Missing Sabrina

Neighbors suffer with loss of baby


©St. Petersburg Times, published December 3, 1997

From the first, when Sabrina Aisenberg was little more than a mother's dearest wish, Judy Bailey was a part of her life story.

Marlene Aisenberg suspected she was pregnant with a much-wanted third child. It was her friend Judy who urged her to use the extra home pregnancy kit she had stowed in a cabinet. It was Judy who answered the door the next day to find a hopeful Marlene, waving a kit with the faintest pink line.

"I don't know, Mar, it looks pretty good to me," Bailey said.

Marlene Aisenberg was at the heart of a circle of seven young mothers, all of them raising families in a new neighborhood built from swamps and cow pastures, and her pregnancy was theirs to celebrate. The women jostled to give her a baby shower. They took turns helping Marlene run her play school and marveled at her energy weeks after Sabrina's June 27 birth as she sang and danced and tumbled on brightly colored mats with a jumble of 2-year-olds.

Baby Sabrina, watching the games from a car seat, was the other children's baby, too.

She vanished from her home Nov. 24, leaving Bailey and the other mothers struggling to explain to their children, and themselves, how a baby could disappear.

"They didn't just take a baby. They took the life out of the Aisenberg family and everyone who knew Steve and Marlene. There's a ripple. Basically, they have taken a baby from an entire community," Bailey said Tuesday.

She spoke in the hope that her message will reach whoever took 5-month-old Sabrina from her crib and that they will bring her home; that they will understand the damage they've done to the parents and their other children, William, 8, and Monica, 4.

"You can't imagine the pain she's in. I've seen her, and it's not the same Marlene," Bailey said. "I want them to know what they've done. It's damaged their lives forever. William and Monica's lives will not be the same. They're going to be afraid in their own home."

Life has been permanently changed on Colusa Way and Springville Drive and Warmspring Way, where the builders supplied alarm systems that many new homeowners, including the Aisenbergs, never bothered to connect. What could possibly happen in a neighborhood so secluded that even friends needed a road map to navigate the gently winding labyrinth of cul-de-sacs and dead-end streets?

The answer, as it turns out, is the unthinkable.

The kidnapping of Sabrina, taken from her crib while her parents slept, has shattered every sense of security, down to the littlest child, Bailey said. William Aisenberg worried that whoever stole his sister could come back and take him, too. Sabrina slept in his old room.

"I'm not going to let anything happen to you," his mother told him, then told her friend how she grappled with the horrible truth behind that promise.

Judy Bailey's daughter, Amy, played with Monica Aisenberg last week. She could hear them play a make-believe game of looking for a missing puppy. It became a game of looking for lost babies. Then they searched the Baileys' house for Sabrina.

Bailey met Marlene Aisenberg four years ago, when she was pushing her daughter's stroller. She had a vivid first impression of a bubbly, energetic woman with a tumble of soft brown curls. Marlene was waving a flier, announcing Playtime Pals. It was a play group for moms and toddlers, a natural venture for an early-childhood education major whose life revolved around children. Mrs. Aisenberg is a confident and loving parent, her friends said, a mom so devoted to the creativity of childhood that she let children play with magic markers inside her house.

"There's a way about her," Bailey said. "She's able to get kids involved and get them to feel good about themselves."

Dozens of friendships among the suburban mothers developed at the play school, including the bond between the women in Bailey's circle. They shared a ladies night out, when husbands stayed with the kids and mothers ate dinner out or shopped at the Brandon mall. They were in and out of each other's homes, none more than a few blocks apart. When Sabrina disappeared, Marlene called Judy after notifying the Sheriff's Office.

"Sabrina's gone. Someone took her from her crib," she said, as Judy struggled to comprehend. "I just had to call. I had to tell someone."

The pain only has been amplified by suggestions that the Aisenbergs were responsible for their child's abduction because they were caught smiling by television cameras. Sheriff's officials have since said they are treating the case as a kidnapping and don't consider the parents suspects.

Bailey, who spoke to the Times Tuesday on behalf of the women's group, said the Aisenbergs are loving parents. Steve Aisenberg, who sells new homes, insisted on spending time with the family when he was off work. No one knew of any enemies. No one could imagine that either parent could harm a child.

As she spoke, her telephone rang repeatedly with calls from other mothers, asking for news, looking for fliers to post, seeking support through a crisis that has no foreseeable conclusion. A sheriff's patrol car remains outside the Aisenberg home, and an FBI agent has been stationed inside around the clock. A plea from sheriff's investigators and Marlene's father on Larry King Live Monday brought in 23 leads, but none have produced results. Sheriff's Maj. Gary Terry was scheduled to appear on Dateline NBC Tuesday, and Lt. Greg Brown, the sheriff's spokesman, was interviewed by MSNBC and Inside Edition, as the story attracts more national interest.

Meanwhile, the friends take turns sitting with the family. Albertsons sent over a Thanksgiving dinner and has supplied daily meals. The toddlers at the play school have asked for Miss Marlene. "Where's baby?" they ask.

The adults grieve for the transformation in both Steve and Marlene Aisenberg.

"She's just a zombie, living moment to moment, waiting for the phone to ring," Bailey said. "I just want to take the pain away from her, and there's nothing I can do.

"All I can do is pray and look at every baby that passes by."

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