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Missing Sabrina St. Petersburg Times

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Aisenberg failed polygraph, records say

Post  milly on Thu 13 Oct - 0:50





By Times staff writers

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 3, 2000

TAMPA -- Marlene Aisenberg failed a polygraph test given by sheriff's investigators the day after she reported her 5-month-old daughter missing in 1997, according to papers prosecutors filed in federal court Tuesday.

The court filing contradicts public claims Aisenberg made about her test results shortly after Sabrina's disappearance.

Confirmation of the failed polygraph, which was reported by several television stations two years ago, was contained in a blistering denial by prosecutors that they had committed misconduct in obtaining an indictment of Aisenberg and her husband, Steven.

The couple is awaiting trial on charges they lied about the disappearance of their daughter, Sabrina, who has never been found.

The Aisenbergs say an intruder took the child from their Brandon home in the middle of the night. Prosecutors think the Aisenbergs know what happened to the child.

In a lengthy and detailed response, prosecutors rejected defense attorneys' claims that they manipulated the grand jury and leaked information.
$700 reward offered in dead cat inquiry

ST. PETERSBURG -- The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is offering a $700 reward for information leading to the arrest of whoever killed a pregnant cat and her six kittens.

The money for the reward was donated by two Tampa Bay area residents.

"I hate to see animals and children hurt," said St. Petersburg resident John Grim, who donated $500 of the reward.

The mother cat was cut open, and some of her kittens were strewn on the front doormat of St. Anthony's Friary early Sunday in St. Petersburg. Police have no suspects.

Anyone with information is asked to call police at (727) 893-7780.
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Prosecutors defend monitoring Aisenbergs

Post  milly on Thu 13 Oct - 0:50



By LARRY DOUGHERTY

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 4, 2000

TAMPA -- Investigators followed the law in secretly recording the conversations of Steven and Marlene Aisenberg, and tapes of those conversations should not be thrown out as evidence, federal prosecutors argued in court papers filed Wednesday.

Prosecutors wrote that they found a probable basis to believe that the Aisenbergs were criminally involved in the disappearance of their 5-month-old daughter, Sabrina, based on misstatements they made to investigators.

The prosecutors also repeated accusations that the Aisenbergs' defense attorneys engaged in a campaign of distorting evidence to publicize their view that an intruder took Sabrina.

The girl has not been found. Her parents are awaiting trial on federal charges of lying about her disappearance.

In a 98-page filing, prosecutors detailed their legal justifications for tiny microphones placed in the kitchen and bedroom of the Aisenbergs' former Brandon residence.

They claimed investigators followed proper procedures in monitoring conversations and reporting the results back to Chief Hillsborough Judge F. Dennis Alvarez, who approved the eavesdropping.

The papers also disclosed that investigators chose not to monitor the microphone in the Aisenbergs' bedroom between midnight and 7 a.m. to protect "non-pertinent or legitimate marital conversations."

-- Larry Dougherty can be
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Expert declares Aisenberg evidence inaudible

Post  milly on Thu 13 Oct - 0:51



Damaging statements on tapes made of Steven and Marlene Aisenberg can't be heard, he says.

By LARRY DOUGHERTY

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 16, 2000

TAMPA -- A prominent audiotape expert hired by defense lawyers for Steven and Marlene Aisenberg says he cannot hear many of the explosive comments attributed to the couple by federal prosecutors investigating the disappearance of their daughter Sabrina.

Former FBI agent Bruce Koenig, who analyzed the Linda Tripp tapes for Ken Starr, said in an affidavit filed Monday that key portions of the Aisenberg tapes secretly made by investigators are unintelligible.

Among the statements Koenig stated he couldn't hear on the tapes were Steven Aisenberg saying "I wish I hadn't harmed her," "It was the cocaine," and "We need to discuss the way that we can beat the charge." Prosecutors attributed all those comments to Steven Aisenberg when they unsealed charges against the couple last year.

