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By PAUL DE LA GARZA
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 22, 2001
BETHESDA, Md. -- As they met with reporters outside their red brick house on a wintry Wednesday afternoon, Marlene and Steven Aisenberg wanted to talk, particularly about Hillsborough County sheriff's investigators.
They had just received word that federal prosecutors in Tampa moved to drop charges against the couple in the 1997 disappearance of their 5-month-old daughter, Sabrina. Prosecutors' case had all but collapsed, and the Aisenbergs felt exonerated.
Steven Aisenberg did most of the talking, very businesslike and without emotion. Marlene Aisenberg chimed in occasionally, to reinforce a point: What's most important now, she said, is to get Sabrina back and to raise happy children.
"When they start looking for her instead of a body," Mrs. Aisenberg said, "she'll be home."
The couple said Hillsborough sheriff's investigators bungled the case.
"I think they came in with a preconceived idea of what had occurred," Steven Aisenberg said. "Maybe through being beaten so long in the jobs that they do.
"Sometimes," he said, "it's easier to follow preconceived ideas and throw away the facts than to change your preconceived notion and follow the truth."
While the couple said finding Sabrina is a priority, insisting she is not dead but instead being raised by another family, they put investigators on notice that they may file a lawsuit for the way the investigation was handled.
Aisenberg said he did not know if investigators should undergo a criminal investigation.
"I think that we need to hold everybody accountable for their actions as we were held accountable for ours," he said.
As for word of the decision by the prosecutors, he said: "It's a numbing feeling. Obviously, it's a little bit of relief."
Mrs. Aisenberg said: "It's a hollow victory. The victory is when Sabrina is home in my arms."
The Aisenbergs described a wretched life since Sabrina's disappearance, with investigators suspecting them of murder, and with their children, 7-year-old Monica and 11-year-old William, not knowing if they would lose their parents.
Which is why the Aisenbergs moved to Bethesda, a comfortable suburb outside Washington, to the very house where Steven Aisenberg was raised.
Marlene Aisenberg also grew up in the area.
"It's a very difficult feeling because there's a lot of people we love still in Tampa and we had wonderful times in Tampa until this happened to our family," she said.
"It's the law enforcement and what they did and how they handled this."
She said they could never teach their children to respect the law in Tampa.
"We both grew up in the area," she said. "Our friends are still our friends that we've had for years. People know us and they know the type of people that we are."
At first, though, people talked.
Neighbors were respectful, but cold.
They wondered what had become of Sabrina.
The Aisenbergs, however, launched a public relations campaign of sorts, giving neighbors the latest word of the investigation.
"I'm very happy for them," said next-door neighbor Michaela Svoboda, 37, whose children play with Monica and William. "They're very nice people. We always gave them the benefit of the doubt."
What about people who will say that the case was thrown out on a technicality?
"I think the judges were very fair in looking over everything that was presented to them," Steven Aisenberg said. "They saw that there was nothing there.
"And we now hope that from the judge's determination that this will be able to go forward, and thanks to our attorneys for all their help in being able to present our side of it as deftly as they were able to."
As people drove by, occasionally somebody would wave.
Before too long, a neighbor drove by with a carload of kids and took William to "religious school," as Steven Aisenberg put it.
The Aisenbergs, meanwhile, would greet reporters in their driveway, a silver Cadillac and a white van parked in the garage.
At one point, the Aisenbergs came out for yet another round of interviews, but this time, they were armed with fliers featuring "age-progression" pictures of Sabrina.
Designed by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children last summer, the flier showed a color photograph of Sabrina when she was 5 months old, and another picture showing how she would look today.
In the photograph, under the title "Endangered Missing," she has short dirty blond hair and a lovely smile. She's wearing a black-and-white striped shirt.
The Aisenbergs said the organization was helping them locate Sabrina. Steven Aisenberg said leads are still coming in, "about a child that looked like Sabrina, or people who said we saw her the other day, she was with such and such people."
They insist she is alive. "If somebody took her, we believe they took her to have a daughter, to have a child," Steven Aisenberg said. "And we believe that they took her to raise her and that's wrong."
A final question.
What would the Aisenbergs tell people who think they got away with murder?
"Keep looking for our daughter and hopefully you'll see her and she'll be able to come home to us," Steven Aisenberg said.
"And she will come home," Marlene Aisenberg said, almost trampling over his words.