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Aisenbergs arrested

Parents of missing baby Sabrina are charged in her disappearance. Police say the girl is dead.

By LARRY DOUGHERTY, SUE CARLTON, RICHARD DANIELSON and SARA FRITZ

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 10, 1999


TAMPA -- Twenty-two months after the disappearance and presumed death of their infant daughter, former Brandon residents Steve and Marlene Aisenberg were charged Thursday in federal court.

But not with murder.

A federal grand jury indicted them on charges of making false statements, accusing the couple of fabricating a kidnapping story in November 1997 to explain the disappearance of 5-month-old Sabrina.

The indictment quotes the Aisenbergs' personal conversations, apparently obtained from listening devices planted by federal agents. Those recordings suggest that Sabrina was killed by her father while he was high on cocaine and that the couple staged an elaborate coverup.

"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!" Marlene Aisenberg is quoted as telling her husband 29 days after Sabrina's disappearance.

Steve Aisenberg is said to reply: "We need to discuss the way that we can beat the charge. I would never break from the family pact and our story even if the police were to hold me down. We will do what we have to do."

Days after that conversation, in January 1998, according to the indictment and a federal prosecutor, Steve Aisenberg said: "I wish I hadn't harmed her. It was the cocaine."

The couple's attorney, Barry Cohen, defended the Aisenbergs on Thursday night. "I have every confidence that these people are not responsible for what they've been charged with," he said.

Sabrina was reported missing in a 911 call Marlene Aisenberg placed at 6:42 a.m. Nov. 24, 1997. The couple claimed that they put the child to bed at 11 o'clock the night before and that they awoke to find her missing from her crib.

The garage door had been left open, but the family dog, Brownie, never barked, and there was no evidence of an intruder. The report touched off a massive search in and around the home at 3632 Springville Drive.

Eventually, local, state and federal law enforcement officials began to turn their attention to the Aisenbergs. The couple hired Cohen and refused to cooperate with the investigation, turning down requests for interviews with detectives and instead telling their kidnapping story to local reporters and syndicated television talk shows.

They moved from the Brandon home this year with their two other children and settled in suburban Maryland.

The couple were arrested Thursday. Marlene Aisenberg, 36, refused to admit FBI agents to her home, a tidy split-level house in Bethesda that neighbors said belonged to Steve Aisenberg's father. The agents forced the door open.

The indictment accuses them of a variety of acts designed to foil investigators, including the concocting of false leads in Texas and Michigan. It also accuses them of using contributions from the public for the search for Sabrina to pay down credit cards.

Both were taken before a federal magistrate for an initial appearance Thursday. Each was released after promising to post a $25,000 bond. The Aisenbergs return to court today to provide documentation for their bonds. Further court proceedings will determine when they return to Tampa.

The Aisenbergs' two other children were looked after by Steve Aisenberg's parents while the couple were in federal custody, Cohen said.

The indictments were announced Thursday afternoon in Tampa by U.S. Attorney Charles Wilson, who today will end his five-year reign as top attorney for the Middle District of Florida to become a federal appellate judge.

Wilson said his departure had nothing to do with the timing of the indictments. Instead, he said, the investigation had reached the proper point.

Cohen said the arrests seemed "vindictive." He said Steve Aisenberg told him by phone that he was "sad that he's been indicted for something he didn't do."

Despite the recordings of incriminating conversations, Hillsborough Sheriff Cal Henderson said Thursday that local investigators didn't have enough evidence to bring a murder charge against the Aisenbergs.

Wilson would not discuss why a murder charge was not included in the indictment. Federal murder charges are rare and generally are filed only in conjunction with drug or racketeering cases.

Wilson said the charges should not be seen as punishment for parents who were uncooperative with investigators.

"These are serious violations of state and federal law, including false statements to law enforcement agencies working very hard to find their daughter," Wilson said.

The indictment quotes the recorded conversations as grounds for a conspiracy count. The false-claims counts allege the Aisenbergs lied about a kidnapping; lied about the time they woke up that morning; and lied about what Marlene Aisenberg was wearing that day.

