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The tapes are played at a court hearing on investigators' actions in bugging the parents of a missing child.
By GRAHAM BRINK
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 14, 2000
TAMPA -- Some of the surveillance tapes authorities made of Steve and Marlene Aisenberg after their 5-month-old daughter disappeared were played publicly for the first time Wednesday.
The tapes, and the statements they allegedly contain, are at the center of a court hearing to determine whether authorities acted improperly in obtaining warrants to continue bugging the Aisenberg home in Brandon.
In court, most listeners could hear few words, let alone any sentences. The Aisenbergs' audibility expert, Bruce Koenig, called the tapes "audible but not intelligible."
"You can hear them talking but cannot understand what they are saying," said Koenig, a former FBI agent who analyzed the Linda Tripp tapes for Special Prosecutor Ken Starr.
After Sabrina Aisenberg disappeared Nov. 24, 1997, her parents said someone must have crept into their home at night and taken the baby. A massive search was unsuccessful. No trace of the child has been found.
A couple of weeks after Sabrina was reported missing, Hillsborough Chief Judge F. Dennis Alvarez signed a warrant allowing investigators to bug the Aisenberg home. At the time, a federal grand jury was already looking into the disappearence.
Investigators returned to Alvarez twice to obtain extensions to continue the audio surveillance. The content of those extension applications are what the Aisenbergs' lawyers are attacking.
They claim that investigators misrepresented the statements in order to get Alvarez to extend the bugging. Many of the statements the prosecutors said were on the tapes were inaudible or taken out of context, they argued.
In the extension applications, the investigators used the tapes to quote the Aisenbergs making statements such as: "Our tiny baby didn't suffer," "I didn't say nothing," and "You cannot trust a soul." They said the incriminating statements warranted continued bugging, which lasted almost three months.
Federal prosecutors then used statements acquired from the bugs to indict the Aisenbergs last year on charges of conspiracy and making false statements.
The problem, the Aisenbergs' lawyers say, is that the tapes don't contain any of the statements investigators claim are there. And at least one statement the investigators attributed to Marlene Aisenberg was actually her son mimicking a girl's voice as he often did to get laughs, according to an Aisenberg babysitter who testified Wednesday.
Koenig, the audio expert, testified that for the most part the Aisenbergs were either too far away from the bugs to be heard clearly or that distortion interfered with what they were saying. Neither of those factors can be helped much by enhancement techniques, he said. Other less serious factors like telephone sounds, interference and reverberations in the house also contributed to the overall poor quality of the recordings, he said.
Prosecutors plan to put on their own audibility expert Friday or early next week. Ultimately, U.S. Magistrate Mark Pizzo will make a recommendation as to whether to suppress the tapes, a key piece of evidence in the government's case.
Aisenberg attorney Todd Foster spent Wednesday questioning witnesses about other aspects of the applications he thinks are unfair.
Since the hearing began Monday, about a dozen witnesses have testified that they saw Sabrina in the days before her parents reported her missing. None saw signs of abuse. Foster grilled FBI agent Kerry Myers on Wednesday as to why those facts weren't included in the applications.
Myers, the lead FBI investigator on the case, said they were busy trying to find Sabrina and decided to put off the abuse interviews for a while. He also said the Aisenbergs were not very helpful during the early stages of the investigation, and that Marlene Aisenberg had failed two polygraphs, making it hard to rule her out as a suspect.
Foster hammered Myers on the wording of the applications, asking several times whether he had read the documents before they were given to Alvarez for approval.
Foster wondered aloud how investigators could swear under oath that they had information that the Aisenbergs abused Sabrina without first interviewing all the people who saw her last.
The hearing continues today.
- Graham Brink can be reached at (813) 226-3365 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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