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Public anguish was false front, indictment alleges

By JEFF TESTERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 11, 1999


TAMPA -- In scores of public statements and months of public appearances since their baby disappeared, Steve and Marlene Aisenberg steadfastly maintained their innocence.

But a federal indictment suggests that was merely a facade to hide their guilt.

What the Aisenbergs were saying publicly was far different from what they were saying in private, the indictment alleges.

The most damning evidence federal authorities revealed Thursday was a series of secretly recorded conversations suggesting the Aisenbergs schemed from the outset to get their alibis straight and point investigators in the wrong direction. But investigators were suspicious almost immediately.

On the evening of Nov. 24, 1997, for instance, just hours after Marlene Aisenberg reported her baby Sabrina had been kidnapped, the Aisenbergs gave a videotaped statement pleading for her safe return.

But in interviews with detectives the same day, the couple gave inconsistent statements about the events leading to Sabrina's disappearance, the indictment alleges. They first said they were awakened by a noisy fish tank. Later, Steve Aisenberg said his wife's screaming woke him, and Marlene said she had been awakened by a television alarm.

Marlene Aisenberg said the family dog, Brownie, was inside the house when she and her husband went to bed. She later said she got up in the middle of the night to let Brownie in after she heard the dog scratching at a door.

On Nov. 25, Marlene Aisenberg failed to produce a list the FBI had requested of people they thought might have been involved in the kidnapping. Instead, the indictment alleges, she continued to "socialize and watch television."

Three weeks after Sabrina disappeared, Marlene Aisenberg's friends described her as anguished, shut away for hours in her bedroom with her children and her prayers. But authorities say the couple were distancing themselves from investigators.

They "repeatedly retreated" to their bedroom and turned on the stereo so loudly that detectives awaiting a ransom call in the kitchen could not hear any conversation. Five days later, the Aisenbergs asked the FBI to leave.

On Dec. 23, the day after the couple took part in a candlelight vigil for Sabrina, they read a prepared statement at their lawyer's office, asking for the safe return of their baby.

The next day, investigators eavesdropping on the couple allegedly heard a startling conversation.

"The baby's dead and buried!" Marlene yelled to Steve, the indictment alleges. "It was found dead because you did it! The baby's dead no matter what you say -- you just did it."

"Honey," her husband allegedly replied, "there was nothing I could do about it. 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."

As the investigation stretched into 1998, the Aisenbergs decided to break their silence and embark on a media blitz.

On Jan. 9, the Aisenbergs granted an interview to the St. Petersburg Times. The next day they went to the Missing Children Help Center in Brandon. Two days later, the couple appeared with their attorney, Barry Cohen, on NBC's Today Show.

But agents were still secretly listening in on what the couple was saying privately.

The day they appeared on Today, Marlene privately discussed "a problem with the timeline" given to investigators, the indictment alleges. Marlene had said she went immediately to check on Sabrina, then the other children the day the baby disappeared. In another interview, she reversed it, saying she checked Sabrina's crib last. Marlene told Steven she worried she might be trouble, the indictment says.

On Jan. 21, Hillsborough sheriff's investigators showed the couple enlarged photographs of Sabrina taken from a videotape made two days before the child's disappearance. The photos showed apparent injuries to Sabrina's head and face.

Marlene ran from the room while Steve sat "'red-faced, and nervously rapped a writing instrument on the table," the indictment says.

Later that night, the couple was secretly taped talking about the pictures.

Marlene cursed, referring to the photos as "them f------ pictures, them f------ pictures." She told Steve they would have to get their attorney to explain the injuries.

Later, Steve said to Marlene, "I wish I hadn't harmed her." A prosecutor said in court Thursday that he added, "It was the cocaine."

The next day, the Sheriff's Office announced that the investigation continued to point to the Aisenbergs.

Still, the couple kept a high profile.

On Jan. 26, they opened an account at NationsBank for donations to help in the search for Sabrina. The next day, they flew to Texas to tape an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show. The couple said they knew nothing about what had happened to Sabrina.

But privately, the indictment says, they were still going over their story, especially now that they had been ordered to appear before a grand jury.

Steve worried about being overheard. On Jan. 31, the indictment alleges, he told his wife, "What we're gonna have to do is always turn on the radio if you presume they're listening."

On Feb. 17 authorities overheard the Aisenbergs discussing the grand jury, which they had appeared before six days earlier.

"'They don't know the truth, right?" Steve said to Marlene.

"Yeah," Marlene answered. "So, so in a way, you know, that means nobody knows what we did still."

"Exactly."

In March 1998, four months after Sabrina disappeared, the Aisenbergs went on ABC's 20/20. They marked their 11th wedding anniversary that month, which they had hoped would be a family celebration when Sabrina would be given her Hebrew name. The celebration was not to be.

The Aisenbergs also were busy keeping investigators off their trail, the indictment alleges.

During the first days of March, the indictments say, the couple "schemed about trying to wrongly blame a Michigan man" for Sabrina's disappearance.

Three months after they opened the bank account for Sabrina's return, authorities say, the couple began using the money to pay off their credit cards.

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