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Lawyers say indictment aims to split Aisenbergs

The couple posts bail in Maryland and faces an arraignment hearing in Tampa.

By SUE CARLTON, MARY JACOBY and LARRY DOUGHERTY

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 11, 1999


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They cried. They begged. They pleaded for the safe return of their baby Sabrina.

On Friday, they walked, eyes forward and heads upright, pushing through a crowd of reporters without saying a word.

Steve and Marlene Aisenberg, who for nearly two years have been victims, got their first taste of life as criminal defendants. They each posted $25,000 in bail at a Maryland federal courthouse, submitted to urine tests and promised to appear at an arraignment in Tampa.

photo
Steve and Marlene Aisenberg leave court in Greenbelt, Md., Friday after posting bail. They are charged with conspiracy and lying to investigators about the disappearance of the daughter. [AP]

Both dressed in dark suits, they climbed into a waiting Toyota, and a relative drove them away.

As they left the courthouse, hand-in-hand, speculation already was turning to whether federal authorities hope ultimately to split them apart.

Prosecutors say that Steven
The charges

Here is a detailed explanation of the charges against against Steve and Marlene Aisenberg:

Steve Aisenberg is charged with four counts of making false statements, and Marlene Aisenberg with five counts of making false statements. Each count carries a maximum of five years in prison.

Steve and Marlene Aisenberg are both accused of falsely telling law enforcement the morning of Nov. 24, 1997, that they awoke and discovered Sabrina was gone and had been kidnapped by an unknown person.

Both are accused of falsely telling investigators that Marlene Aisenberg was so upset by the disappearance that she urinated on the floor.

Steve Aisenberg is charged with giving investigators a false written statement the day after the disappearance. The statement said the couple were awakened by a television alarm at 6:30 that morning, that Steve heard Marlene yelling Sabrina was gone, that Steve checked under the crib, and that Marlene urinated on herself as she called 911 to report the disappearance.

Both Steve and Marlene Aisenberg are charged with falsely telling investigators seven weeks after the disappearance that a videotape they had seen showed Sabrina alive at a Texas airport.

Marlene Aisenberg is charged with making false statements to investigators nine days after the disappearance, by giving them clothing she had claimed she was wearing the morning Sabrina disappeared. Marlene Aisenberg also is charged with falsely denying there was a bald spot on Sabrina's head, where hair had been removed the night before she disappeared.

Both Steve and Marlene Aisenberg are also charged with one count of conspiracy to make false statements, a separate charge with a five-year maximum penalty.

Listening devices placed in the couple's home by investigators recorded conversations that mentioned the death of Sabrina and a coverup. Those conversations are quoted in support of the conspiracy charge.

The conspiracy count also lists several acts intended to support the alleged coverup, including allegations that the Aisenbergs were unhelpful to investigators, lacked remorse about Sabrina's disappearance and passed off a picture of their daughter Monica as one of Sabrina.

"I have personal knowledge about a lot of those things being ridiculous," the Aisenbergs' attorney, Barry Cohen, said Friday. The Aisenbergs have not entered pleas to the charges, but Cohen has promised a vigorous defense.

Aisenberg was secretly recorded admitting he "harmed" the baby while high on cocaine and that Marlene Aisenberg spoke about helping to cover up the death of her child.

Although the couple was indicted on the less serious charges of making false statements, lawyers speculate the goal may be to turn wife against husband.

"I suspect that their ultimate plan is what it always is," said veteran attorney Rick Terrana of Tampa. "Charge them both and hope one flips against the other."

Five-month-old Sabrina, who disappeared from the Aisenbergs' home in November 1997, has never been found, despite an exhaustive search across the nation and into several countries.

The couple said that they thought someone crept into their home and kidnapped Sabrina and that she was still alive. They hit the national talk show circuit and appealed for her return.

Within days of her disappearance, the Aisenbergs hired prominent defense lawyer Barry Cohen, who aggressively protected them throughout a grand jury investigation and criticized authorities as short-sighted and heavy-handed.

Investigators, meanwhile, bugged the Aisenberg home and recorded their conversations.

The indictment Thursday surprised Cohen and the Aisenbergs, who moved to suburban Maryland earlier this year with their two other children.

Given the potentially damning statements the Aisenbergs are alleged to have made, speculation focused Friday on whether federal prosecutors are aiming to offer Marlene Aisenberg a deal to testify against her husband.

"They tried to do that on the first day they interviewed them, back at the Sheriff's Office," Cohen said. "That's not going to happen here. Not very likely, from what I know."

Even with the recorded conversations, which Cohen plans to attack in court, investigators are without a body. While some murder cases are tried without a body, those cases often include confessions, physical evidence or the testimony of witnesses.

In this case, some attorneys say, prosecutors may feel little reason to rush.

"There's no statute of limitations" for murder, said defense lawyer Paul Sisco, a former state prosecutor. "It may very well be that statements will come out in the next month or the next year that will give them a better case for a (murder-related) indictment before the clock starts ticking on speedy trial."

Dr. Michael Welner, an assistant professor at New York University's School of Medicine, said the indictment is probably a prelude for more serious charges.

"If the community's offended," Welner said, "it's one step closer to a more serious indictment."

Federal murder charges are usually related to drug or racketeering charges, so any homicide charge in this case would likely fall to state prosecutors.

Hillsborough State Attorney Harry Lee Coe declined to comment, but confirmed his office has an open file in the case.

Cohen said that if prosecutors had "any serious evidence," they would have charged the Aisenbergs with the baby's death. He continued to express "every confidence" in the Aisenbergs, and remained skeptical about the recorded conversations.

Outdoor Systems in conjunction with M/I Homes, a company Steve Aisenberg worked for, sponsored a billboard near Interstate 275 in Tampa about Sabrina's disappearance. [Times photo, 1997: Tony Lopez]

"All of what you saw in the indictment appears to be information that was gleaned very close to the day that Sabrina disappeared," said Jeffrey Wennar, Marlene Aisenberg's temporary court-appointed attorney in Maryland. "Am I surprised that it took two years? I'm not surprised by anything that the Department of Justice does."

Prosecutors say that Marlene Aisenberg told her husband:

"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."

They say Steve Aisenberg spoke of a plan to beat the charge and said he would never "break from the family pact."

"We will do what we have to do," he is quoted as saying.

"I wish I hadn't harmed her," he is quoted saying days later. "It was the cocaine."

Cohen said those words may have been taken out of context. ""I've seen so many transcripts of purported tapes, and I know when you see the transcript and you listen to the tape, many times there are things taken out of context or misinterpreted or things that have two meanings,'' Cohen said.

At Thursday's bail hearing, a federal prosecutor quoted Steve Aisenberg as admitting using cocaine. The prosecutor used that statement to convince the judge to have the Aisenbergs tested for drugs as part of the bond agreement. But the statement does not appear along with several others printed in the 27-page indictment

Cohen said he doubted the statement about cocaine was even on the tape. He said allegations that his clients used drugs were "nonsense."

The next step for the Aisenbergs is arraignment in Tampa. That hearing, which will probably take place within the next couple of weeks, is an opportunity for the defendant to enter a plea. "There will be some interesting motions," Cohen said, declining to elaborate.

-- Times staff writer Leanora Minai contributed to this report.

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