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What was not heard, what finally was said

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© St. Petersburg Times, published February 18, 2001

U.S. Magistrate Mark Pizzo's report on the investigation of Marlene and Steven Aisenberg might as well be a rewrite of what happened to Alice after she took a sip of the first bottle labeled "Drink me."

Everything that is, is not.

What was sinister is benign.

"You said to fake it," Mrs. Aisenberg told her husband in the government's version of a conversation about her polygraph test.

"You talked to David," is what Pizzo heard when he listened.

It's reminiscent of the childhood game called Whisper Down the Lane, where one kid whispers into another's ear who whispers into another's ear and another and another, and what the last kid hears has nothing to do with what the first kid said.

To try to prove its version was right, the government had an expert listen to this one snatch of conversation 500 times.

That is not a typo.

Pizzo took two months to write his opinion, recommending that all the tapes made of the Aisenbergs, intended to show they knew what had happened to their missing baby, Sabrina, be thrown out.

The pages all but smoke.

Pizzo's opinion reads with the cadence of the clenched-teeth speech of an exasperated drill sergeant who cannot believe what a cosmic bunch of losers his latest recruits are.

"The detectives report conversations no reasonably prudent listener can hear," Pizzo writes, "quote conversations that do not appear in the supporting transcript at all in the manner described, and deliberately or with reckless disregard summarize conversations out of context."

Another judge has to sign off on Pizzo's recommendations. He almost certainly will. The case will then collapse.

The story of Sabrina Aisenberg will be filed on the shelf with the one about JonBenet Ramsey.

If the Aisenbergs killed their baby, they'll skate.

If they didn't, no amount of money can compensate them for what they've endured.

Either way, Sabrina will remain a face on a milk carton, and a reminder of why so many of us are suspicious of fundamental institutions, police included.

What were the detectives thinking?

Had they become so used to seeing so many almost unimaginable acts by parents or boyfriends against children that they lost all perspective?

If you can bear it, think of Muriel and Bill Conroy. They are accused of letting their teenage daughter, Mari, lie on a sofa in their south Tampa home surrounded by garbage for months while cancer all but consumed her body.

Anybody possessed of a normal heart would want to move heaven and earth -- break all the rules, even those of nature -- to stop that torture.

Trouble is, you can't break the rules if you're enforcing them. You just can't.

Did the detectives think it didn't matter what they told the judge who approved the wiretaps, because they believed that Hillsborough's chief judge, the politically sensitive Dennis Alvarez, would just rubber-stamp their request?

How could the prosecutors just take the investigators at their word? Or were they under too much pressure -- from us, the press -- to stop the train even when they realized the case was built on what Pizzo so majestically called "a canvas of nebulous conversations"?

There was a long time when it bothered me that the Aisenbergs had hired a lawyer. Any parent whose child had disappeared, and whose conscience was clear, would surely open every corner of his life to inspection if it would satisfy the police.

My view, in a way, remains unchanged. The Aisenbergs leave me uneasy. I cannot find a place in my heart for them.

But I have to take back the lawyer business. Hiring Barry Cohen was the wisest move they could have made.

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