to use.
On May 2, a Tuesday, five days after the diner confession, the Inquirer ran a front-page story. Inside was a small box about Phillips' role written in the third person. She was deluged with calls from reporters seeking interviews.
Nancy Phillips was now part of the story.
A ND THEN SHE WAS OFF the story. Neulander's attorneys served a subpoena demanding to see Phillips' notes. The following month, Rosenthal removed her from covering a case she'd meticulously followed for five years. But first she wrote a gripping, candid 2,953-word first-person account of her relationship with Jenoff.
"We did it because it was so unusual," Rosenthal says. "The whole situation that someone confessed to a reporter to be involved in murder. The decision was made to get out there in front of things and say she did this and this because we knew there would be criticism. We felt getting out in front of it might ameliorate it."
And criticism there was. Phillips and the paper were chided for not reporting Jenoff's confession sooner.
For the next few months, media attention would focus on Neulander, Jenoff and Phillips. In June, charges against Neulander were upgraded to capital murder and his bail was revoked. That month, Jenoff and Daniels pleaded guilty to aggravated manslaughter after agreeing to testify against Neulander.
Today, Neulander sits in a New Jersey jail cell--in a special section for prisoners fearing for their safety or accused of high-profile crimes--proclaiming his innocence. Neulander's attorneys argue that while Jenoff may say the rabbi instructed him to murder Carol Neulander, the only proof they have is Jenoff's and Daniels' word.
The defense lawyers also maintain that Neulander had a Sixth Amendment right to confront witnesses, and they demanded Phillips' notes. They said Phillips had lost her protection under the New Jersey Shield Law by blurring the line between reporter and participant when she arranged Jenoff's April 28 meeting with the prosecutor. She had become "an agent provocateur," for the prosecutor, argued defense lawyers Jeffrey Zucker and Dennis Wixted. Her notes, they said, could explain why Jenoff implicated the rabbi.
It got ugly during an October court proceeding. The rabbi's attorneys said Jenoff had told fellow inmates he had had a "personal, physical relationship" with Phillips.
Phillips was outraged. "Let me be clear: As a reporter, I have conducted myself at all times as a professional. These allegations and insinuations are untrue."
"They already have his motive in the 89-page confession," says Inquirer attorney Warren Faulk, who used the state's 1933 shield law in Phillips' defense (see "A Powerful Shield"). "They want to paint a story that Jenoff was enamored with Nancy and the press, so he was creating another fantasy so he could get Nancy's attention when he's just a schlumpy, 54-year-old drunk. They have a pretty woman, and they have a liar, and they are trying to make it into a relationship."
In September, Judge Linda G. Rosenzweig ruled the defense could not have Phillips' notes. Neulander's lawyers asked her to reconsider, but she doesn't plan to do so before the trial.
N ANCY PHILLIPS HAS NOT to Jenoff since his arrest. Elaine Soncini has left WPEN, moving to Florida with her new husband. In January, Daniels tried to kill himself with a ballpoint pen. In February, jailhouse talk brought three inmates forward claiming Jenoff told them the rabbi had nothing to do with the murder. Almost overnight, the inmates were changing their story. Neulander's trial is set for September 10. Neulander's lawyers say they may call Phillips as a witness, but the Inquirer will fight to keep her off the stand. ###
Phillips continues to work on investigative projects for the Inquirer. She's had to turn down book offers because of the ongoing litigation. Two other authors are at work on books about Neulander, and there's talk of a movie.
At the end of an interview with Phillips that spread over two days, I asked her the question that had intrigued me ever since reading her first-person story. What would she have done if the trial had gotten underway and Jenoff had still kept his secret?
She doesn't know. She never thought that would happen.
"Two things helped," she said in interview room No. 1 at the Inquirer. "One, that when I would have those moments of deep, deep angst, I would reach into that part of myself that had these doubts. I would say: 'You don't need to get hysterical about this because, remember, he told this lie and this lie.' And that sort of helped a little. But I always had this belief that he was going to tell the story and that he was going to make the story public and that he was going to give it to me."
It was something former colleagues Barlett and Steele instilled in her many years ago that reassured her:
Always assume the information is out there. If a document exists, you will find it. If one person won't give it to you, then ask yourself who are all the other people who know. If the person won't give it to you, then ask the person who typed the document or the person who was the courier who took the document from one place to another.
Just always assume that what you are looking for, you will find.