Tapes leave listeners doubtful
By JEFF TESTERMAN
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 19, 2000
TAMPA -- A renowned audio expert testified Monday that he could identify a number of critical taped statements suggesting Steve and Marlene Aisenberg lied to authorities about the disappearance of their daughter Sabrina.
The playing of the enhanced tapes in court Monday, however, had several observers shaking their heads.
The enhanced version sounded unnatural, as if recorded in a chamber or a cave. Few words on the seven-minute tape were intelligible to reporters, even those who followed along on transcripts of the recording secretly made on Christmas Eve 1997, in the master bedroom of the Aisenberg's Brandon home.
In the end, U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Pizzo listened to Pellicano's enhanced recording, then said he would rely on the original tape investigators first played on a Dictaphone three years ago.
"The enhanced copy heard in court is more difficult to hear than the others," Pizzo said. "I haven't noticed a lot of difference between all these versions, except that some have less background noise."
Monday's court session was the sixth day in a hearing to determine if Pizzo should recommend suppression of the Aisenberg tapes, a move that might cause the collapse of the Aisenberg case.
Five-month-old Sabrina vanished during Thanksgiving week in 1997, an apparent kidnapping victim. Unable to find a trace of any intruder, Hillsborough sheriff's detectives became suspicious of her parents and obtained court orders to install listening devices in the couple's bedroom and kitchen.
Taped conversations of the Aisenbergs purportedly talking about Sabrina's disappearance were later used to get extensions of the court-ordered surveillance.
Sabrina is still missing and presumed by investigators to be dead.
Comments on the surveillance tapes formed the basis for a grand jury indictment of the Aisenbergs on federal charges of conspiracy and making false statements.
The couple have maintained their innocence and were back in court Monday, listening without a hint of emotion to tapes that prosecutors want to use to send them to federal prison.
Defense attorneys claim investigators misrepresented what the couple actually said on tape. Last week, they elicited the testimony of their own audio expert, former FBI agent Bruce Koenig, who said the Aisenberg tapes were "audible but not intelligible."
Monday, defense attorneys spent much of the morning trying to pick apart the credentials of Pellicano, the government expert who says the tapes are intelligible.
Regarded as the celebrity's private eye, the Los Angeles-based Pellicano has testified as an audio expert in state and federal courts more than a hundred times. He analyzed the tape of the Kennedy assassination and the 18-minute gap in the Nixon tapes.
But under persistent questioning, Pellicano acknowledged that he was a high school dropout who earned a GED while in the U.S. Army, and who has no college degree or formal training in engineering or mathematics.
Defense attorney Todd Foster scoffed at Pellicano's assertion in ads and resumes that he is an expert in disciplines ranging from handwriting analysis to the art of finding missing persons.
And Judge Pizzo seemed incredulous when Pellicano, paid $250 an hour by the U.S. government to examine the Aisenberg tapes, testified that he listened to one snippet "500 times" trying to determine if what was said was "fake it" or "David."
"If you had to listen to it 500 times, didn't the conclusion occur to you that you couldn't make heads or tails of it?" Pizzo asked.
The judge admitted Pellicano's testimony and many of his enhanced tapes into evidence, but said he would only give it the weight he deemed proper.
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