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    One case imperils officers' careers

    In the Aisenberg case, many wonder what happened with the lead detectives, once known for good works and big arrests.

    By GRAHAM BRINK and AMY HERDY

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 20, 2001


    TAMPA -- Linda Burton and William Blake, the lead detectives in the case against Steven and Marlene Aisenberg, have a total of more than 25 years of law enforcement experience.

    They have solved high-profile murders, rapes and robberies. They have started successful programs to combat crime and have won awards.

    But now the veteran detectives are at the center of a crumbling case. U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Pizzo said they lied in obtaining permission to bug the Aisenbergs' home after the couple's 5-month-old daughter, Sabrina, disappeared in 1997. Pizzo recommended, in a report released last week, tossing out the secretly taped conversations.

    Such a move could sink the government's case, some legal observers say. If they fabricated evidence, the fallout could also end the detectives' careers and land them in legal trouble.

    Hillsborough Sheriff Cal Henderson has called Pizzo's report disturbing, but he will not investigate his detectives' conduct until the case is closed. The sheriff has kept a tight wrap on any comments about the Aisenberg case or the two detectives.

    "They are both good investigators, very competent and trustworthy," sheriff's Maj. Gary Terry said last week.

    A hearing in December highlighted problems with the detectives' conduct. Burton showed up without her notes the first day and stumbled through hours of questioning. Flustered, she once mouthed "I'm sorry" to the two prosecutors sitting across the courtroom. Another day, she said, "I wish someone would just kill me."

    Pizzo questioned Blake's interpretation of the taped conversations, as well.

    "Blake, no doubt, is convinced he is correct," the judge wrote. "But to accept his testimony, I would have to credit what is contrary to the teachings of basic human experience and completely at odds with ordinary common sense."

    Burton and Blake have been in the news before, but mostly for good works and big arrests. The judge's report has many wondering what happened.

    Sometimes good cops get carried away, former federal prosecutor Steven Crawford said last week when Pizzo released the report. It gets personal, and they zero in on their suspect to the exclusion of everything else.

    "They have a lot of experience," Crawford said. "This is a real head-shaker."

    Burton, 49, joined the Sheriff's Office as an auxiliary deputy in January 1984. She went full time in November of that year.

    In 1995, she started the first Child Death Review Team in Florida to ensure child deaths were thoroughly investigated and documented to help determine patterns and solve crimes. That year, Gov. Lawton Chiles honored Burton and one other officer in the state for their work helping child victims of crime. In 1997, Burton and a Tampa police officer were honored as Most Outstanding Officers of the Year.

    Sheriff's Office records show Burton, who earns $51,000 a year, has consistently received above-average evaluations. One review stated she "makes good decisions," and had "a good working relationship" with federal prosecutors.

    One blemish on Burton's service record was a 1991 Internal Affairs complaint that she falsified official documents. Details were not available because the Sheriff's Office expunges those files after five years.

    Sheriff's Lt. Rod Reder said the incident, for which Burton received a letter of counseling, was related to an off-duty job and he described it as a "paperwork problem" and "a very minor thing."

    Burton had led several high-profile investigations before taking on the Aisenberg case.

    In 1996, she investigated a Pasco County scrap hauler and his wife who tried to sell their newborn sons in a grocery store parking lot. After a highly publicized trial, the couple was found guilty of one count each of selling a minor child.

    That same year, Burton investigated a case in which her work came under fire.

    John and Regina Ralph said their 11-month old son, Michael Allen Ralph, died after he was accidentally fed laundry detergent instead of infant formula. But Burton determined that there was an elevated amount of aluminum, a common component of laundry detergent, in the baby's body -- enough to indicate he had been fed aluminum more than once.

    An expert agreed with Burton's assessment and the Ralphs were charged with first-degree murder and child abuse. They both faced the death penalty.

    But the expert later changed his mind, saying that the amount of aluminum in the baby's body was within the normal range. He said he changed his mind after he received additional information.

    The Hillsborough State Attorney's Office was forced to drop the charges against Regina Ralph. John Ralph eventually pleaded guilty to manslaughter. Officials with the State Attorney's Office did not want to comment about the case this week.

    Unlike his colleague, Blake has spent little time in the public spotlight.

    A former bank vice president, Blake, 52, studied law at LaGrange College in Georgia before graduating with a degree in history in 1970. He became a reserve deputy in 1981, and in 1988 applied to be a full-time deputy. On his application, he listed Chief Judge F. Dennis Alvarez as a reference. Alvarez was the judge who signed the warrant and two extensions to bug the Aisenberg home.

    Blake has served on the DUI enforcement team and as a traffic homicide investigator. In 1991, he was awarded the Life Saving Award. In 1994, he joined Criminal Investigations, the bureau responsible for investigating the Aisenberg case.

    In 1995, Blake was the investigator on a high-profile case in which seven suspected street gang members were arrested for crimes ranging from burglary to attempted murder.

    Blake, who earns $42,000 a year, requested a transfer from the Criminal Investigations Bureau to patrol duties in January 1999.

    The transfer, Blake wrote in a memo, was for "personal and family reasons." He did not mention the Aisenberg case. Since that time, he has served as a traffic homicide investigator, and received above-average evaluations.

    - Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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