"OK. My mother, I don't know if she's breathing. She's laying on the ground in the shower."
- Jenna Neulander, Leslie's daughter, to a 911 Dispatcher
It was the 17th of September 2012. A Monday. Twenty three year old Jenna Neulander called 911 from her home just outside of Syracuse, New York, United States. Her mother, sixty one year old Leslie Neulander, needed urgent assistance. She fell when she was in the shower and according to the 911 call Jenna made, there was blood everywhere.
When police got there, they didn't find Leslie in the bathroom. She was on the floor inside her bedroom. Her husband, Dr Robert Neulander, informed police that he carried her from the bathroom into the bedroom so that he could perform CPR. When paramedics arrived, there was nothing they could do. Leslie had sustained a severe and fatal head injury. She was pronounced dead at the scene.
Robert spoke to police and gave them an account of what happened when he found Leslie. When he saw her on the bathroom floor, he carried her into the bedroom and performed CPR. Police found blood in different areas of the bedroom. It was found on the rug and on the wall beside the bed.
The Medical Examiner determined that Leslie died as a result of blunt force head injuries due to a fall from standing height. The Medical Examiner believed Leslie slipped when she was in the shower and hit her head on the stone shower bench.
Her death was ruled an accident and the case was closed.
The news of Leslie's death didn't just shock her family, it devastated the wider community. The Neulanders were well known in the area and well liked. Robert worked as a gynecologist and obstetrician in the Syracuse area and many people who lived there had attended his practice and trusted him. He was married to Leslie for twenty eight years and they had four children. Two of the children, Emily and Brian, were from his first marriage and then Leslie had two children, Ari and Jenna, with Robert.
Everyone in the Syracuse area were very aware that the couple were extremely generous with their time and wealth and were involved with many different charities. So Leslie's death was a tragedy for those who knew her.
After Leslie's death, Robert sold the house and moved to a new one. Despite the fact that the case was closed and Robert moved, people in the community began to talk. There were rumors circulating that a lot of blood was found in the house and that Leslie's injuries were far more severe than would have been expected from a slip and fall in the shower. Was Leslie's death really the result of an accident?
They weren't the only rumors circulating. There was talk that all was not well in their marriage and one woman even suggested that Leslie was planning to sign a lease on a new apartment the day Leslie died.
Police received an anonymous letter which read:
"That he's not the, you know, the good guy that people are making him out to be. Leslie was trying to break away from this guy."
Dr Mary Jumbelic, who was the county's chief medical examiner until she retired in 2009, was a good friend of the Neulanders but some other friends approached her to ask if she believed that Leslie's death was an accidental death. Dr Jumbelic was concerned when she looked at the medical report. She hadn't realized just how severe Leslie's injuries were.
Robert and Leslie
She had suffered a penetrating wound towards the back of her head so severe the blood pooled in her eye and that was an injury that you would normally see if someone was in a car accident or was beaten with a heavy object. Dr Jumbelic told police that she believed Leslie's death was not the result of an accident but was a homicide and she believed Leslie died as a result of blunt head trauma from an assault.
Due to her findings and the anonymous letter, police reopened the file. They discovered that, as the rumors had indicated, there were problems in the marriage and Leslie and Robert were sleeping in different bedrooms at the time of her death. They also discovered that Robert's practice, which was once hugely successful, was going through a turbulent time and not making as much money as it used to.
Even though Robert sold the house after Leslie's death, the police went back to take a second look and this time, they were looking at it through the lens of it being the scene where a homicide took place as opposed to a slip and fall accident.
The second search of the house revealed a few things that hadn't been noticed the first time. There was blood at the back of the headboard on the bed and blood spatter on the blinds behind the bed. Police asked Robert if he would answer a few questions they had and he agreed.
Police asked him about the rumors they had heard that there were problems in his marriage. He admitted that there were problems and that they slept in separate beds but said that there was no animosity and they still got on well. Just the night before Leslie died, Robert told police that they went out for dinner with Ari and Jenna.
Police asked him to outline what happened the morning that Leslie died. Robert outlined his actions that morning and a lot of them were things he did every day. He went for a jog at Green Lakes and on his way back, he bought a coffee for Leslie which was something he always did. According to Robert, Leslie was already in the shower when he got back as he heard the water running. Leslie was still in the bathroom an hour later, by that stage it was around 8.25 am, so he opened the door to check on her. He saw her lying on the floor and called out to Jenna and told her to call 911. Robert moved Leslie as he found it difficult to perform CPR in the bathroom even though Jenna could be heard on the 911 call urging him not to move her as "her neck might be broken."
After Robert answered all police questions, police looked at the evidence again. They focused in particular on the blood found in the house and the severity of Leslie's injuries. They arrested Robert and charged him with murder.
Robert pleaded not guilty.
It was the Prosecution case that Robert killed Leslie hours before that 911 call was made and before he even went on his morning jog. It was their case that he assaulted Leslie with an unknown weapon in the bedroom, moved her into the bathroom and struck her head off the shower bench to make it look like she slipped and fell there. It was their case that he called Jenna at that point so it would appear as if he had just found her in the bathroom. He opted to carry her back into the bedroom, despite Jenna's protests, as then there would be an explanation for why there was a trail of blood from the bedroom into the bathroom.
The Court heard that the housekeeper who worked at the Neulander home believed the sheets on the bed had been changed as she did not recognize them. The Prosecution told the Jury that they believed Robert got rid of the sheets as they were covered in blood from the assault and that he also got rid of the murder weapon when he went out on his jog that morning.
