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Joan Vennochi

Too suspicious in suburbia

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / November 8, 2007

COULD THE irony get any deeper?

An international human rights activist stops for pizza and ends up under arrest for disorderly conduct.

The arrest of Hillel C. Neuer, executive director of the Geneva-based UN Watch, is clearly a case of wrong place, wrong time. But it's also a case of something more - a tendency toward hysteria and overkill that appears to be a product of the current mood.

Neuer was visiting the United States at the invitation of Yale University. On Nov. 2, he was meeting with local supporters in Needham. He spent time at the Needham Post Office, where he mailed copies of a report he had just delivered at Yale. Later, he went to a Needham pizza shop. He did not know that police in that town were searching for an armed killer.

The overlay of the manhunt explains some, not all, of what happened next.

At the pizza shop, employees found Neuer's behavior troubling, so they called 911 in a panic.

On the 911 tape, the police dispatcher reported that, "Employees told me that a male subject, possible olive-skinned . . . came into the store carrying a large gym bag. . . . He kept placing his hand over a fanny pack, which [employees] believed carried a gun."

Neuer, 37, "was acting very weird," an employee said on the 911 tape. Apparently, there's a low bar for weirdness in Needham: Neuer repeatedly asked for a cab, changed into a suit in the restroom, and went to a CVS store next door without finishing his pizza. He also talked a lot into his cellphone.

"Oh my God, we need someone here," a pizza store worker wailed on the 911 tape. "There is a guy that was here in Stone Hearth Pizza, and now he is in CVS. He left everything here. And we think he has a gun." Moments later, the woman screams, "Run, run, run!"

Neuer, meanwhile, was unnerved after he returned to the pizza shop and noticed a police officer with a gun. "I thought there was a shootout going on, and I dropped to the floor," he told the Boston Herald. "I called 911 twice while I was on the floor. You'll hear me speaking quietly saying, 'I'm on the floor of this pizza shop and what should I do here?' . . . They said come out with your hands up. . . . It was not until I left the scene that it sort of dawned on me that the entire police action was because someone had called for me."

Needham police surrounded the pizza shop, and took Neuer into custody at gunpoint. No gun was found on him. According to his lawyer, David G. Eisenstadt, Neuer was fingerprinted and booked. His mug shot was taken and he was put in a cell.

At about the same time, some 2 miles away, Needham police arrested William B. Dunn, 41, of Norwood. A contractor installing a lawn sprinkler system, he was charged with bludgeoning Robert Moore Sr., 78, to death. Dunn was placed in the cell next to Neuer.

On Monday, the clerk-magistrate in Dedham District Court refused to issue a criminal complaint against Neuer, finding no probable cause that any crime was committed. A judge agreed. "It's a highly unusual move that the clerk-magistrate and judge would both review police reports after an arrest and not find probable cause, which is a very low standard," said Eisenstadt.

The dramatic chain reaction that started with Moore's tragic death raises several questions.

Of course, Needham police had to pursue every lead to find Moore's attacker. But was live television coverage of the manhunt necessary? If it is legitimate, should Boston residents expect the same when a homicide takes place on their city streets?

Once the pizza workers panicked, police had to follow up on their 911 calls. But after police had Neuer and Dunn in custody, why did they pursue a criminal complaint against Neuer once they knew his true identity?

Neuer, now back in Geneva, is reviewing his legal options, his lawyer said. UN Watch, the organization Neuer heads, is an arm of the American Jewish Committee. According to its website, its mandate is to monitor the performance of the United Nations by the yardstick of its own charter and "provide for a more just world."

That's a tough mandate in a world gone mad, or in a suburb gone temporarily hysterical.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com.

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