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    Aisenberg tapes may be played

    The taped conversations of the couple, parents of a missing baby, are at the center of the federal case.

    By JEFF TESTERMAN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published September 29, 2000


    TAMPA -- Ten weeks ago, U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday decided he wanted to listen privately to taped conversations of Steve and Marlene Aisenberg, tapes which federal prosecutors say are proof that the couple lied about the disappearance of their baby girl, Sabrina.

    The Aisenbergs' attorney, Barry Cohen, says the tapes are of such poor quality that they are unintelligible.

    In a hearing Thursday, Cohen said the tapes, 63 conversations which have now been copied on to 30 compact discs, are too untrustworthy and too unreliable to be permitted as evidence in the case.

    Having reviewed all 30 CDs, Merryday provided no clue about his own opinion as to the audibility, and admissibility, of the recordings. Instead, he suggested he will order a new hearing at which every CD can be considered after being played in court.

    "I'm certainly considering having a hearing on this matter," Merryday said. "It would be best to play them one at a time and make a ruling on each one."

    The tapes, recorded with secret listening devices placed with a court order, were made at the Aisenbergs' Brandon home in the days following Nov. 24, 1997, when the couple reported that 5-month-old Sabrina had been abducted. The bugging was done after investigators failed to find forensic evidence pointing to an intruder and after suspicions arose that Marlene Aisenberg had been untruthful about the infant's disappearance.

    Despite a massive search for Sabrina and numerous televised pleas by the Aisenbergs for her safe return, the child has never been located.

    Twenty-two months after Marlene Aisenberg dialed 911 to report her baby missing, a federal grand jury indicted the Aisenbergs on charges of conspiracy and making false statements to investigators.

    The Aisenbergs have pleaded not guilty to all charges, are free on bail and have moved from Hillsborough County to Bethesda, Md. If convicted, they each face as much as 25 years in prison.

    The damning evidence against the couple, prosecutors said, is contained in the secret tapes.

    According to government transcripts, Marlene Aisenberg at one point tells her husband, "The baby's dead and buried! It was found dead because you did it!"

    Steve Aisenberg replies, "We need to discuss the way that we can beat the charge," and later says, "I wish I hadn't harmed her. It was the cocaine," according to the transcripts.

    Thursday, Cohen reiterated his contention that the transcripts should never be given to a jury because the tapes upon which they are based are mostly inaudible.

    Cohen also renewed his request to admit testimony from former FBI Agent Bruce Koenig, an expert in audio authenticity who analyzed the Linda Tripp tapes for Special Prosecutor Ken Starr, as well as tapes from the investigation into the John F. Kennedy assassination.

    Koenig says in his affidavit that he cannot hear Marlene Aisenberg on tape saying the baby is "dead and buried" or that her husband did it. Nor can he hear Steven Aisenberg talking about cocaine or trying to "beat the charge."

    If Merryday does decide to play the Aisenberg CDs in court, there is no assurance the public will learn once and for all what is on the recordings.

    Government prosecutors said Thursday that the media should be barred from hearing the CDs, since anything subsequently ruled inadmissible might prove prejudicial to the Aisenbergs.

    "We want to make sure we don't run afoul of the defendants' rights," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Rachelle Devaux-Bedke. If inadmissible information is made public, "the defense could say "our clients have been irreparably harmed by this.' "

    An indignant Cohen arose to say he welcomed the media listening to the CDs and reporting fully on the recordings.

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