The Prosecution's main evidence was in relation to the blood spatter found in the house. The blood spatter was found on the headboard, on the nightstand, on the blinds behind the bed and on the south wall that was about seven feet to the south of the bed. It was the spatter on the south wall that the Prosecution really wanted the Jury to focus on. They called expert testimony to explain that that was impact spatter and would have been caused by Leslie's blood if Leslie was struck with some object and if there was a huge amount of force applied to that blow.
The Court heard testimony about the injuries Leslie sustained. The Medical Examiner testified that Leslie died of a complex, comminuted skull fracture that was likely caused by multiple blows. There were bruises on her fingers, arms and nose and abrasions on both sides of her face. He testified that he initially thought it was an accident from a slip and fall in the shower but changed his opinion when he saw further evidence that had been found. He now believed it was a homicide.
The Court heard that Leslie suffered at least two blows to her skull and that one of the wounds was not consistent with her head striking a straight edge like a stone shower bench. The Prosecution believed that the first blow to Leslie's head was caused by an unknown object.
Leslie had injuries to her face and upper body but not below her waist and the Court heard that if she slipped and fell, she would likely have bruising on the lower part of her body too. The Prosecution asked the Jury to find Robert guilty because Leslie died in fear that morning:
"Leslie spent her last moments on earth struggling for her life before being beaten to death and unceremoniously dumped in her own shower."
It was the Defense case that Leslie's death was an accidental death. The Court heard that Leslie suffered from vertigo, a dizziness disorder, and her personal trainer testified and told the Court that the vertigo had gotten worse as of late. Leslie's sister, Joanne London-Leslie, testified that vertigo was a condition that ran in their family and that she had also suffered from it.
The Defense addressed the Prosecution's argument that the blood spatter showed that Leslie was attacked in the bedroom. It was their case that if there was a lot of blood spatter, the paramedics may have caused it by removing their gloves:
"The first responders probably had blood on their hands and that the gloves were just peeled off. And in so doing, the blood flies from the gloves and you don't have an impact but you have a cast off."
They also told the Jury that it was possible that Robert himself may have caused it by removing his shirt which was covered in blood to perform CPR. But they argued that it was hard to tell exactly what the spatter indicated as the investigation had not been handled in a professional manner. The Court heard that there were not enough close-up pictures of the blood and some of the blood found, like behind the headboard and the blinds, had only been collected months after Leslie had died and even after Robert had moved out.
Dr Daniel Spitz, a Medical Examiner, testified on behalf of the Defense and said that he believed that Leslie's head wound was the result of her falling in the shower and hitting her head on the stone shower bench.
Robert didn't testify but his daughter Jenna did. She testified about the 911 call she made and what she saw that morning. She told the Court that she was with her mother just hours before she died as she had stayed up late with her in her bedroom until 2am. She testified that the housekeeper was wrong about the sheets and the sheets that were on the bed were the same ones that were on it when police arrived at the house and had not been changed.
She told the Court she saw her father remove his blood stained shirt when he was performing CPR in the bedroom. That shirt was never found. She told the Jury that there was no doubt in her mind that her mother's death was accidental as she was in the house at the time.
The Jury deliberated over a three day period and found Robert guilty of second degree murder and tampering with physical evidence.
The Defense asked the Court to sentence him to the minimum term. At the sentencing hearing, Leslie's sister, Joanne London-Leslie, spoke on the family's behalf:
"Had any of us, even slightly suspected foul play of any sort, we would not be here today on Bob's behalf."
Robert also spoke in Court:
"My head is unbowed by the verdict of this Court, for an innocent man has been wrongfully convicted. I would not and did not take a life. I love my wife Leslie very much, and I mourn her every day, now and forever."
Robert was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison and as he walked away, Jenna shouted after him:
"Daddy, I love you. You’re innocent!"
But the case was far from over. As soon as the verdict was handed down, an alternate Juror contacted Robert's lawyer and notified them that there may have been some element of Juror bias involved. Robert's lawyer discovered that one of the Jurors who had voted to convict him of murder had exchanged some 7,000 text messages with family and friends during the Trial. Hundreds of the texts involved questions about the case, something Jurors are not permitted to do.
As a result of that information, Robert's Defense team appealed his conviction. They discovered that it was Juror number 12, Johanna Lorraine, who had received and sent hundreds of text messages about the case during the Trial. The Court heard examples of the text messages and one, which was sent by her father, read:
"Make sure he's guilty."
She received another text asking her if she had seen "the scary man."
The Defense had also discovered that she accessed media websites that were covering the Trial.
As a result of those text exchanges, Robert's conviction was overturned and a new Trial was ordered. By that stage, Robert had been in prison for three years before he was released on bail awaiting a new Trial. The new Trial was scheduled to begin numerous times but was adjourned, in part due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Prosecution have already faced a setback in relation to the new Trial. One of their main witnesses, their Medical Examiner, died. The Jury at the first Trial asked for the testimony of Dr Leestma to be read back to them during their deliberations which is indicative of the weight they put on that testimony when deciding on Robert's guilt.
Robert is still awaiting that retrial and if convicted, he faces up to 25 years to life in prison on a murder charge. The retrial is currently scheduled to begin on the 28th of February 2022.
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"The criminal justice system will take a hard look at what happened to Matthew Eappen. It is up to the rest of us to take an even harder look at who is minding our children."
- Eileen McNamara, the Boston Globe
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- Sandra Pupatello