Detective in Aisenberg case grilled on bugging
By GRAHAM BRINK
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 15, 2000
TAMPA -- For weeks, Steve and Marlene Aisenberg's attorneys have been waiting for the chance to question Hillsborough sheriff's Detective Linda Burton, who they think is at the center of a botched investigation into the disappearance of the Aisenbergs' 5-month-old daughter.
On Thursday, Burton admitted that she thought one witness authorities used to obtain permission to bug the Aisenberg home was a liar.
She testified that investigators did not tell the judge who okayed the bugging that at least nine witnesses who saw Sabrina Aisenberg shortly before she was reported missing thought she appeared happy and healthy, not the victim of abuse portrayed in the applications to bug the home.
She agreed that transcripts from the surveillance tapes do not contain the incriminating statements attributed to the Aisenbergs in the applications, signed and sworn to by Burton and one other detective.
The detective had trouble explaining some of the discrepancies. "I don't know the (bugging) procedure really well," she said. "I'm not real clear as to how it works."
After Sabrina disappeared Nov. 24, 1997, investigators grew suspicious that her parents may have played a role. They obtained permission to bug the home and twice received extensions.
The content of the applications to secure those extensions is at the heart of this week's hearing. The Aisenbergs claim investigators misrepresented facts, omitted others and at times lied to build the case against them. They also say the surveillance tapes don't include the incriminating statements authorities say they made.
Those statements helped prosecutors indict the Aisenbergs last year on federal charges of conspiracy and making false statements.
U.S. Magistrate Mark Pizzo has the job of deciding if the investigators acted in bad faith in obtaining the extensions. If he thinks they did, he can recommend that the tapes be suppressed, which could gut the government's case.
Burton, one of two lead detectives in the case, fumbled through much of her testimony Thursday. Burton laughed nervously several times as defense attorney Stephen Romine fired questions. At one point, she looked at the prosecutors and mouthed the words, "I'm sorry."
Romine spent a lot of the afternoon asking why so many witnesses who saw Sabrina just before her reported disappearance were not interviewed, or ignored when they said she was happy and healthy. The applications to continue bugging the home said Sabrina was the victim of abuse, as she had a bruise under her eye and hair torn from her head.
The applications included a statement from Stacey Allen, a hairdresser who saw Sabrina three days before her reported disappearance. Allen was paraphrased saying that Sabrina had hair missing from her head. Left out, though, was that Allen had gone on to say that it seemed natural, as many babies are susceptible to losing clumps of hair.
Burton told Romine that she did not include the latter part of Allen's statement because she thought Allen "was the type of person to vacillate." She thought Allen was a liar, she said.
At that point, Pizzo jumped in, asking Burton point blank why she thought Allen was prone to vacillating when her statements had remained the same through three different interviews.
Burton's answer was clumsy and hard to understand.
She is expected to take the witness stand today for more questions.
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