Koenig also stated he couldn't hear Marlene Aisenberg telling her husband that "The baby's dead and buried! It was found dead because you did it!" and "I just can't take the rap for this."

The Aisenbergs' lawyers, Barry Cohen and Todd Foster, filed the affidavit as part of a motion claiming prosecutorial misconduct and a motion for an audibility hearing.

The lawyers want to argue directly to the judge that the tapes are too unintelligible to be presented to a jury and should therefore be thrown out of court. The tapes apparently are the heart of the government's case, because Sabrina was never found.

Defense attorneys and the expert declined comment through a spokesman Monday. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office also declined comment, saying prosecutors hadn't received the affidavit yet.

Koenig's affidavit does not address all the damaging comments the indictment says the Aisenbergs made. It doesn't address Marlene Aisenberg saying she doesn't like lying to her father about Sabrina's disappearance. It doesn't address her comment about "them f------ pictures, them f------ pictures in that from video Sabrina," apparently in reference to alleged injuries that investigators said were captured on film.

The Aisenbergs are awaiting trial on charges of lying about the disappearance of their 5-month-old daughter in 1997. They said Sabrina was kidnapped. They appeared on national television shows to repeat claims they were innocent of any wrongdoing.

Investigators took a different view, first searching ponds around the former Brandon house for Sabrina's body, then hiding listening devices in the couple's kitchen and bedroom. They suspected the couple of murder, but said they lacked the evidence to file charges stronger than lying.

Trial had been scheduled for July. But defense attorneys are seeking more time.

Former prosecutors now in defense practice in Tampa said the findings by Koenig could spell trouble for the prosecution's case.

"He is probably No. 1 in the world -- he is the man to see with regard to tape authentication," said Ed Page, a former member of Ken Starr's team who worked with Koenig on the Linda Tripp tapes, as well as tapes offered in evidence against HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros. Koenig has analyzed tapes from the investigation into the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

"He is not some Joe off the street saying he can't hear it," Page said. "That's a really big problem."

Page estimated that prosecutors paid Koenig $150 to $200 an hour for his work as a private consultant on the Tripp tapes. Koenig's Aisenberg affidavit states he spent about 30 hours preparing and listening to tapes from the case.

Former prosecutor John Fitzgibbons said: "It's getting to be an interesting game of chicken here. Somebody is just dead wrong."

"Whoever is wrong will have catastrophic consequences for their case," Fitzgibbons said. "Their credibility will be shot."

- Larry Dougherty can be reached at (813) 226-3337 or dougherty@sptimes.com
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Bid to punish Aisenbergs' counsel denied

Post  milly on Thu 13 Oct - 0:51



Prosecutors sought to punish the Aisenbergs' attorneys for giving interviews to the media.

By LARRY DOUGHERTY

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 24, 2000

TAMPA -- A federal judge decided Tuesday not to grant a request by prosecutors to punish Steven and Marlene Aisenberg's defense attorneys for talking to the media.

But the judge did warn lawyers on both sides to heed the local rules limiting such statements.

"There are things in this case that stand out as provocations on both sides," said U.S. District Judge Steven D. Merryday. "I caution you all."

Merryday cited the prosecution's filing of an unusually detailed 27-page indictment against the Aisenbergs, who stand accused of lying about the disappearance of their 5-month-old daughter, Sabrina, in 1997.

Sabrina has never been found. The Aisenbergs say she was kidnapped by someone who crept into their Brandon home at night. Investigators think the couple killed the child, but they have not gathered enough evidence to bring a murder charge.

Merryday did not rule directly on the interviews that touched off the prosecutors' request that he punish the defense attorneys and issue a gag order.

Lead defense attorney Barry Cohen gave the interviews to WFLA-AM 970 radio, to the Today show and to the St. Petersburg Times. The judge asked about an exception to the rule that prosecutors have cited as allowing them to hold a news conference when they announce an indictment. Attorneys for the Tampa Tribune argued against the imposition of a gag order on any party in the trial. Merryday declined to enter a gag order Tuesday.

