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Aisenberg spying extension unlawful

An investigator admits his application to continue secret surveillance wasn't legal.

By JEFF TESTERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 22, 2000


TAMPA -- A supervisor of the investigators who monitored the home where baby Sabrina Aisenberg disappeared testified Thursday that he knew the application he wrote seeking to extend court-ordered surveillance did not comply with Florida law.

Hillsborough sheriff's Sgt. Donald Roman, a veteran of 37 wire intercept operations, said he was well aware that state law permits court-ordered surveillance for 11 crimes, and that three he listed in the Aisenberg application were not among them.

In a February 1998 application to Chief Judge Dennis Alvarez to extend surveillance at the Brandon home of Steve and Marlene Aisenberg, Roman listed four crimes being investigated: homicide, sale of a minor child, child neglect with great bodily harm and aggravated child abuse.

Of the four, only suspected homicide provides legally permissible grounds for court-ordered surveillance in Florida.

Although Roman knew his application did not comport with law, he said he never mentioned it to superiors. "The assistant state attorney had looked at, State Attorney Harry Coe had looked at it, the chief judge had looked at it," said Roman. "Who was I to override them?"

Roman's testimony was offered in the ninth day of a hearing on a motion by the Aisenberg defense team to suppress secret surveillance recordings made following the Nov. 24, 1997, disappearance of the Aisenbergs' daughter.

After investigators turned up no forensic evidence of an intruder at the home, and after Mrs. Aisenberg gave conflicting statements, a federal-state task force developed a theory that the Aisenbergs might have sold or murdered the child.

She has never been found, and no murder charge has been lodged. But in September 1999, a federal grand jury indicted the Aisenbergs on charges of conspiracy and lying to authorities.

That case rests almost entirely on 82 days of surveillance tapes on which the Aisenbergs made numerous incriminating statements, prosecutors say.

The defense says otherwise.

Last week, defense attorneys presented former FBI agent Bruce Koenig, who testified many of the tapes are unintelligible. This week, they have focused on the claim that investigators were sloppy or misrepresented what the Aisenbergs said while being monitored by listening devices in their kitchen and bedroom.

Thurday, Roman was questioned about his application to extend surveillance, which includes portions of a previous recording where Marlene Aisenberg appears to be talking about hair "pulled out" of 5-month-old Sabrina's head. Investigators saw it as evidence that the child may have been abused by her parents.

But Roman acknowledged that no context was given for the remark to explain that an investigator had just stopped by the Aisenberg home to ask Marlene about photos appearing to show a swatch of hair missing from Sabrina.

A written summary of Mrs. Aisenberg's comments shows she was discussing hair being pulled out, but then exclaimed, "Unbelievable," as if incredulous at the allegation. But "unbelievable" was dropped from Roman's affidavit.

In other testimony Thursday, a sheriff's detective who monitored the Aisenbergs appeared to surprise prosecutors and defense attorneys alike with the revelation that he has a hearing problem.

Detective Phillip Dubord, who worked the "midnight shift" monitoring conversations from the Aisenberg home, testified that he has "a slight tone deafness." Dubord said he experienced no listening problems on previous wiretap operations, where he monitored only telephone conversations.

But he said the Aisenberg case was his first try at listening devices, and he explained the household noise and electronic distortion made it difficult for him to understand what the Aisenbergs were saying. The problem forced Dubord to ask other monitors to transcribe tapes of conversations he had listened to, he said.

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Click here for past coverage of the Aisenberg case

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