As investigators look for the remains of Sabrina Aisenberg, a hearing on tapes of her parents is postponed.
By CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 19, 2000
TAMPA -- As federal prosecutors fought in court Wednesday to keep their case against Steven and Marlene Aisenberg from unraveling, detectives searched a Pasco County home for the remains of the couple's missing daughter.
The search at 1534 White Hawk Trail in Lutz is the latest attempt to find 5-month-old Sabrina, whose parents reported her missing from their Brandon home in November 1997. Police did not report what, if anything, they found Wednesday.
From the Aisenbergs' current home in Maryland, Steven Aisenberg told a reporter that he was outraged by the search.
"All they've done is look for a body," Aisenberg said. "They've never looked for our daughter Sabrina."
As police dogs sniffed the property and detectives removed soil samples from beneath the home's foundation, federal prosecutors were asking a judge for more time to prepare for a hearing on whether the government's key evidence, dozens of secretly recorded conversations, are intelligible.
U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday agreed to postpone the hearing, originally scheduled to begin Monday, for 30 days.
The Aisenbergs, who have denied any involvement in their daughter's disappearance, are charged with conspiracy and making false statements to investigators.
Investigators bugged their home in the days after the baby was reported missing and claim to have recorded the couple talking about the child's death.
But the tapes have come under serious attack, as has the conduct of the detectives handling the case. An audio expert hired by the defense says he can't hear those statements.
On Monday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Pizzo ordered an evidentiary hearing to determine whether, as the defense claims, Hillsborough detectives lied or misrepresented facts to a circuit judge in their application for two wiretap extensions in early 1998.
"I think Magistrate Pizzo has stated unequivocally that he is bothered to the point that he wants a full-blown evidentiary hearing," said Stephen Crawford, a defense attorney and former federal prosecutor who is not involved in the case. He noted that such hearings are extremely rare.
Pizzo ruled the Aisenbergs' lawyers have made "a substantial preliminary showing" that Hillsborough detectives Linda Burton and William Blake had distorted conversations, omitted evidence and falsely claimed particular words were on the tapes.
The judge cited 13 examples. For instance, in the detectives' first request to extend the wiretap, on Jan. 9, 1998, they cited a doctor's opinion that photographs developed from a home video showed bruises around the baby's eye, mouth, and scalp, as well as hair that had been pulled out. Detectives also said a hairstylist, who saw the baby just before her disappearance, had noticed hair missing from her head.
But detectives were fully aware, defense attorneys argue, that on the day the video was taken several witnesses who saw Sabrina up-close noticed no bruises at all. The hairstylist, too, has sworn she saw no injuries on Sabrina.
Furthermore, the defense argued, detectives concealed a videotape that showed Marlene Aisenberg passing the baby to friends at a party, evidence that she wasn't attempting to hide the girl.
Faced with these discrepancies, the judge wrote, the detectives appeared to have omitted important evidence that contradicted their claims.
Crawford, the former federal prosecutor, said Pizzo's ruling was a boon for the defense for more reasons than one. In federal court, the defense is entitled to see only a fraction of the prosecution's case before trial. At the evidentiary hearing, the government might be forced to tip its hand.
If the court decides to throw out the tapes, it would likely cripple the government's case against the Aisenbergs.
Against that backdrop, detectives searched the home in Lutz.
Pasco County records show that the house on White Hawk Trail was sold to Jaya Anand Udhwani and Anand Hiranand Udhwani in May 1999 for $185,000 by M/I Schottenstein homes, the company that employed Steven Aisenberg. The slab was poured in November or December 1997. Sabrina Aisenberg was reported missing on Nov. 24, 1997.
After Sabrina's disappearance, investigators tested the concrete slabs of several houses built by M/I Schottenstein in search of the girl's body.
Suzanne Nicholls, who lives near the home on White Hawk in Lutz, said investigators had been at the house all week, leading a German shepherd around the property on Tuesday. On Wednesday, she said, a team of workers with drilling equipment showed up.
George and Amy Edkins, who also live in the neighborhood, arrived home from work about 5:30 p.m. to see a news helicopter circling. They bought their home in 1998, and knew it was built about the same time as the one being searched this week. They knew of the possible connection to Steven Aisenberg. "We've always sort of joked about it," Mrs. Edkins said. "You know, that maybe our home was where the baby was."
At Wednesday's hearing, federal prosecutors said they needed more time to find an audio expert to rebut an expert hired by Aisenberg defense attorneys Barry Cohen and Todd Foster.
The defense team retained former FBI agent Bruce Koenig, who analyzed the Linda Tripp tapes for special prosecutor Ken Starr, to review the Aisenberg recordings.
Cohen said Wednesday that Koenig says "there is no voice to hear" on some of the tapes. Cohen also said he was "puzzled" by prosecutors suddenly needing more time to get their own expert when they have known for 18 months Koenig was a potential expert witness for the Aisenbergs.
Merryday also granted the government request for 10 days to respond to a motion filed by the Tampa Tribune, WFLA-Ch 8 and and WTVT-Ch. 13 to obtain copies of the Aisenberg tapes.
Prosecutors said they want time to research the issue. Cohen said he wants to join the motion allowing unfettered access to the tapes.
Because of transcripted conversations released when the Aisenbergs were indicted, Cohen said, "People in this area believe my clients have done what the government said they did. I want the public to hear these tapes as soon as possible."
Also on Wednesday, Cohen filed a new exhibit buttressing his contention that many of the tapes are inaudible and ought to be suppressed. The exhibit is an affidavit of official federal court reporter Cheryl E. Warren.
Warren says many of the tapes are of such poor quality that they could not be transcribed.
- Staff writers Jeff Testerman, Alisa Ulferts, Chase Squires and Brady Dennis contributed to this report.