Missing girl's parents
go before grand jury
By MARTY ROSEN
©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
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
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,"
"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."
©Copyright 2006 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.