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Witnesses: We saw no signs of abuse

Attorneys question whether authorities went too far to get warrant extentions allowing them to bug the Aisenbergs' home.

By GRAHAM BRINK

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 12, 2000


TAMPA -- A parade of witnesses testified in court Monday that 5-month-old Sabrina Aisenberg showed no signs of abuse in the days before she disappeared on Nov. 24, 1997.

Not only that, many of the witnesses said they relayed those facts to authorities investigating the case. A few even said they felt pressured to say they saw bruises they didn't recall seeing.

"It felt like (the detective) was trying to lead me to see something," said Nancy Gray, a family acquaintence who saw Sabrina the weekend before she disappeared. "I didn't see any abuse."

The testimony was part a hearing that began Monday into whether authorities were overzealous in obtaining extentions for warrants that allowed them to bug Steve and Marlene Aisenberg's Valrico home.

The alleged statements captured by the bugging devices led to the Aisenbergs' arrests last September on federal charges of conspiracy and lying about their daughter's disappearance.

From the start, the Aisenbergs said someone must have crept into their home at night and stolen the child. Investigators obtained a court order to bug the home after they turned up no evidence of an intruder. No trace of the child has been found.

The Aisenbergs' attorneys want U.S. Magistrate Mark Pizzo to conclude at the end of the hearing that any taped statements obtained by the bugs after authorities applied for the extensions should be thrown out, a scenario that could cripple the prosecution's case.

The attorneys claim that authorities acted in bad faith when they sought extensions by misrepresenting the clarity of the tapes, omitting pertinent information favorable to the Aisenbergs and making the false abuse allegations.

To prove their case, Aisenberg attorney Todd Foster began the hearing Monday by calling to the stand John Smialek, a forensic pathologist and chief medical examiner for Maryland who had reviewed a videotape made of Sabrina playing at home just days before she disappeared.

Smialek said that the dark spots under Sabrina's eyes in parts of the tape were not bruises and that her hair looked thin and clumped together, not ripped out. He doubted that anyone who saw the videotape could conclude that Sabrina was abused.

Carroll L. Lucas, a photo interpretation expert who once worked for the CIA and was summoned by Congress in the 1960s to examine pictures of Lee Harvey Oswald after President John F. Kennedy was killed, testified that the spots under Sabrina's eyes were just shadows caused by poor lighting. They appear in some frames of the videotape and not others, Lucas said.

Foster also questioned three women who worked at the barber shop where Marlene Aisenberg had brought Sabrina and her two other children a few days before the disappearance. All three testified that Sabrina seemed happy and healthy. None noticed any bruises.

During the investigation, Hillsborough County sheriff's detectives and FBI agents showed the women photos printed from the videotape. The women said the investigators kept asking whether they were sure they didn't see anything in the photos that looked like abuse.

"I said it looked normal for a 5-month-old," said Jeanne Blevins, the former barber shop owner. "I wondered why we were doing this over again."

Stacey Allen, who was at the barber shop the day the Aisenbergs came in, said it was untrue that she said anything to investigators that would have hinted at abuse, despite what they wrote in their reports. She also said that their claims that they interviewed her on Dec. 17, 1997, at the shop were simply impossible.

She was out on maternity leave, she said, and delivered her baby the next day.

The hearing continues today and could last until next week. Once Foster is through putting on his case, the prosecutors will have a chance to respond with their own witnesses.

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