Missing Sabrina

A new lead in search for Sabrina?


©St. Petersburg Times, published February 26, 1998

BRANDON -- Immediately after 5-month-old Sabrina Aisenberg was reported missing, a Brandon nanny said she called sheriff's detectives twice to describe three strangers who had loitered for months in a parking lot near a play school run by the infant's mother.

Cindy McGee noticed the dark orange color of the 1970s model Ford pickup. She noted the blue Michigan tag with the numbers 8 and 6, the same as hers. She even could describe the strangers and their habit of showing up about 4 p.m., when Marlene Aisenberg was running her Playtime Pals business with Sabrina at her side.

But Mrs. McGee said Wednesday that Hillsborough County sheriff's detectives never returned either of the calls she made after Sabrina was reported missing Nov. 24.

Neither did they interview her after Mrs. Aisenberg supplied detectives Nov. 24 with a list of nannies, including Mrs. McGee, who brought children to her program. Fourteen days after Sabrina vanished, Mrs. Aisenberg gave detectives a powder-blue cigar box containing the names of her clients, including Mrs. McGee. She said she later was told each one had been contacted.

Mrs. Aisenberg ran into Mrs. McGee on Feb. 19 and heard for the first time about the truck, the strangers and suspicions so powerful that Mrs. McGee said she shared her concerns with a teacher at an adjacent child-care program two weeks before Sabrina's disappearance.

"I'm sitting there saying "You've got to be kidding me.' I was hysterical," Mrs. Aisenberg said Wednesday. She also learned that Mrs. McGee never had been questioned. "On the second day they told me they talked to her. Then to find out she had never been talked to."

Sheriff's Lt. Greg Brown said he would not discuss any of the more than 1,700 interviews conducted, but said anyone with information who has not been contacted should call the sheriff's office again.

"It's possible that one or two of them we missed," Brown said. "We received information early on in the investigation about a red truck, and no red trucks have ever been linked to this case. In fact, we've cleared eight to 10 of them."

Marlene and Steve Aisenberg said they fear detectives might have missed an early opportunity to locate Sabrina, but also view the new information with hope their daughter might be located.

Barry Cohen, the Aisenbergs' attorney, said he is convinced detectives are so sure the parents are responsible for Sabrina's disappearance that they have failed to consider leads that would point the investigation away from them.

"It's appalling," Cohen said. "It's incredible to me." Mrs. McGee said she first noticed the dark orange truck the day after seeing a copy of the Brandon News featuring a picture of a pregnant Marlene, and a story about her baby shower, Sabrina's birth on June 27 and her connection to Playtime Pals. The truck reappeared sporadically, always parked near a playground fence within several hundred yards of Mrs. Aisenberg's business, Mrs. McGee said. It was a battered truck, and the engine roared, as if the muffler was missing.

Two men and a woman usually perched on the tailgate or watched children in the playground. One was a thin woman in her mid-20s with a blond ponytail, Mrs. McGee said. The younger man had shoulder-length blond hair, wore dusty blue jeans and carried a red bandanna in his back pocket. The older man was chunky, dressed like a construction worker, and wore a red baseball cap backward.

She last saw them Nov. 21, about two days before Sabrina vanished.

She suspected them immediately when she heard the news. "Absolutely," she said. "I would be willing to bet my life on it."

The next morning, neighbor Chuck Jones said he noticed a dark red pickup truck in the cul-de-sac in front of the Aisenbergs' home. An artist hired by the Times and WTVT-Ch. 13 drew a rendering of the truck Mrs. McGee described. It was shown to Jones on Wednesday, who said it appeared to be a different color and older than the truck he saw.

About 3:30 a.m. Nov. 24, neighbor Mari Ray heard a vehicle driving so fast she looked onto Warm Spring Way, around the corner from the Aisenbergs, but could make out only brake lights. She went back to bed and heard a second vehicle in the cul-de-sac. Then a third.

"The last one, I'm literally falling asleep. I'm thinking it was some semi. It was very loud," she said.

She never told detectives about the third vehicle because she assumed it was a commercial truck.

Marlene and Steve Aisenberg also were shown the drawing Wednesday, but Mrs. Aisenberg said she never noticed the truck near her business. Steve Aisenberg, who sells new homes, said it appeared to be similar to a truck driven by a former customer, who backed out of a real estate deal and lost a $500 deposit. He said the younger man in the picture looked like his former customer.

The Aisenbergs have gone to the sheriff's office in recent days to look at surveillance videos of suspects, and to discuss other leads. On the advice of their attorney, they have refused to discuss their conduct with detectives. The case has been turned over to a federal grand jury.

Ginny Westburg, a close friend who helped Mrs. Aisenberg run the play school program, appeared for 10 minutes Wednesday before the federal grand jury. She appeared shaken afterward and would not discuss her testimony.

It was Westburg who told Cindy McGee to call the sheriff's office on Nov. 25 after hearing about the suspicious truck.

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