Linda Sue Burton says she has suspected Sabrina's parents from the start.
By JEFF TESTERMAN
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 20, 2000
TAMPA -- From the day Sabrina Aisenberg was reported missing in 1997, Hillsborough Sheriff's Detective Linda Sue Burton suspected the toddler's parents.
Burton testified Tuesday that she believed Steven and Marlene Aisenberg might have abused Sabrina and caused the baby's death.
The couple did not seem upset when deputies arrived at their Brandon house, Burton said. One side of the Aisenbergs' bed appeared not to have been slept in. The home seemed a dangerous environment for a 5-month-old like Sabrina.
"In my opinion, it was out of control," said Burton. There were dirty dishes and other items all over the counter. In the living room, "papers and garbage were lying all over." The floor was dirty, and small objects -- the kind a toddler might choke on -- were strewn about.
"It was chaos," Burton said.
Later, Burton decided that photographs and a video of Sabrina showed signs of abuse: facial bruises, a swatch of hair pulled out.
Ultimately, she concluded that secretly taped statements of the Aisenbergs pointed to their culpability in the disappearance of Sabrina.
Burton's testimony, under questioning by Assistant U.S. Attorney Rachelle Desvaux Bedke, came on the seventh day of a hearing to determine if the surveillance tapes used to indict the Aisenbergs should be suppressed.
Sabrina has not been found since she vanished on Nov. 24, 1997, and investigators presume she is dead. Shortly after Sabrina's disappearance, investigators placed surveillance devices in the Aisenbergs' home and monitored their conversations for 82 days.
Based largely on the tapes, a grand jury in September 1999 indicted the Aisenbergs on charges of conspiracy and lying to authorities about the baby's whereabouts.
In motions to throw out the taped evidence, defense attorneys claim the government withheld exculpatory taped statements, took comments out of context and misrepresented what the Aisenbergs said.
Tuesday, Burton said she relied on medical records to determine if Sabrina might have been abused. She said she learned that Sabrina had missed her last two appointments with a pediatrician, suggesting an injury or illness was being concealed.
She thought a "crusty" bare spot behind one ear might mean poor care, or an unattended ear infection, or even fluid released by a blow causing a perforated eardrum.
But Burton's credibility has been under attack for much of the four days she has testified, leading her to remark to a friend as she left the courtroom Monday, "I wish someone would just kill me."
Burton has had difficulty explaining discrepancies on transcripts of the tapes and the affidavits she swore to in applications to extend the surveillance.
Tuesday, even U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Pizzo questioned her conclusions concerning statements taped on Dec. 13, 1997.
In an affidavit for an extension of the surveillance, Burton says she heard on one of the tapes Marlene tell Steven he's been "acting weird every night." Steven asks, "You think (inaudible) behind it?" Later, in a discussion of figures, Marlene asks what is "the set amount?" Steven replies, "about (inaudible) thousand."
From this, Burton testified she thought the Aisenbergs "were talking about paying someone to take their child or paying someone to dispose of the child."
On Monday, defense attorneys had tried unsuccessfully to ask Burton questions about an incident in her past.
A longtime investigator in child abuse cases, Burton was found in March 1991 to have falsified official documents. It's not clear what records she altered, since details about the violation have been purged, said Hillsborough Sheriff's office spokesman Rod Reder.
- Staff Writer Sarah Schweitzer contributed to this story.
Missing Sabrina: The Aisenberg Odyssey