Also on Tuesday, Merryday discussed how he might listen to the government's secretly recorded tapes of the Aisenbergs talking in their kitchen and bedroom to ascertain whether they are of sufficient quality to play for the jury.

Defense attorneys have been arguing for months that the tapes are not intelligible. They recently introduced the affidavit of an audiotape expert who said many of the supposedly damning passages in the tapes are unintelligible. Defense attorneys want the judge to listen to the tapes in a public hearing.

Prosecutors maintain the tapes are of adequate quality for the jury to hear them. The prosecutors want the judge to listen to them in secret rather than in a public courtroom, claiming they are sensitive evidence that should not be disclosed before trial.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys declined to comment after Tuesday's hearing.
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Aisenberg tapes may be played

Post  milly on Thu 13 Oct - 0:51



The taped conversations of the couple, parents of a missing baby, are at the center of the federal case.

By JEFF TESTERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 29, 2000

TAMPA -- Ten weeks ago, U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday decided he wanted to listen privately to taped conversations of Steve and Marlene Aisenberg, tapes which federal prosecutors say are proof that the couple lied about the disappearance of their baby girl, Sabrina.

The Aisenbergs' attorney, Barry Cohen, says the tapes are of such poor quality that they are unintelligible.

In a hearing Thursday, Cohen said the tapes, 63 conversations which have now been copied on to 30 compact discs, are too untrustworthy and too unreliable to be permitted as evidence in the case.

Having reviewed all 30 CDs, Merryday provided no clue about his own opinion as to the audibility, and admissibility, of the recordings. Instead, he suggested he will order a new hearing at which every CD can be considered after being played in court.

"I'm certainly considering having a hearing on this matter," Merryday said. "It would be best to play them one at a time and make a ruling on each one."

The tapes, recorded with secret listening devices placed with a court order, were made at the Aisenbergs' Brandon home in the days following Nov. 24, 1997, when the couple reported that 5-month-old Sabrina had been abducted. The bugging was done after investigators failed to find forensic evidence pointing to an intruder and after suspicions arose that Marlene Aisenberg had been untruthful about the infant's disappearance.

Despite a massive search for Sabrina and numerous televised pleas by the Aisenbergs for her safe return, the child has never been located.

Twenty-two months after Marlene Aisenberg dialed 911 to report her baby missing, a federal grand jury indicted the Aisenbergs on charges of conspiracy and making false statements to investigators.

The Aisenbergs have pleaded not guilty to all charges, are free on bail and have moved from Hillsborough County to Bethesda, Md. If convicted, they each face as much as 25 years in prison.

The damning evidence against the couple, prosecutors said, is contained in the secret tapes.

According to government transcripts, Marlene Aisenberg at one point tells her husband, "The baby's dead and buried! It was found dead because you did it!"

Steve Aisenberg replies, "We need to discuss the way that we can beat the charge," and later says, "I wish I hadn't harmed her. It was the cocaine," according to the transcripts.

Thursday, Cohen reiterated his contention that the transcripts should never be given to a jury because the tapes upon which they are based are mostly inaudible.

Cohen also renewed his request to admit testimony from former FBI Agent Bruce Koenig, an expert in audio authenticity who analyzed the Linda Tripp tapes for Special Prosecutor Ken Starr, as well as tapes from the investigation into the John F. Kennedy assassination.

Koenig says in his affidavit that he cannot hear Marlene Aisenberg on tape saying the baby is "dead and buried" or that her husband did it. Nor can he hear Steven Aisenberg talking about cocaine or trying to "beat the charge."

If Merryday does decide to play the Aisenberg CDs in court, there is no assurance the public will learn once and for all what is on the recordings.

