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The Valrico infant disappeared in the middle of the night.
By JAN WESNER, Times Staff Writer
Published November 22, 2007
[Ken Helle | Times (2002)]
VALRICO - Steve and Marlene Aisenberg packed up their minivan Wednesday at their Bethesda, Md., home for a holiday road trip.
They headed to Marlene's sister's house in Atlanta for Thanksgiving.
Their kids, Monica, 14, and William, 18, listened to the latest Harry Potter book along the way.
They lunched at McDonald's - just like normal people.
Or as normal as they can be a decade after the Aisenbergs' 5-month-old daughter disappeared without a trace and authorities blamed the couple.
"It's not something we discuss every day," Steve Aisenberg said this week. "She's just not part of our everyday lives."
He quickly added: "She's always with us in our thoughts, she's just not physically with us.
He was talking about Sabrina, the baby whose disappearance from their Valrico house in the middle of the night captured national attention.
Investigators say Steve and Marlene Aisenberg are still suspects in the case, but so are others.
The Aisenbergs lived at 3632 Springville Drive, a cul-de-sac just off Lithia-Pinecrest Road in Bloomingdale. It was a neighborhood filled with kids and families.
On Nov. 23, 1997, Marlene Aisenberg checked on Sabrina in her crib at around 11 p.m., according to sheriff's reports. All was well. At 6:42 the next morning, she called 911 and said Sabrina was gone.
From the beginning, investigators focused on Steve and Marlene. Deputies found it odd that there was no sign of a break-in and the family dog never barked. They said the Aisenbergs' story of an intruder didn't hold water.
"This is not a place that's attractive to just a regular prowler," said Tony Peluso, an attorney for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, which is handling the case.
Deputies bugged the Aisenbergs' home and put a security camera on a light pole across the street.
Nearly two years after Sabrina disappeared, Steve and Marlene Aisenberg were charged with obstruction of justice and conspiracy.
The charges were based on what investigators said were incriminating statements picked up by the listening devices. A federal judge disagreed and said many of the statements were inaudible. The charges were dismissed with the help of high-powered Tampa defense attorney Barry Cohen, who still represents the Aisenbergs.
The Sheriff's Office said the investigation is ongoing.
"It is not, I repeat, it is not, a cold case," Peluso said.
Two deputies are assigned to follow leads, which Peluso said come in weekly.
"We have other suspects," he said without commenting further.
A Web site set up by a Brandon woman with no connection to the Aisenbergs still averages about 8,300 visitors a month.
Sheriff's deputies ignored other evidence, including a neighbor's intriguing story that he heard a baby crying in the woods behind his house the night Sabrina disappeared.
Asked how she felt about the Sheriff's Office, Marlene Aisenberg replied: "Do I have a lot of faith? I have to say no."
Pete McDonald and his wife, Mary, live six houses down and around the corner from the Aisenbergs' former home.
McDonald awoke about 1 a.m. Nov. 24 to let his dog, Murphy, out. The basset hound always went out to the front yard. But that night, he insisted on going out the back.
"I open the slider and I step out and I think I hear a baby crying," McDonald said last week, sitting on a deck overlooking the pond where deputies searched for Sabrina. "And I think to myself, 'It can't be a baby.'"
None of McDonald's immediate neighbors had babies. The noise stopped after about 30 seconds. McDonald decided it was a cat. He went back to bed.
He heard the news about Sabrina later that morning. He pulled over to talk to some sheriff's deputies directing traffic.
A deputy met him later at a Chili's restaurant to take his statement.
"He goes his way and I go my way, and I never hear from the police again," McDonald said.
McDonald and the Aisenbergs think deputies should have gone to his house to investigate the tip. Peluso said details of investigations aren't released, but that "every inch" of the pond and woods were searched.
Marlene Aisenberg, now 45, works as a customer service representative for Frontier Airlines. Steve Aisenberg, 44, operates diagnostic equipment for ophthalmologists.
Their children, Marlene Aisenberg said, are well adjusted. The kids walk home from high school together, and are involved in sports and student government. William is a senior looking at colleges. Monica, a freshman, can't wait to inherit his room and car.
"Steve and I, that's what we've concentrated on all these years, raising our family," Marlene Aisenberg said.
They had planned to move back up north even before Sabrina disappeared and left the area in 1999.
The search for normality is a typical reaction for people who have gone through a tragedy, experts said. And, according to one expert, it indicates that what the Aisenbergs have said all along might be true: that they are innocent.
"If there's a secret, either whoever has it is extraordinary at keeping it or there's not a secret," said Duane Bowers, a nationally known counselor who works with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and similar groups.
Bowers warned that even though the kids might appear well adjusted, they could face problems later on.
"It affects them profoundly," said Abby Potash, a volunteer program manager with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "Most of the time the parents are the ones that are acknowledged as having a loss and the siblings are not."
The Aisenbergs refer to themselves as Sabrina's "birth family" and said they believe someone else is raising her.
They hold out hope that she'll see herself on the Internet or the news and come home someday.
"Part of me believes that she's gotta feel that something just isn't right," Marlene Aisenberg said. "I mean, as much as I pray to God that she's happy and well taken care of, I really believe that inside her she knows she's not where she belongs."
Computer-generated age progression photos of Sabrina from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children show what she might look like today: A typical 10-year-old girl with shoulder-length brown hair pushed back behind her ears.
Back in the old neighborhood, Murphy the basset hound is long gone, Pete McDonald has retired, and most residents who lived there a decade ago have moved away.
Mary McDonald thinks about Sabrina occasionally. She excused herself from the conversation and came back with a button featuring Sabrina's picture and a toll-free number.
"We'll never know" what happened to her, Mary McDonald said.
The neighborhood, once close and friendly, was divided on whether the Aisenbergs had anything to do with Sabrina's disappearance.
So are the McDonalds.
"I definitely think someone took her," Mary said.
"I could argue either way," Pete said.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jan Wesner can be reached at 813 661-2439 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Significant events in the Sabrina Aisenberg case
Nov. 24, 1997: Sabrina's parents, Steve and Marlene, report her missing.
May 1999: The Aisenbergs move back to Maryland.
Sept. 9, 1999: Steve and Marlene Aisenberg are charged with conspiracy and giving false statements.
Feb. 21, 2001: Charges against the Aisenbergs are dropped.
May 2003: Authorities test the DNA of a girl in Illinois who looks like Sabrina.
Feb. 6, 2004: An appeals court rules that the government must pay the Aisenbergs $1.3-million for attorney's fees.
[Last modified November 21, 2007, 22:58:55]