Missing Sabrina

Missing girl's parents
go before grand jury


©St. Petersburg Times, published February 12, 1998

TAMPA -- Despite tense last-minute attempts by their attorney to block their testimony, Marlene and Steve Aisenberg appeared briefly Wednesday before a federal grand jury looking into the disappearance of their infant daughter.

Tampa lawyer Barry Cohen declined to say whether his clients answered questions before the grand jury about circumstances surrounding Sabrina Aisenberg's disappearance 11 weeks ago. Both the Aisenbergs emerged from their separate trips into the grand jury chambers within 15 minutes.

"We're not going to discuss anything today about what happened today. The public has a right to know and they eventually will know," said Cohen, as he guided the Aisenbergs past a jostling media pack outside the courthouse.

The latest round of legal wranglings began Tuesday, when U.S. District Judge Henry Lee Adams Jr. denied an emergency motion filed by Cohen to postpone the Aisenbergs' testimony and ordered them to appear Wednesday. Cohen appeared shortly after 9 a.m. Wednesday with his clients, who wore buttons printed with the picture of a daughter who now would be almost 8 months old. Sabrina has been missing from her Bloomingdale home since Nov. 24.

Cohen handed two motions to the criminal court clerk. The first, a motion to postpone, was immediately sealed and removed from public view. Cohen asked the clerk to hand back a second motion, which he held up in view of several reporters who read the document over his shoulder. The motion to produce stated in part that "leaks should be punished by contempt" and was sealed after Cohen returned it to the clerk. A sealed civil complaint also was filed.

Cohen has been outraged by leaks to reporters about the investigation and grand jury proceedings, which he attributes to law enforcement officers out to frame his clients.

The latest filing set abuzz the group of reporters covering the story, which on Wednesday expanded to include a CNN correspondent. There were reports that those involved with the case were particularly unhappy with a story Tuesday night on WFLA-TV Ch. 8 about Adams' sealed order compelling the Aisenbergs to testify.

"Once we confirmed what we believed to be accurate information, we felt a responsibility to report it," said Dan Bradley, WFLA news director. "We're not in the business of withholding the news. We're in the business of reporting the news. That's what reporters do."

He said reporter Lance Williams was worried about reactions to his report of secret proceedings, but Bradley said the station has strong legal representation and continued to support aggressive reporting on the Aisenberg case.

The impasse between Cohen and his clients and the federal and state officials investigating the baby's mysterious disappearance has festered almost from the beginning days of the case. Cohen barred investigators from asking the Aisenbergs about their conduct on the night Sabrina vanished for fear the parents were subjects of an overzealous task force.

That impasse brought them on Feb. 4 to the doorstep of the federal grand jury, but Cohen still did not back down. He blocked testimony with a request to quash the Aisenbergs' subpoenas, a motion that delayed their testimony for one week.

Despite the order from Adams to appear, the Aisenbergs again refused Wednesday to go before the grand jury before their latest appeal was heard by the judge. Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Kuntz sent them to the judge's chambers Wednesday morning. "We're refusing to go in," Cohen told a clerk for Adams, referring to the grand jury room.

In a hearing initially open to the public, Kuntz and Cohen argued before Adams that the proceedings to determine whether the Aisenbergs would testify should be secret. Kuntz said confidential information not yet disclosed to the public would be brought out in the hearing, while Cohen argued that the Aisenbergs face "irreparable prejudice" before a grand jury.

"It seems anything that goes on in this case everyone knows anyway," said Adams.

"The court has issued a motion to appear. Counsel says they will not," Kuntz said. "I believe we're in a contempt situation."

Adams moved the hearing to his chambers and closed it from public view. The Aisenbergs emerged 40 minutes later and immediately reported to the grand jury waiting area. Mrs. Aisenberg was inside the grand jury chambers for 14 minutes, appearing before a panel of 12 women and seven men. She emerged alone, and her husband went inside for 15 minutes. Witnesses may not go before the grand jury with their attorney.

Tampa lawyer John Fitzgibbons, a former federal prosecutor, said he thinks the brief appearances indicate the Aisenbergs cited the Fifth Amendment, which protects citizens from incriminating themselves in a criminal case.

"There's nothing else they could do. Given the circumstances of this investigation, they would be very foolish to answer any questions in front of a grand jury," he said.

Fitzgibbons, who is not involved in the Aisenberg case, said prosecutors often spend several minutes with grand jury witnesses explaining their rights and the scope of an investigation.

He said no substantive questions could be answered in 15 minutes, nor would it be in the Aisenbergs' interest to speak.

"If a citizen has indeed committed a crime, the citizen would be very foolish to talk about circumstances," he said. And, he said, "There are times when innocent people are wrongly accused and wrongly focused on by law enforcement, and incidental statements can come back to them in a bad way."

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