Government prosecutors said Thursday that the media should be barred from hearing the CDs, since anything subsequently ruled inadmissible might prove prejudicial to the Aisenbergs.

"We want to make sure we don't run afoul of the defendants' rights," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Rachelle Devaux-Bedke. If inadmissible information is made public, "the defense could say "our clients have been irreparably harmed by this.' "

An indignant Cohen arose to say he welcomed the media listening to the CDs and reporting fully on the recordings.
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Judge will weigh legality of recording Aisenbergs

Post  milly on Thu 13 Oct - 0:52



By JEFF TESTERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 30, 2000

TAMPA -- A federal judge said Friday he wants a special hearing to determine whether the government misrepresented the facts or acted recklessly in its handling of the electronic surveillance leading to the indictment of Steve and Marlene Aisenberg.

At issue are 200 taped conversations of the Aisenbergs made secretly at their Brandon home by Hillsborough sheriff's investigators who thought the couple were less than truthful about the disappearance of their 5-month-old daughter, Sabrina.

In a 116-page motion, attorneys for the Aisenbergs have asked that the tapes be suppressed, arguing that misrepresentations and omissions of facts were used to apply for permission to place the devices necessary to obtain the tapes.

Without the tapes, defense attorneys say, the case against the Aisenbergs will collapse.

In a three-hour hearing Friday, defense attorney Todd Foster said the applications for bugging in the Aisenberg case met neither the law nor the intent of Congress regarding electronic surveillance.

"What we have here is 81 days of oral intercepts in the marital bedroom of this couple," said Foster. "I haven't seen anything like it. The invasiveness here is just what Congress was concerned about when it passed these laws."

Sabrina was reported missing by Marlene Aisenberg on Nov. 24, 1997 and hasn't been seen since.

Suspicious of conflicting stories by the Aisenbergs, investigators sought authorization from Chief Circuit Judge Dennis Alvarez on Dec. 12, 1997, and began electronic eavesdropping. Later, two more such applications were made.

On Sept. 9, 1999, a federal grand jury indicted the Aisenbergs on charges of conspiracy and making false statements to investigators. The couple have denied any involvement in their daughter's disappearance.

The quality of the incriminating tapes was challenged in a hearing Thursday before U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday. Defense attorney Barry Cohen said the tapes mostly are unintelligible and should be thrown out, along with the indictments of his clients.

Merryday said he wanted to schedule a hearing to determine the audibility of the tapes. The judge also ordered a sealed transcript of the proceedings of the grand jury that indicted the Aisenbergs.

On Friday, Foster attacked the government's transcription and interpretation of the tapes, saying "inflammatory statements were spun completely from air."

In a section of one of the later applications for surveillance, Foster pointed out, investigators described surveillance in which the Aisenbergs talked of their baby being dead. But a log made by the deputy listening said most of the conversation "was distorted by noise."

In another section of a later eavesdropping application, Marlene Aisenberg is described as mentioning a kidnapping and saying to Steve, "I hate what you did to our little daughter." But the listening log says nothing of this conversation, and an expert hired by the defense said that portion of this particular tape is unintelligible.

Foster even said that a family videotape of Sabrina had been manipulated by the government to suggest abuse at the hands of her parents. One frame of the videotape shows a shadow on Sabrina's face that investigators said was evidence of bruising, but other frames do not show the shadow, and a family babysitter said she knew nothing of bruising, Foster said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Kunz denied that any exculpatory material was withheld in the eavesdropping applications, and said the probable cause for later surveillance was derived not from an isolated conversation or two but from "the larger context" of the findings.
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House searched for baby's body

Post  milly on Thu 13 Oct - 0:52



As investigators look for the remains of Sabrina Aisenberg, a hearing on tapes of her parents is postponed.

By CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 19, 2000

Previous coverage
TAMPA -- As federal prosecutors fought in court Wednesday to keep their case against Steven and Marlene Aisenberg from unraveling, detectives searched a Pasco County home for the remains of the couple's missing daughter.

