Bill Hewitt
March 12, 2001 12:00 PM

For more than three years they lived under the darkest cloud any parent could imagine, suspected of murdering their own child. There were times indeed when Steve and Marlene Aisenberg seemed destined never to erase the stain of presumed guilt. Then, in a stunning reversal, amid suggestions that the Aisenbergs had in effect been framed by police, federal prosecutors in Florida dropped all charges against Steve, 37, and Marlene, 38, in the disappearance of their 5-month-old daughter Sabrina. Yet it was hardly a moment to celebrate. “We always felt that the truth would come out, but it’s still a very hollow victory,” says Marlene. “It’s no victory at all until Sabrina’s home.”

Their ordeal began on the morning of Nov. 24, 1997. Sometime between midnight and 6:42 a.m., Sabrina disappeared from her crib in her family’s home in Valrico, Fla., a middle-class suburb just east of Tampa, where Steve worked in real estate and Marlene ran a business teaching parenting skills. Marlene made the discovery when she walked into the kitchen that morning and noticed the garage and a side door open. Within hours Hillsborough County sheriff’s deputies, along with the FBI and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, were combing the area with dogs and helicopters, and in the following days hundreds of volunteers joined the search, scouring Dump-sters, storm drains and local ponds.

From the start, though, police seemed inclined to view the Aisenbergs as prime suspects. The police immediately searched their two cars and closely questioned the couple, who insisted an intruder must have snatched their child. To some extent the scrutiny simply reflected accepted investigative procedures. In most cases, say experts, when a child disappears or is killed, a family member is ultimately found responsible. But in this case police appeared to view the Aisenbergs with particular skepticism, despite the fact that there had been recent reports of prowlers in their neighborhood. Weighing against the Aisenbergs was the fact that their dog Brownie had not barked during the night to warn of an intruder. “The police told me that very first day that they thought I had done it,” says Marlene, who tried to explain that Brownie rarely barked at strangers. “A policeman looked me right in the eye and said, ‘We think you know what happened.’ ”

To protect themselves the Aisenbergs hired high-profile Tampa defense attorney Barry Cohen, who advised them to stop cooperating with police unless he was present and the sessions could be tape-recorded. Hoping to build a case, police sought and were granted court permission to bug the Aisenbergs’ kitchen and bedroom. Detectives began eavesdropping on the couple roughly three weeks after Sabrina’s disappearance, and each time permission for the bugging was about to run out, investigators told the judge that their efforts were bearing fruit and should be continued. In all, they listened in for 79 days, compiling some 2,600 conversations on audiotapes. Meanwhile police were dropping broad hints in the press about their suspicions concerning the Aisenbergs. On local talk radio the couple were routinely branded as murderers.

In June 1999 the Aisenbergs moved to Bethesda, Md., where Steve grew up, hoping to escape the notoriety. But it wasn’t that easy. Their new neighbors wouldn’t let their kids play with the Aisenbergs’ two older children, William, now 11, and Monica, 7, and Steve, who had always coached William’s soccer team in Florida, got the cold shoulder from local league officials in Maryland. “They said I could come and stand on the sidelines and watch, as long as I didn’t speak,” he says. Marlene was unable to get a job working with children. “My career has been taken away,” she says. “The job I love and am good at I can’t do.” Friends in Bethesda, many of whom had known the couple for years, vouched for them—”It was enough that they told us, cried to us, that they didn’t do it,” says Lanny Plotkin, who works with Steve in his new job as a medical-services technician—but to little effect.

The standoff came to a head on Sept. 9, 1999. That day officers arrested and handcuffed Steve at work; when others came to the family home in Bethesda for Marlene, she tried to call her lawyer instead of letting them in right away, so they used a battering ram to knock down the front door and take her into custody. Back in Tampa, amid much fanfare, Charles Wilson, then the U.S. attorney, appeared at a news conference, complete with a TV-ready blowup image of the indictment, to trumpet the break in the case. Officially the Aisenbergs were charged only with lying to police about their involvement in the disappearance of Sabrina. But the indictment, which relied almost exclusively on the wiretaps, contained such supposedly explosive evidence that there seemed little doubt the couple had killed their daughter. A month after Sabrina vanished, for instance, Marlene was allegedly overheard telling her husband, “The baby’s dead no matter what you say—you just did it!” At another point, she was quoted as saying, “I hate you, I hate what you did to our tiny daughter.” At a bond hearing, assistant prosecutor Rachelle DesVaux Bedke claimed the tapes had even captured Steven talking about being high on cocaine the night Sabrina vanished.

Powerful stuff—except it wasn’t true. “When the Aisenbergs’ attorneys came to listen to the tapes, they found them to be of such poor quality as to be almost unintelligible. Last fall the judge in the case asked U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Pizzo to listen to the recordings. In a scalding 63-page opinion released Feb. 14, Pizzo agreed that the tapes were virtually worthless—a “canvas,” he said, “of nebulous conversations” that did not establish a case against the Aisenbergs. More damning, he all but accused the two lead detectives in the case, Linda Sue Burton, 49, and William Blake, 52, of manufacturing facts, calling their interpretation of conversations “pure fiction” and asserting that they had “deliberately misled” the judge. In one instance, said Pizzo, police quoted Marlene as saying, “What if they check the shed?” when a more plausible interpretation of the garbled remark was “What if you think they said?” Seven days later prosecutors had no choice but to drop all the charges.

But the case is far from over. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has appointed a special prosecutor to examine the actions of the sheriff’s detectives for possible misconduct. For the Aisenbergs, who still buy toys for Sabrina in hopes that she will be found alive, that is small consolation. The anguish they feel for their lost child is undiminished. “I dream of our life the way it was with all three children in our house,” says Steve. “And then I wake up and wish I didn’t have to.”

Bill Hewitt

Gail Cameron Wescott and Linda Trischitta in Tampa and J. Todd Foster in Bethesda

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