Living with doubt
Seven weeks after Sabrina Aisenberg disappeared, her family clings to the hope that she will return as they struggle under intense scrutiny.
By MARTY ROSEN
©St. Petersburg Times, published January 11, 1998
BRANDON -- There is a gaping hole in the Aisenberg family, something so terrible that it makes the other indignities seem insignificant.
Their baby is gone.
That single fact, that Sabrina Paige disappeared seven weeks ago, is worse than the suspicions of sheriff's detectives or the media circus in front of their driveway. It has turned the family inside out: Marlene Aisenberg sobs in the solitude of her baby's room, seeking her child's scent in the unwashed folds of a pink dress. Steve Aisenberg was afraid to let his daughter, Monica, 4, ride her pink bike in the driveway because a TV reporter was watching. William, 8, thinks about his missing sister all the time.
"Especially at night, because I think somebody's coming in," he said. "That's when I sort of forget the policeman's outside."
That comment, from a boy who has never known grief, made Marlene Aisenberg burst into tears Saturday as the family sat around their dining room table.
"Don't cry," William pleaded. He hates when his mom cries, and lately, it happens a lot. "When she cries, I start to cry, too. It just gets sad. I get a little scared."
In two interviews in recent days with the Times at their home, the Aisenbergs spoke publicly for the first time about their ordeal, the search for their missing daughter and the struggle to keep life normal for their two older children.
They are a family in turmoil, but they also have hope.
Sabrina's six Hanukkah gifts are stored in their blue and silver wrapping paper at the top of the couple's closet. Her crib is with the FBI, but her bedroom is a maze of shower gifts and toys: her favorite polka dot rattle, Mrs. Aisenberg's girlhood dresser sponge-painted with pastel ferns and animals, the Sesame Street pop-up game that would be just right for a baby nearing 7 months.
That realization is one of the small cruelties that drains the light from Mrs. Aisenberg's eyes. She runs from the room, hysterical. She curls up on the white leather sofa, surrounded by Barbie dolls and shag pillows, and sobs.
"She's got to come home. I don't know how to think any other way," she says. Her husband, a quiet, stoic man, stands alone in the baby's room for a full minute. He appears to be composing himself before he follows her into the living room to softly rub her leg and whisper in her ear.
"She'll be home. She'll be home."
The public has known the Aisenbergs only from news reports. A suburban couple, rushed from their home Nov. 24 to an unmarked red sheriff's car on the 6 o'clock news. A deputy muttered to them and they smiled. The reporters speculated wildly on air that Sabrina had been found. Later, news trucks followed them to the Sheriff's Office, where they could be seen in a wing generally reserved for polygraph examinations. They hired a criminal defense lawyer with a pitbull reputation. They declined all interviews. They lived for seven weeks behind yellow crime scene tape, appearing publicly to make one plea for their daughter's return.
Hillsborough sheriff's officials said they have neither identified nor eliminated any suspects in Sabrina's disappearance and are treating the case as a kidnapping.
Privately, many in the community have speculated on the couple's guilt, while reporters and police have cited statistical reports that lay blame for most kidnappings on a relative. Like Kremlinologists, they rewound tapes of a news conference in which the parents pleaded for the baby's return and counted Mrs. Aisenberg's tears. The National Enquirer sent the veteran reporter who scored the first interview with Patsy Ramsey.
"We know we had nothing to do with this, so I can't watch that and worry about what people think about us," Mrs. Aisenberg said. "All I care about is getting Sabrina back. I can't worry about what they're saying out there."
Still, they say they find themselves in uncharted territory, trying to give William and Monica back their childhood while they remain the subjects of intense scrutiny. The children wanted to see Flubber at a Brandon theater, but a TV reporter had followed them earlier that day. The Aisenbergs worried: What if the reporter followed them inside the theater and saw them laughing?
"The perception would be, "Oh, they're off having a great old time, and their baby's gone,' " Mrs. Aisenberg said. They didn't go.
They are trying to figure out how to carry on without their baby, but even simple routines have become difficult. Steve Aisenberg returned to his sales job Friday morning at M/I Homes and found himself daydreaming about Sabrina during a staff meeting. "What am I doing here when my daughter's missing?" he asked himself.
Mrs. Aisenberg returned last week to the play school classes she runs and struggled as young children asked why they saw her crying on the television news.
"Are you sad? Is Sabrina home yet?"
"No, Sabrina isn't home yet, but I'm so happy to be with you," she told them.
