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Deputies' methods assailed in Aisenberg investigation

The defense says officers misrepresented findings to continue bugging the Aisenbergs.

By JEFF TESTERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 21, 2000


TAMPA -- Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies played fast and loose with investigative findings they used to gain court permission to bug Steven and Marlene Aisenbergs' home, the couple's defense attorneys argued again and again Wednesday.

The defense put homicide Detective William Blake on the witness stand and asked him why he included in an application for extended tape surveillance of the Aisenbergs' Brandon home an odd passage from Marlene Aisenberg already caught on tape -- the words, "Help me, help me, oh, oh, oh, oh."

Blake said Mrs. Aisenberg's words suggested "peculiar" behavior, and strongly reminded him of a suspect he once questioned who began rocking back and forth in an interrogation room, then begged, "Oh please, please, please," before confessing to two murders.

Marlene Aisenberg's cries seemed "very similar" to the murderer's begging, Blake said.

There was just one problem.

The Aisenbergs' longtime babysitter testified last week that the words, "Help me, help me, oh, oh, oh, oh," were not uttered by Marlene Aisenberg. Babysitter Sarah McCall recognized the voice on the surveillance tape as belonging to the Aisenbergs' son, William, who liked to use a feminine voice to get attention.

Wednesday, after hearing Blake's explanation, U.S. Magistrate Mark Pizzo silently shook his head and lowered his eyes.

Pizzo has now sat through eight days of testimony in a hearing to determine whether the surveillance tapes used to indict the Aisenbergs should be suppressed, a move that would cripple the federal case against the couple.

A grand jury indicted the Aisenbergs in September 1999 on charges of conspiracy and lying to authorities investigating the Nov. 24, 1997 disappearance of their 5-month-old daughter, Sabrina.

Investigators almost immediately focused on her parents, particularly after finding no sign of an intruder at the Aisenberg home and after Marlene Aisenberg failed a polygraph test.

Investigators initially obtained a court order to install hidden listening devices in the Aisenbergs' bedroom and kitchen, and, using recorded conversations from the first order, obtained two extensions for the surveillance.

But a defense team led by Barry Cohen and Todd Foster claims investigators misinterpreted findings and misrepresented what can heard on the 82 days of surveillance tapes, and wants a judge to rule the recordings inadmissible.

Also testifying Wednesday was FBI Agent Gary Filipek, who said he was asked in December 1997 to construct a financial profile of the Aisenbergs. Filipek obtained credit, bank and tax records.

Filipek testified that he was trying to learn if any large sums of money were being deposited into the Aisenbergs' accounts, "to see if they'd sold the baby."

Although the agent concluded "there was nothing there," little, if any, of this exculpatory finding was conveyed to Chief Circuit Judge F. Dennis Alvarez when he was asked to issue orders to extend surveillance, defense attorneys said.

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Click here for past coverage of the Aisenberg case.

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