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    Wolfinger prepares investigation

    By DAVID KARP

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 23, 2001


    TAMPA -- The latest inquiry into the Sabrina Aisenberg disappearance will focus on two sheriff's detectives who built a criminal case that collapsed this week in a spectacular fashion.

    Gov. Jeb Bush appointed Norman R. Wolfinger, the state attorney in Brevard and Seminole counties, to investigate whether sheriff's officials made up evidence and misled authorities to obtain an indictment in September 1999 against Steven and Marlene Aisenberg.

    The governor's executive order allows Wolfinger to investigate "all matters pertaining to or arising from" allegations against the sheriff's detectives in the Aisenberg case.

    Bush gave Wolfinger a year to investigate and ordered the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to assist.

    Wolfinger said Thursday that he didn't know how long the investigation would take or where it would lead.

    "We have to take it as it comes," said Wolfinger, 55, who has been the state attorney in the 18th Judicial Circuit since 1984. "There is no set path that (the investigation) has to follow. It is just a matter of where it leads."

    Wolfinger didn't know yet whether he could investigate federal prosecutors who asked a grand jury to indict the Aisenbergs.

    "I can't tell you if they have done anything wrong yet," said Wolfinger, who has read media accounts of the case.

    Wolfinger will begin with the report issued last week by U.S. Magistrate Mark Pizzo, who found that sheriff's detectives Linda Burton and William Blake manufactured evidence against the Aisenbergs and misled a judge to obtain permission to bug the Aisenbergs' home.

    On Nov. 24, 1997, the couple reported their 5-month-old daughter, Sabrina, missing from their suburban home in Valrico. The Aisenbergs said someone must have snatched their baby out of her bed undetected in the middle of the night.

    Almost immediately, sheriff's detectives suspected the couple, and they asked a state judge for permission to bug their home.

    Detectives claimed they heard the Aisenbergs make incriminating statements on the surveillance tapes, and in September 1999 federal prosecutors charged the couple with lying about the disappearance.

    But last week, a federal magistrate who listened to the tapes found that it had been the detectives, not the Aisenbergs, who were lying.

    Pizzo called the detectives' accounts of the tapes "pure fiction," and recommended that a federal judge throw out the evidence. The indictment was dismissed Thursday.

    Hillsborough Sheriff Cal Henderson asked State Attorney Mark Ober to investigate his detectives. To avoid a conflict of interest, Ober asked Bush to name an independent prosecutor.

    Attorney Todd Foster, who represents the Aisenbergs, said Thursday he was pleased that Bush had acted quickly in naming Wolfinger to the case.

    "He should be permitted to take his investigation as far as it needs to go," Foster said.

    -- Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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