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A year of anguish

Since baby Sabrina vanished, there have been plenty of leads, activity, tears and suspicions, but no sign of the girl. Yet hope remains.

By SUE CARLTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 22, 1998


TAMPA -- By now, baby Sabrina should be walking and talking, sharing Beanie Babies with her big sister, munching Cheerios and closing in on her terrible twos.

By now, her parents, Steve and Marlene Aisenberg, should be talking about when to take down the crib in the pastel baby's room, when they will set up a bed for a little girl growing up fast.

But for a year, baby Sabrina's room has been hauntingly quiet.

The FBI has pored over the crib where the cherub-cheeked, wispy-haired child once lay playing contentedly with her jingling blocks. Today, the door to the baby's room, the place from which the 5-month-old vanished without a trace last November, mostly stays closed.

"It's just too hard to go in there," her father said.

In the year that has passed since Sabrina's parents dialed 911 to report her missing, detectives first hovered in helicopters, trampled through brambles and searched ponds, then followed leads into 48 states and three countries. There have been headlines and talk shows, a grand jury inquiry and a public face-off between investigators and the Aisenbergs' lawyer. There have been suspicions, and there have been hopes.

Still, there is no Sabrina.

Her mother, who says she believes someone, somewhere, is taking care of Sabrina, says they won't lose hope.

"We know she's going to come home," Marlene Aisenberg said in a recent, sometimes tearful, interview as her husband patted her arm. "She needs to be with us."

Investigators say they, too, believe there one day will be a conclusion.

"We still feel that the answers to this case are within Hillsborough County," said Sheriff's Lt. Greg Brown. "We feel very confident it will be resolved."

* * *

For the Aisenbergs, time has been split in two: what came before, and what came after.

Before it happened, the couple, who met in college, had formed a family much like those around them in a Brandon neighborhood of neat lawns and stay-at-home moms. Steve, who sells new homes, was enjoying his best financial year yet, and Marlene was running her preschool program, Playtime Pals, her baby girl at her side.

"We were a family full of life," she said.

"Now," her husband said, "we're just going through the motions."

The world changed Nov. 24, 1997. Marlene Aisenberg said she last checked Sabrina in her crib about midnight. Early the next morning, she said, she noticed the back door was open and ran to check on the baby. A neighbor would later recount the mother's frantic words: "My baby's gone, my baby's gone."

Within days, the Aisenbergs hired high-profile attorney BarryCohen, whom they met through their rabbi, and stopped talking to detectives. They said investigators accused them of hurting Sabrina and frightened them into hiring a lawyer.

Cohen, no stranger to controversial cases, has charged that detectives have so focused on the Aisenbergs as suspects that they have failed to consider leads that might point elsewhere. He has accused officials of trying to intimidate the Aisenbergs by suggesting their two older children could be taken away.

"I think the Sheriff's Office is looking at them and has been looking at them because they made up their minds originally," Cohen said.

Early on, officials suggested it was unlikely a stranger targeted Sabrina, broke into the house, took nothing else and then disappeared. They questioned how a stranger could have gotten through the secluded cul de sac undetected.

Brown of the Sheriff's Office called it "ridiculous" to suggest that detectives had "only followed one path," pointing to interviews with 5,000 people in the case and the pursuit of more than 1,900 leads that have taken them around the nation and to Mexico, Canada and England.

But none of those leads, including the numerous reports of sightings, has panned out.

The Aisenbergs both appeared separately and for less than 15 minutes in February before a federal grand jury. They did not comment on whether they had invoked their Fifth Amendment rights.

Brown said there are no suspects. He also said the Aisenbergs, who "have been of limited assistance" to detectives, have not been ruled out.

Cohen bristles at the idea that the Aisenbergs have not cooperated. He said they willingly gave blood, hair and fingerprint samples, allowed their children to be interviewed out of their presence, and recently let detectives take dirt from their yard to compare with dirt from the carpet in their home.

"I'm sure they're still looking at us," Steve Aisenberg said. "I think they'll look at us until the day they find Sabrina and bring her home to us."

* * *

On talk shows and to reporters, Marlene Aisenberg says it again and again: she has to believe Sabrina is alive.

"I feel that she's with somebody, being loved and taken care of," Marlene Aisenberg said. "I believe that with all my heart, but I need her home with us."

Armed with pictures of blue-eyed Sabrina, who disappeared with her yellow blanket and the flowered sleeper she wore, the Aisenbergs and Cohen have hit the talk show circuit. They appeared on 20/20, Good Morning America, Dateline NBC and Today. They talked to Larry King and faced sometimes-skeptical questioning from Oprah, who held Marlene Aisenberg's hand during a commercial break.

The Aisenbergs say the support of friends, family and strangers has been unwavering.

"In the beginning, (law enforcement officials) said, "Do you realize how the community will treat you? Like a pariah,' " Steve Aisenberg said. "It's been just the opposite."

Before, Marlene was someone who could make a friend on a trip to the grocery store. She says she has become the kind of person who doesn't talk to strangers, who is afraid to answer the door at night.

"I'm hollow and empty inside," she said.

She watches children who are the age Sabrina would be now and thinks about how her daughter would be walking, talking, eating regular foods, playing with certain toys.

"She'd be doing everything now," she said, sobbing. "We've missed all of it."

Steve Aisenberg, who is quiet and reserved, is back at work, though his wife has closed her play school. The Aisenbergs say they try to cobble together a normal life for their son and daughter.

"We just want our family whole again," he said.

They stick close to their two older children. Marlene Aisenberg walks young William to and from the bus stop, and to the bathroom in restaurants -- something that, at 9, he doesn't necessarily like but seems to understand. William is still on the honor roll at school. But at home, his mother says, he startles at every small sound, afraid someone is coming to get him.

More and more, he asks why God could let this happen.

Daughter Monica, who is 5, makes up her own songs to sing, and sometimes Sabrina is in them. When William and Monica add to their Beanie Baby collections, there is often one bought and set aside for Sabrina. The family still has last year's Hanukkah gifts, wrapped and tucked away, marked for the baby.

They say they don't want to move from their home on Springville Drive without Sabrina, and they have started talking about fixing up her room so it will be suitable for a little girl instead of a baby.

"You only need one lead," Steve Aisenberg said.

"And we know they're going to get it," Marlene Aisenberg said.

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