The search for Sabrina prompted a large air and water search, as dozens of divers plumbed the lakes near her house. The case was trumpeted on crime stopper shows and a Sabrina Web site recorded hundreds of thousands of hits. The Aisenbergs were interviewed on Oprah, The Geraldo Rivera Show and network newsmagazines.

Former federal prosecutors who aren't involved in the case said the federal prosecution of the Aisenbergs, without any state charges, was highly unusual.

"This is an extraordinary, unusual way to go about a case like this, first to have the federal government involved, and second not to bring the underlying charge (of murder) with tapes like this," said Tampa lawyer Sandy Weinberg.

Today the Aisenbergs' former home on Springville Drive stands empty, a real estate agent's sign in the front yard. Neighbors remain divided on whether the Aisenbergs are suspects or victims.

Next-door neighbor Martha Jones said she assumed at first that the Aisenbergs were telling the truth but noticed "very odd" bits of behavior almost from the moment Marlene Aisenberg knocked on her front door that morning.

Mrs. Aisenberg was with another woman and said, "My baby's missing, my baby's missing," but she was not crying.

"She didn't appear to be extremely upset, as I would have been if my baby was missing, especially a 5-month-old," said Mrs. Jones, a 48-year-old analyst for GTE. "I put my arm around her, and she withdrew immediately. It's so odd that she would do that and not let someone comfort her."

Mrs. Jones also was skeptical about the family's story that their dog Brownie apparently did not alert the family to an intruder.

"Brownie is a barker," she said.

Although to Mrs. Jones, Steve Aisenberg seemed more concerned about the baby's disappearance than his wife, she also told the grand jury that she had heard him yelling at the couple's children before.

"He's a screamer," she said. "We always got the impression that he was the disciplinarian, not her."

As soon as the family was no longer under the Sheriff's Office's surveillance, they began to have backyard parties, including children's parties with horses and ponies, she said.

"If it's true," she said of the charges, "I hope they're convicted" and sent to prison.

At the other end of the street, 46-year-old Don Roetter said he "still can't believe that they had anything to do with her disappearance."

"I know they're sincere," said Roetter, who has kept in touch with the Aisenbergs since they moved. "Their kids are their whole life. . . . Marlene would break down crying all the time thinking about Sabrina."

Roetter said the family believes "that Sabrina will be found. It's just a matter of time." The charges announced Thursday, he said, seem to be based on statements that "could be taken out of context. . . . You're still supposed to be innocent until proven guilty."

Roetter's comments were echoed by the Aisenbergs' attorney, Cohen, who said Thursday that a listener has to understand "the entire context" of any recorded comments.

"I haven't heard the tapes and I haven't heard the information," Cohen said. "But I know that a lot of things are said under emotional circumstances ... said out of stress."

In the indictment, the couple fret about making mistakes in their coverup story.

Investigators apparently began recording the couple on Dec. 16, 1997, the day after ending a vigil in the Aisenbergs' home for a ransom call that never came. Federal agents can place listening devices after obtaining an order from a judge. Prosecutors declined to give any description of how they overheard the conversations.

Steve Aisenberg, charged with one count of conspiracy and four counts of false statements, faces a possible maximum 25 years in prison. Marlene Aisenberg, charged with one count of conspiracy and five counts of false statements, faces a maximum of 30 years.

A former federal prosecutor now in defense practice said he consider the charges an "ulterior motive prosecution" designed to make Marlene Aisenberg testify against her husband.

"What they're trying to do is manipulate the federal justice system to bring pressure on people to solve a larger crime," said Tampa attorney Steve Crawford. "It stands the whole concept of federalism on its head. . . . It's an abuse of the process."

Former federal prosecutor Weinberg said, "There would appear to be some evidence problem that caused the state concern (about bringing a murder charge)."


-- Times staff writer Vanita Gowda contributed to this report.

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