The search at 1534 White Hawk Trail in Lutz is the latest attempt to find 5-month-old Sabrina, whose parents reported her missing from their Brandon home in November 1997. Police did not report what, if anything, they found Wednesday.

From the Aisenbergs' current home in Maryland, Steven Aisenberg told a reporter that he was outraged by the search.

"All they've done is look for a body," Aisenberg said. "They've never looked for our daughter Sabrina."

As police dogs sniffed the property and detectives removed soil samples from beneath the home's foundation, federal prosecutors were asking a judge for more time to prepare for a hearing on whether the government's key evidence, dozens of secretly recorded conversations, are intelligible.

U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday agreed to postpone the hearing, originally scheduled to begin Monday, for 30 days.

The Aisenbergs, who have denied any involvement in their daughter's disappearance, are charged with conspiracy and making false statements to investigators.

Investigators bugged their home in the days after the baby was reported missing and claim to have recorded the couple talking about the child's death.

But the tapes have come under serious attack, as has the conduct of the detectives handling the case. An audio expert hired by the defense says he can't hear those statements.

On Monday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Pizzo ordered an evidentiary hearing to determine whether, as the defense claims, Hillsborough detectives lied or misrepresented facts to a circuit judge in their application for two wiretap extensions in early 1998.

"I think Magistrate Pizzo has stated unequivocally that he is bothered to the point that he wants a full-blown evidentiary hearing," said Stephen Crawford, a defense attorney and former federal prosecutor who is not involved in the case. He noted that such hearings are extremely rare.

Pizzo ruled the Aisenbergs' lawyers have made "a substantial preliminary showing" that Hillsborough detectives Linda Burton and William Blake had distorted conversations, omitted evidence and falsely claimed particular words were on the tapes.

The judge cited 13 examples. For instance, in the detectives' first request to extend the wiretap, on Jan. 9, 1998, they cited a doctor's opinion that photographs developed from a home video showed bruises around the baby's eye, mouth, and scalp, as well as hair that had been pulled out. Detectives also said a hairstylist, who saw the baby just before her disappearance, had noticed hair missing from her head.

But detectives were fully aware, defense attorneys argue, that on the day the video was taken several witnesses who saw Sabrina up-close noticed no bruises at all. The hairstylist, too, has sworn she saw no injuries on Sabrina.

Furthermore, the defense argued, detectives concealed a videotape that showed Marlene Aisenberg passing the baby to friends at a party, evidence that she wasn't attempting to hide the girl.

Faced with these discrepancies, the judge wrote, the detectives appeared to have omitted important evidence that contradicted their claims.

Crawford, the former federal prosecutor, said Pizzo's ruling was a boon for the defense for more reasons than one. In federal court, the defense is entitled to see only a fraction of the prosecution's case before trial. At the evidentiary hearing, the government might be forced to tip its hand.

If the court decides to throw out the tapes, it would likely cripple the government's case against the Aisenbergs.

Against that backdrop, detectives searched the home in Lutz.

Pasco County records show that the house on White Hawk Trail was sold to Jaya Anand Udhwani and Anand Hiranand Udhwani in May 1999 for $185,000 by M/I Schottenstein homes, the company that employed Steven Aisenberg. The slab was poured in November or December 1997. Sabrina Aisenberg was reported missing on Nov. 24, 1997.

After Sabrina's disappearance, investigators tested the concrete slabs of several houses built by M/I Schottenstein in search of the girl's body.

Suzanne Nicholls, who lives near the home on White Hawk in Lutz, said investigators had been at the house all week, leading a German shepherd around the property on Tuesday. On Wednesday, she said, a team of workers with drilling equipment showed up.

George and Amy Edkins, who also live in the neighborhood, arrived home from work about 5:30 p.m. to see a news helicopter circling. They bought their home in 1998, and knew it was built about the same time as the one being searched this week. They knew of the possible connection to Steven Aisenberg. "We've always sort of joked about it," Mrs. Edkins said. "You know, that maybe our home was where the baby was."

