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Officers' discipline is 'slap on the wrist'

The attorney for the Aisenbergs say written reprimands to sheriff's detectives in the mishandled missing baby case are ''meaningless.''

By GRAHAM BRINK, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 3, 2002


The attorney for the Aisenbergs say written reprimands to sheriff's detectives in the mishandled missing baby case are "meaningless."

TAMPA -- Ever since the high-profile investigation into Steve and Marlene Aisenberg crumbled more than a year ago, questions have swirled about what would happen to the investigators.

They were answered Friday.

The two lead detectives, Linda Burton and William Blake, received written reprimands for failing to follow Sheriff's Office procedure and inattention to duty. Maj. Gary Terry, who oversaw the investigation, also received a written reprimand for failing to follow procedure.

None of them were demoted or docked pay, and no one else at the Sheriff's Office faces any formal discipline in connection with the case.

"It has taught us to pay closer attention and not take anything for granted," Col. Jose Docobo, who oversaw the internal affairs investigation, said at a new conference Friday. "We are all the better for it from what we have learned."

The Aisenbergs' lead attorney, Barry Cohen, saw things differently. He said the detectives knew all along there would be no serious consequences for "(framing) two innocent and bereaved parents." He said Sheriff Cal Henderson lacked the courage to do the right thing "regarding the criminal activity of his detectives."

"The citizens of this community should be outraged at the dastardly conduct that is being condoned by this meaningless slap on the wrist," Cohen said in a written statement.

The Aisenberg saga began on Nov. 24, 1997, when they reported their 5-month-old daughter, Sabrina, missing from their Valrico home. Hillsborough sheriff's investigators quickly came to suspect the Aisenbergs and bugged their home. 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 Aisenberg: "The baby's dead and buried! It was found dead because you did it! The baby's dead no matter what you say -- you just did it."

But the charges against the Aisenbergs were dropped last year after a federal magistrate judge recommended that the tapes be suppressed.

In a scathing 63-page report, Judge Mark Pizzo said sheriff's detectives made up facts in getting permission to bug the home, and that the tapes he listened to did not contain incriminating comments. Pizzo called one of the detectives' interpretations of what was on the tapes "pure fiction" and said they showed a "reckless disregard" for the truth.

Late last year, special prosecutor Norman Wolfinger, assigned to investigate the investigators, found that the detectives had not broken any laws. But Wolfinger's report painted a grim picture of a botched investigation run by something akin to the Keystone Kops. He called some of their actions "cursory," "irresponsible" and "reckless."

In response to the findings, internal affairs investigators from the Sheriff's Office interviewed 33 people, including employees from other law enforcement agencies involved in the case.

Docobo said the investigation showed that many of the problems stemmed from a "series of errors" during the bugging operation. The monitors listening to the conversations were confused about their instructions, he said, and Burton and Blake's inexperience in dealing with bugging operations didn't help.

The detectives compounded the problems by failing to communicate to superiors that the transcripts of the taped conversations did not match what was in the affidavits shown to a judge to secure permission to continue to bug the home, Docobo said.

The report went on to state that Maj. Terry "failed in his supervisory responsibility by not establishing a clearly defined chain of command for the (bugging operation)." He knew the detectives had little experience with bugging and yet failed to ensure they had basic instructions or training in the laws and procedures, the report stated.

As for allegations that the detectives had deliberately omitted facts and misled the judge who signed the bugging warrants, Docobo said, "Clearly there were errors made, but none of those errors were intentionally made."

But Pizzo also said four of 12 tapes he reviewed were unintelligible. On the others, he said, detectives recklessly took statements out of context or distorted the meaning. Another judge who listened to all 32 tapes the prosecutors wanted to use at trial called them "largely inaudible."

Docobo said the internal affairs investigation did not hinge on what could be heard on the tapes. Docobo said he had listened to many of the tapes and could hear some of the allegedly incriminating statements, but not others.

"All persons monitoring or transcribing conversations from the (bugging) swore they were able to hear the conversations they transcribed and placed into evidence," the internal affairs report stated.

Cohen, the Aisenbergs' attorney, already has given formal notice that he intends to sue the Sheriff's Office and others involved in investigating and prosecuting his clients.

"I intend to expose, once again, the criminal conduct on the part of those involved in this fraudulent investigation," he wrote. "When the citizens of this community tolerate this kind of behavior, then none of us are safe."

-- Graham Brink can be contacted at 226-3365 or brink@sptimes.com.

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