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    Aisenberg audiotapes to be released

    The tapes would be ready in about two weeks. The couple's attorneys are skeptical.

    By GRAHAM BRINK, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published January 5, 2002


    TAMPA -- In an abrupt turn of events, federal prosecutors agreed Friday not to oppose the release of the controversial audiotapes they used to indict Steve and Marlene Aisenberg in the disappearance of their 5-month-old daughter, Sabrina.

    At a hearing in November, Assistant U.S. Attorney Ernest Peluso argued that Sabrina was still missing, obviously a victim of criminal activity, and that a legitimate criminal investigation into what happened to her was continuing.

    Releasing the tapes, he argued, could jeopardize that investigation.

    On Friday, after further consideration and reviewing transcripts from the November hearing, Peluso said he would not oppose releasing the 35 or so tapes his office possesses.

    The Aisenbergs, the "primary suspects" in the ongoing investigation, already have a copy of the tapes, so releasing them to the public should not be a problem, Peluso said.

    "We felt it would be in the best interest of the community to release the tapes," said U.S. Attorney Mac Cauley, who did not elaborate.

    The tapes should be available to the public in about two weeks. Third parties recorded on the tapes -- like the Aisenbergs' friends, clergy and doctors -- will have 10 working days to object to releasing the tapes on privacy or other grounds. A judge would make the final decision as to whether the person's objection outweighed the public interest in hearing the tapes.

    The Aisenbergs reported Sabrina missing from their home in Valrico on Nov. 24, 1997. Hillsborough sheriff's investigators quickly came to suspect the Aisenbergs and bugged their home, taping more than 2,600 conversations. A grand jury indicted the Aisenbergs in 1999 on charges of conspiracy and making false statements.

    The prosecutors said the tapes contained incriminating statements, such as Marlene telling Steve: "The baby's dead and buried. It was found dead because you did it."

    But the charges against the Aisenbergs were dropped in February after a judge recommended the tapes be suppressed. The judge said sheriff's detectives made up facts in getting permission for the bugs, and that the tapes he listened to did not contain incriminating comments. Another federal judge called the 32 tapes he listened to "largely inaudible," although he did not comment on specific statements.

    The Aisenbergs' attorneys were skeptical of Friday's announcement. The lawyers have said from the start that their clients would like the tapes played publicly as a way to help restore their reputations.

    They said the tapes contain none of the incriminating statements alleged by prosecutors and some of the tapes point to the Aisenbergs' innocence. But they want the unedited, original versions of the tapes released. They didn't want the prosecutors to release only the excerpts of the tapes they planned to introduce in court before the case imploded.

    "On some tapes, the proper context cannot be derived from the edited portions," said Aisenberg attorney Steve Romine.

    For instance, Romine said, prosecutors portrayed Steve Aisenberg's comment, "What happens in this house stays in this house" as incriminating. The unedited version of the tape, Romine said, reveals that Steve is obviously telling his wife not to discuss their new alarm system with a friend, not anything to do with killing Sabrina.

    Romine said he would file a motion next week outlining the concerns and asking U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday to make sure that the federal prosecutors release unedited tapes.

    Cauley said his prosecutors could only release the tapes they had in their possession. They did not control all the remaining tapes, which are held by the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.

    Sheriff's spokesman Lt. Rod Reder said his office is willing to release all those tapes in their entirety. A spokeswoman for State Attorney Mark Ober said that office would not oppose the release of all the tapes.

    - Contact Graham Brink at (813) 226-3365 or brink@sptimes.com.

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