At Wednesday's hearing, federal prosecutors said they needed more time to find an audio expert to rebut an expert hired by Aisenberg defense attorneys Barry Cohen and Todd Foster.

The defense team retained former FBI agent Bruce Koenig, who analyzed the Linda Tripp tapes for special prosecutor Ken Starr, to review the Aisenberg recordings.

Cohen said Wednesday that Koenig says "there is no voice to hear" on some of the tapes. Cohen also said he was "puzzled" by prosecutors suddenly needing more time to get their own expert when they have known for 18 months Koenig was a potential expert witness for the Aisenbergs.

Merryday also granted the government request for 10 days to respond to a motion filed by the Tampa Tribune, WFLA-Ch 8 and and WTVT-Ch. 13 to obtain copies of the Aisenberg tapes.

Prosecutors said they want time to research the issue. Cohen said he wants to join the motion allowing unfettered access to the tapes.

Because of transcripted conversations released when the Aisenbergs were indicted, Cohen said, "People in this area believe my clients have done what the government said they did. I want the public to hear these tapes as soon as possible."

Also on Wednesday, Cohen filed a new exhibit buttressing his contention that many of the tapes are inaudible and ought to be suppressed. The exhibit is an affidavit of official federal court reporter Cheryl E. Warren.

Warren says many of the tapes are of such poor quality that they could not be transcribed.
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Secrecy, search for baby continue

Post  milly on Thu 13 Oct - 0:53



With a mixture of curiosity and dread, neighbors watch as authorities continue to look for Sabrina Aisenberg.

By RYAN DAVIS

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 20, 2000

LAND O'LAKES -- Pete Berberich first saw a group of white cars, vans and sport utility vehicles three days ago. He figured his next-door neighbors were having a garage sale.

photo
[Times photo: Janel Schroeder]
Laurel Keller holds her 21-month-old daughter, Isabella, during an interview across the street from the house at the center of the investigation of missing Sabrina Aisenberg.
"I just thought it was funny to have a garage sale on a Tuesday," Berberich said.

Robin Peterson also saw the commotion, but she guessed the professional-looking men were part of a landscaping crew.

Nope.

Chuck Boltze assumed creditors had tracked down his neighbors.

"I thought the people just didn't pay their bills," he said.

Wrong again.

Turns out the cars were unmarked law enforcement vehicles and the men were searching for the body of 5-month-old Sabrina Aisenberg, whose father used to sell homes in the neighborhood.

In November 1997, Marlene and Steven Aisenberg reported their daughter missing from her crib in their Brandon home. Authorities have been trying to build a case against the couple for years.

The drama from one of the most mysterious crimes in the Tampa Bay area has been playing out this week, nearly three years and 35 miles north of where it started, in the Willow Bend subdivision of new homes, screened porches and quiet streets. The homes here were developed by Steven Aisenberg's former employer, M/I Homes.

The main stage has been the $185,000 home on White Hawk Trail, but investigators haven't shed light on what's happening inside. So journalists have sneaked around the back of the house, stood on their cars and even used helicopters to get a glimpse over a fence or into the screened back pool deck.

"It's turned their front yard into a circus," said Marsha McCreary, vice president of the Willow Bend Homeowners Association.

But the carnival-like atmosphere here is laced with morbid thoughts, neighbors said.

"I know a lot of people feel like they've really been deceived," Suzanne Nicholls said. "A lot of people feel really hurt. If they do find that girl there, I hope (Steven) gets what he deserves . . .. God will take care of it."

The mob scene began Wednesday evening with a block-party atmosphere. Neighbors gathered outside the house were just as curious as the television crews they stood beside.

Those television trucks, with their satellite transmitters, pulled away from the scene late Wednesday night.

But leaving wasn't so easy.

