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Aisenberg case has no end in sight

Wrangling over legal fees and the release of surveillance tapes are but some of the issues still to be resolved.

By GRAHAM BRINK, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 28, 2001

TAMPA -- Ten days ago, a special prosecutor cleared Hillsborough sheriff's detectives of any criminal wrongdoing in the way they handled the bugging of the home of Steve and Marlene Aisenberg, accused of lying about the disappearance of their baby daughter.

That long-awaited report ended part of the saga, but several significant loose ends remain.

Sheriff Cal Henderson now must decide how to address the alarming allegations prosecutor Norman Wolfinger made is his report about how detectives badly bungled the investigation. Taxpayers still await word of whether they will be footing the bill for the Aisenbergs' legal fees and whether they will ever get to hear the controversial surveillance tapes.

The Department of Justice also has an ongoing investigation into how the federal prosecutors handled the case.

The Aisenbergs reported their 5-month-old daughter, Sabrina, missing from their home in Valrico on Nov. 24, 1997. Hillsborough sheriff's investigators quickly came to suspect the Aisenbergs and bugged their home. A grand jury indicted the Aisenbergs in 1999 on charges of conspiracy and making false statements.

The prosecutors said the tapes contained incriminating statements, such as Marlene telling Steve Aisenberg: "The baby's dead and buried! It was found dead because you did it! The baby's dead no matter what you say -- you just did it."

But the charges against the Aisenbergs were dropped in February after a judge recommended that the tapes be suppressed. The judge said sheriff's detectives made up facts in getting permission for the bugs, and that the tapes he listened to did not contain incriminating comments.

Soon after, Aisenberg attorney Barry Cohen filed a motion using a rarely used law to ask the government to pay his $3.75-million legal bill since the prosecution was brought in bad faith. Federal prosecutors agreed to pay the legal fees but disputed the amount. They did not name an amount, but court documents indicate that they want it to be in the mid six-figure range.

U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday will likely have the final say on how much the government has to hand over to Cohen. Merryday also has yet to decide whether to release the surveillance tapes and other sealed documents to the public. Lawyers for several local media outlets have argued that since charges were dropped against the Aisenbergs, the tapes should be released. Cohen and the Aisenbergs, who have said all along they never made any incriminating statements, say they welcome the release of the tapes.

Federal prosecutors have argued that the case of what happened to Sabrina is ongoing and that releasing the tapes could jeopardize the investigation. In the meantime, interested parties await Sheriff Henderson's next move. After releasing his report, Wolfinger said the sheriff's investigation was "cursory," "irresponsible" and "reckless." He criticized lead detectives Linda Burton and William Blake for sloppy work.

Sheriff's spokesman Lt. Rod Reder said Thursday that Henderson will review the entire investigative report after the holidays and then discuss with staff how to proceed. No internal affairs investigations have been opened and no one involved in the case has been fired or disciplined, Reder said.

The U.S. Department of Justice and the Florida Bar also have ongoing investigations. They involve the conduct of the two lead federal prosecutors, Stephen Kunz and Rachelle DesVaux Bedke.

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