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Aisenbergs' attorney takes issue with investigators


©St. Petersburg Times, published February 27, 1998

BRANDON -- State investigators questioned Marlene and Steve Aisenberg about a child abuse complaint the night before the couple appeared before a federal grand jury looking into the disappearance of their infant daughter, Sabrina.

The Aisenbergs'attorney denounced the move as intimidation.

The questioning occurred Feb. 3 after a Hillsborough County sheriff's detective in terviewed friends and family of the Aisenbergs.

Brandishing photographs of Sabrina, Detective Linda Burton asked at least two people to point to bruises on the baby. When they said they saw no evidence of abuse, Burton told them Mrs. Aisenberg had named them as potential suspects, said two of the people who were interviewed.

Barry Cohen, the Aisenbergs' attorney, claimed the visit by Department of Children and Families caseworkers was timed to harass his clients and follows a pattern of abuse by government investigators intent on framing the Aisenbergs.

"One would have to be a complete moron to believe that was a coincidence," Cohen said. "The point of doing it was to intimidate them, to suggest to them that this agency may very well take (their older children) away from them."

DCF spokesman Tom Jones declined comment.

Sheriff's Lt. Greg Brown would not comment on the DCF involvement with the Aisenbergs and defended the work of sheriff's investigators.

In an interview with the Times, Marlene and Steve Aisenberg said they invited the caseworkers into their home, answered questions and offered to leave them alone with their older children for more questioning.

"They asked me, like, when you get punished do your parents spank you or stuff like that," said their son William, 8. "I said no. They send us to our room for five or 10 minutes."

He said the caseworkers also asked him about household rules, and William told them he is expected to finish his dinner before he eats dessert, and he must save $2 of his allowance.

"They knew they had nothing to be concerned about," Cohen said. "The fact is, they're unbelievably good parents."

Sabrina vanished from her crib in the Aisenbergs' Brandon home Nov. 24, and hours later Mrs. Aisenberg said she began supplying detectives with requested lists of people who had been around the baby. Some were childless women, some were nannies, some had appeared jealous or exhibited behavior before Sabrina disappeared that detectives considered worthy of further investigation. Others had attended a birthday party for the Aisenbergs' nephew the day before the baby vanished. Cohen said they included Marlene's cousin, Wendy Witlow, and a friend, Cheryl Cohen.

Witlow, 27, said she was upset by a message Burton left on her answering machine shortly after an interview in which Burton showed her a picture of Sabrina and asked her to pick out markings. Witlow told Burton she did not see any bruises on the baby.

"I just need to know what you were doing on Sunday after the birthday party ... You have been listed as an alleged suspect by the Aisenbergs. I need to clear you as a suspect," Burton said on the tape.

Cohen said the message was "calculated to get her angry at the Aisenbergs, to get her to say something against the Aisenbergs."

Brown said detectives sometimes inform people that the subject of an investigation has named them as possible suspects to get them to talk. "That's a very common procedure because then people tend to talk even more," Brown said.

Mrs. Aisenberg's father, Stan Sadowsky, said Burton showed him a 12- by 16-inch photograph of Sabrina, pointed to her eye area and suggested she had an injury.

"This is part of their desperation, and they are desperate," Sadowsky said. "Boy, they got a rise out of me. I said, "You come in my house, you show me a picture, you say she's been abused.' "

Cheryl Cohen, no relation to the Aisenbergs' attorney, said she was given a polygraph examination and told it was done at Barry Cohen's request. Barry Cohen said he did include her name on the list of friends to be questioned but attacked sheriff's investigators' decision to lay blame for the test on him.

"I did nothing, I know nothing. The only thing they were trying to do was play me against Marlene," Cheryl Cohen said.

Also on Thursday, sheriff's detectives interviewed a Brandon nanny who tried to tell them immediately after Sabrina's disappearance about a suspicious 1970s model dark orange Ford truck that had been loitering for months near Mrs. Aisenberg's playschool business. Detectives responded after the Times and WTVT-TV Ch. 13 reported that Cindy McGee never was questioned about her suspicions.

McGee said detectives asked her to take a polygraph test and called her employers, who entrust the Brandon woman with their children.

"They never got the message that I called either time," McGee said. "They said maybe it got lost in the shuffle."

Meanwhile, Susana Blake, the owner of Children's Academy, the Brandon preschool that rented space to Mrs. Aisenberg, said Thursday she never saw an orange truck near her preschool and neither did her employees. McGee said she reported the truck to a teacher but doubted the message was relayed because the teacher was busy with four small children at the time.

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