Aisenberg case still active, court is told

The missing girl's parents have sued for malicious prosecution, and they want to see the investigation's results.

Published March 3, 2005

TAMPA - Attorneys for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office will meet privately with a judge in coming weeks to prove that an "active investigation" still exists in the case of Sabrina Aisenberg, who was 5 months old when she disappeared from her family's Valrico home in 1997.

Steve and Marlene Aisenberg, the girl's parents, were indicted in 1999 and accused of lying about the child's disappearance.

But federal prosecutors were forced to drop the charges in February 2001 after a federal magistrate judge concluded the secretly recorded audiotapes from inside the couple's home were largely unintelligible and should be thrown out.

In 2003, U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday ordered the government to pay the Aisenbergs $2.7-million in attorney fees, though an appeals court cut the award to $1.3-million.

Later that year, the Aisenbergs sued the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office, two federal prosecutors and employees of the Sheriff's Office, claiming they violated the couple's civil rights with a malicious prosecution.

Last summer, Merryday tossed out the claims against the prosecutors and sent the remaining claims to state court.

Wednesday, lawyers for both sides argued about whether the Sheriff's Office is obligated to turn over results of its criminal investigation to the Aisenbergs. The couple's attorneys argued that there is no ongoing investigation, and therefore no grounds for shielding that information.

"We're concerned that there's no investigation at all," said Aisenberg attorney Camille Godwin.

An attorney for the Sheriff's Office, Christopher Sabella, assured Hillsborough Circuit Judge William Levens that there was. He vowed to prove it if the judge agreed to meet behind closed doors.

"We can convince you it is active," Sabella said. "We're willing to back it up."

Besides, he said, "This is a missing persons case. A missing persons case is always open until the missing person is discovered."

Levens did not offer a specific date for the closed-door hearing but set a timetable of several weeks, saying it would be the best way to verify the claims.

Levens also is expected to rule later this month on a motion from the Sheriff's Office to dismiss the case.