During the recent heavy rains, she lay in bed remembering how once she could sleep peacefully in a rainstorm. Being at peace without Sabrina brings on waves of guilt, she says, and now sleep does not come easily.
"I'm nowhere who I used to be, this positive, perky person. Because I feel like I've had my life sucked out of me," she said. "I constantly feel melancholy, sad. I sit there and drive, and I'm in a daze."
This wasn't supposed to happen in their orderly lives. Until Nov. 23, the last time they saw Sabrina, the Aisenbergs were a family who had defined the boundary of their lives and lived within it. He sold new homes for M/I Homes, she spent 10 hours a week running Playtime Pals, a program for toddlers and their mothers.
She calls herself a "hands-on mom," a mother who makes homemade milkshakes and plays Barbie with her daughter, who turned her living room into a playroom and who stays with her 8-year-old son at birthday parties. Until Sabrina vanished, she was always home when William came home from school. Now, she spends hours with lawyers and detectives.
Recently, she told a friend over the telephone that she needed to spend more time with the children, despite the other demands.
"William heard it and started crying," Mrs. Aisenberg said. "I said "Why are you crying?' " He said: "Because I'm so happy you're going to do stuff with us again."
Marlene Sadowsky and Steve Aisenberg met during their junior year at the University of Maryland, and he immediately liked the former high school cheerleader for her bubbly personality, her smile, her outgoing manner. She noticed him flirting with another classmate and spurned his attention. One year later, during a party at his fraternity house, they met again.
Marlene, flirting with him as she sat in a circle with her friends, tried on the gold ring that has been passed down through three generations of Aisenberg men. She studied the small diamond and the embossed W and A, for William Aisenberg and handed it back. Steve noticed the band was cracked.
"Now you have to go out with me to get it fixed," he teased.
They were married in Maryland, under a simple white chuppah, and she wore a formal white dress with a wide train. They agreed on the most important goals of their lives. She would have at least three children and raise them in an observant Jewish home. He would be the kind of dad to make every soccer practice.
They followed her parents and sister, Elaine, to Tampa, excited at the chance to buy the kind of big house they could never afford in Maryland. By now, William was a toddler and Monica was on the way.
Sabrina Paige, named in memory of her great-grandparents Sylvia and Paul, was planned to arrive exactly four years after Monica. Marlene's mother, Joan Sadowsky, took her on a $500 shopping spree for a bassinet, stroller and toys.
"Everything had to be new!" Mrs. Sadowsky said.
Neither parent wanted to know the unborn baby's gender, because it didn't matter, they said. The children took sibling classes at University Community Hospital, where William learned to change diapers. He rooted for a brother.
"William saw her, he said "Mommy, it's okay she's not a boy. She's beautiful,' " Mrs. Aisenberg said.
She had one tiny flaw, a birthmark below her right shoulder that looked like an inverted Y. FBI agents withheld that information, but the family decided to release it Saturday in the hope it could speed her return.
Sabrina was her parents' idea of a perfect baby, they say, happy, quiet and with the big, blue eyes they had hoped for in one of their children. She slept through the night at 4 months and was starting to crawl when she vanished.
They took the baby everywhere: Universal Studios, the Dollar Store, carnivals at neighborhood elementary schools, to Steve Aisenberg's office, to Playtime Pals, where she sat in a car seat while the older children sang. One of her Hanukkah gifts was the pistachio-colored frog from FAO Schwartz, which her mother adopted as her play school's mascot.
When mothers came up to admire Sabrina, Mrs. Aisenberg always said the same thing: "She's such a good baby."
Now, she wonders if that wasn't an added enticement for whoever stole Sabrina.
On their last night as a whole family, they watched The Santa Clause and a Hallmark movie. Sabrina went to sleep about 8:30 p.m. Brownie, their 2-year-old mutt, scampered silently around the family room, the ever-present rubber tug toy in her mouth. The air conditioning was on, so they closed the sliding glass door they usually keep open so the dog can run into the back yard.
"And we went to sleep just like always, regular. And started a new day just like always. Regular," Mrs. Aisenberg said.
Before 7 a.m., she crossed the family room to wake William, then Monica. Usually, she could hear silvery bells from Sabrina's far room. The baby played with three bright fabric blocks that jingled when she shook them. Sabrina cooed and gurgled to herself, always contented, always the last stop in the morning routine.
That morning, there was silence.
©Copyright 2006 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.