Missing Sabrina

Parents do not testify


©St. Petersburg Times, published February 5, 1998

TAMPA -- Marlene and Steve Aisenberg avoided testifying before a federal grand jury Wednesday as their attorney and criminal investigators traded accusations in a high-profile game of wills.

Barry Cohen, who has represented the couple since shortly after their infant daughter, Sabrina, disappeared, succeeded in blocking their grand jury appearance, at least temporarily.

He filed a motion to quash the Aisenbergs' subpoenas prior to reporting to the grand jury Wednesday morning. The document immediately was sealed by a federal clerk.

Looking tense and tired, the parents waited outside the grand jury room for two hours Wednesday while the lead FBI and Hillsborough sheriff's investigators each spent one hour inside the grand jury chambers.

Although the Aisenbergs were issued subpoenas to appear before the grand jury at 9:30 a.m., they did not testify. They were accompanied by their fathers, Stan Sadowsky and Irwin Aisenberg, a lawyer who clutched the novel Silent Witness.

Cohen and his clients abruptly left the federal courthouse after a clerk for U.S. Judge Henry Adams Jr. handed him an envelope. Cohen would not comment on television reports that Adams, who presides over the grand jury hearing the Aisenberg case, set a Feb. 11 hearing date to decide whether the couple must testify. Adams and his staff would not comment on the proceedings, which are kept secret by law.

Surrounded by reporters on the street, Cohen declined to discuss what had happened in federal court.

"Go back to your law enforcement leaks and let them tell you about it off the record," he said. Neither of the Aisenbergs spoke.

Sabrina, who now would be almost 8 months old, was reported missing from her crib Nov. 24.

From the Aisenbergs' first contact with sheriff's investigators, Cohen said the couple have been targeted as suspects in a case that has been riddled with leaks and has produced no evidence of wrongdoing.

Cohen refused to let investigators question the couple about their conduct since the disappearance unless they turned over notes and let him tape record the proceedings. Both sides reached an impasse.

That tension erupted Monday, as Cohen responded to the federal subpoenas with an offer to sheriff's Maj. Gary Terry and the U.S. Attorney's Office to interview the Aisenbergs freely. Cohen said he made the offer at the request of his clients, but both agencies rejected it.

"We felt the grand jury was the appropriate place for his clients to speak about the case," said sheriff's spokesman Lt. Greg Brown.

By Wednesday afternoon, in a news conference in his office, Cohen angrily withdrew the offer and said the rift between investigators and the Aisenbergs had widened.

"They're doing a half-assed job of trying to find Sabrina," said Cohen, who called on investigators to conduct psychological profiles of the more than 100 women who saw Sabrina at Mrs. Aisenberg's Playtime Pals play school. Waving a book, An Analysis of Infant Abductions, Cohen said investigators were ignorant of documents that could have aided their search for the baby.

He also railed against several leaks, including reports of a 10-year-old dispute between Steve Aisenberg and a female co-worker that much of the media ignored, and the report of a couple in a white van similar to the Aisenbergs' seen near the Alafia River, which prompted a search of the waters for Sabrina.

Cohen said detectives knew before leaking the information that the couple was not the Aisenbergs, yet the incident opened speculation that Aisenbergs were involved in a crime.

Cohen said investigators want to embarrass and discredit the Aisenbergs, who have two older children.

Brown said he doesn't think there is a problem with leaks and defended a joint investigation among his department, the FBI and Florida Department of Law Enforcement that spanned 31 states and included 1,600 interviews.

He considers it unlikely the investigators would meet Cohen's latest requirement that they show a good faith effort in their investigation before they can interview the Aisenbergs.

"Without opening your case to show what you've done, how do you prove that?" he asked.

Meanwhile, several unfounded rumors circulated Wednesday, including an inaccurate report that Sabrina had been discovered in South America.

The rumors prompted so much attention that sheriff's officials issued a news release denying them.

©Copyright 2006 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.