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Aisenberg case moves to TV

The couple highlight evidence they say clears them and reveals an intruder's path into their home.

By GRAHAM BRINK

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 18, 2001


The couple highlight evidence they say clears them and reveals an intruder's path into their home.

TAMPA -- Since prosecutors dropped the case against them three weeks ago, Steven and Marlene Aisenberg have used the national talk show circuit to plead for the return of their daughter.

They say they hope the publicity generated from appearances on Larry King Live, Rivera Live and Dateline NBC will help someone identify Sabrina and bring about her safe return.

The national spotlight also has played another role: It has allowed them and their attorneys to showcase the evidence they say exonerates them and points to an unknown intruder as the culprit.

The Aisenbergs' lead attorney, Barry Cohen, has called the handling of the evidence shoddy and fundamentally flawed. He hasn't been shy about his criticism.

"The problem is, they really believe that the Aisenbergs were involved. They don't want to find out anything else," he said. "That's the type of police work that leads to big problems."

But what is all the physical evidence? And does it really suggest an intruder was involved?

Sabrina Aisenberg was reported missing from her Valrico home on Nov. 24, 1997. Marlene Aisenberg said she checked on her infant daughter in her crib about midnight, then discovered her missing at 6:42 in the morning. A massive search ensued, but no trace of the child has been found.

The family had left the garage door open during the night, and authorities said the door leading into the home was unlocked. From the start, the Aisenbergs said someone must have crept into their home at night and stolen Sabrina.

Investigators suspected the Aisenbergs had either killed or sold their daughter. They sought permission from a judge to bug the home and placed listening devices inside about three weeks after the disappearance.

Authorities used the recordings to indict the Aisenbergs in September 1999 on charges of conspiracy and lying. They dropped the charges three weeks ago after a federal judge recommended the tapes be suppressed. The judge said the detectives had lied in obtaining permission to bug the home and that the tapes contained none of the incriminating comments cited by investigators.

Much of the evidence the Aisenbergs and their attorneys say points to an intruder has been brought up in past court filings. The fanfare surrounding the dismissal, including the allegations of police misconduct, has allowed the couple to showcase the evidence.

They point to an unidentified blond hair and shoe print found near Sabrina's crib. Forensic technicians also found seven unidentified fingerprints in the home -- five on the inside of a sliding glass door, one on the washing machine and one on an interior screen door. The family also said detectives did not follow up on a scent picked up by tracking dogs that led over the fence in their back yard.

Neighbors, too, made statements that suggested an intruder might have been involved.

One couple with an 8-month-old baby told authorities their alarm went off early one morning a few days before Sabrina's disappearance. When the couple investigated, they found an open window in the front of the home.

A different neighbor said she heard cars coming and going from the cul-de-sac where they lived early on the morning Sabrina vanished. Another couple who lived next door to the Aisenbergs heard their dog bark between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m.

Terry Desmond, who lived five blocks from the Aisenbergs' home, said that three nights before Sabrina vanished, someone bent back a screen on a rear window close to where his 4-month-old boy was sleeping.

And Peter McDonald, who lived on the same cul-de-sac as the Aisenbergs, wrote in a sworn affidavit that his dog woke him up the morning Sabrina disappeared. When he walked outside about 1 a.m., he heard what he thought was a baby crying. Neither of his closest neighbors had a baby, he said.

The Aisenbergs' attorneys claimed that detectives covered up much of the evidence and told a judge in a sworn statement there were no signs of an intruder.

Last week, sheriff's officials would not comment except to say they continue to look for the missing child. The U.S. Attorney's Office did not want to comment either, but motions filed in the year before the charges were dropped suggest prosecutors put little faith in the intruder theory.

Neither the family dog nor Sabrina's two siblings took notice of any intruder, according to reports. Federal prosecutors also claimed Cohen and his partner, Todd Foster, were simply trying to taint the potential jury pool by making accusations they knew were unsupportable.

Prosecutors argued that the shoe print on the crib dust ruffle could not have been made the night Sabrina disappeared as the ruffle was 12 inches off the ground and behind crib rails. The unidentified hair, they said, did not come from the crib but from a toy bunny found in the Aisenbergs' garbage.

"It is inconceivable that experienced defense counsel could possibly have confused the brown hairs from Baby Sabrina's crib sheet and pillowcase with a blond hair from a stuffed toy . . . and then woven such an intruder tale inadvertently," they wrote in court documents.

As for the fingerprints, the prosecutors argued that they were found on a door that technicians determined had not been opened in some time. The prints also were lifted four days after the disappearance, plenty of time for friends, relatives and reporters to touch the door.

Many of the neighbors did not come forward until weeks after the disappearance, and their statements were ambiguous, the prosecutors argued. Desmond, they said, didn't mention during two interviews with sheriff's deputies that he had a baby in the house at the time of the alleged break-in.

"The credibility of this information is as weak as the other foundational "facts' assembled to bolster the defense attorneys' intruder theory," prosecutors wrote in court documents.

Cohen has little faith that local authorities will try very hard to exonerate his clients, no matter what the evidence might suggest. He said the detectives and prosecutors have been publicly humiliated and need to try to save face.

"They should start from scratch," Cohen said. "But I don't really think that is going to happen."

- Contact Graham Brink at (813) 226-3365 or brink@sptimes.com.

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