The Fox 13 television news van needed a tow truck to rescue it from the wet sand of the vacant lot across the street from the suddenly recognizable house. Quick thinkers from Bay News 9 saved a towing bill by sliding a knocked-down street sign under the van's tires to get traction.

The sun rose Thursday on the same pack of television crews and neighbors who were growing steadily more weary of their presence.

"We've just about had it with all the congestion," said Nicholls. "It's tough living here right now."

Several residents still were willing to mug for the cameras. But a middle-aged jogger with a bare midriff made cameramen promise they wouldn't film her before she passed by the scene.

Some say they know Steven Aisenberg. Others said they wouldn't know him from one of the 10 or 15 journalists standing in their front yard. They all have an opinion on the bizarre turn of events.

"It's just like the (Jon-Benet) Ramsey case," Georgette Claudia said. "I'd just like to get it over with."
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Search for Sabrina redoubled

Post  milly on Thu 13 Oct - 0:53



Authorities pour more resources into their efforts as they comb a home linked to Steve Aisenberg.

[Times photo: Douglas Clifford]
Neighbors line the sidewalk outside the house at 1534 White Hawk Trail in Land O'Lakes.

By BRADY DENNIS

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 20, 2000

LAND O'LAKES -- The search for the remains of Sabrina Aisenberg intensified Thursday at a home in the Pasco County subdivision where her father, real estate agent Steven Aisenberg, used to work.

With sniffing dogs, drilling equipment, saws and ground-penetrating sensor, a caravan of investigators showed up at 9 a.m. to continue their search for the infant, who disappeared in November 1997 from her Valrico home, 35 miles southeast of the neighborhood.

At the time the 5-month-old disappeared, Steven Aisenberg was employed by M/I Schottenstein in an office across the street from a construction site that now isthe home investigators have been scouring since Monday.

He also sold many of the homes in the subdivision, including the one being searched.

Investigators Thursday led one German shepherd around the perimeter of the house and took another through the front door.

From a vacant sandy lot about 50 yards behind the house, investigators could be seen moving patio furniture and sweeping the screened pool area with sensor.

In the seven hours they occupied the house, investigators ignored the media personnel swarming around the residence, refusing to say whether any evidence had been found.

But the silence spurred rumors and frustration among neighbors, many of whom gathered on the sidewalks to gawk at the forest of TV news antennas and the army of photojournalists shooting the slightest movement.

The house that investigators are searching began as a model for M/I Homes.

The building permit shows that the inspection of the concrete foundation took place the same day it was poured, on Dec. 29, 1997, almost exactly a month after Sabrina disappeared.

The house was unoccupied until the current owners bought it on May 20, 1999, according to Pasco County court documents.

Court records show that detectives previously tested the concrete slabs of at least eight other homes built by Aisenberg's former employer, but it is unclear where because addresses were not disclosed.

Neighbors who have lived in the development since before Sabrina's disappearance said no investigators had visited their neighborhood until this week.

"What I wonder is, why didn't they come out here for three years?" said neighbor Chuck Boltze. "I never saw anybody out here. Nobody did. They didn't even drag the ponds. I hope they're not just grabbing for straws."

Marsha McCreary, vice president of the Willow Bend Homeowner's Association, said authorities called the organization several weeks ago to say they might dive-search a pond about 150 yards behind the home.

McCreary said she wasn't sure which county's sheriff's office called, or whether the pond ever was searched. She also didn't know whether the call was related to the search for Sabrina.

"We told them there was no problem (with diving the pond)," McCreary said. "I'm not saying it was associated with this. But it is does seem kind of strange."

The rekindled search for Sabrina comes at a time when a federal case against Steve and Marlene Aisenberg appears on the verge of unraveling.

The two parents, who have denied any involvement in their daughter's disappearance, were indicted last September by a federal grand jury in Tampa on charges of conspiracy and making false statements about the incident.

Investigators bugged their home in the days after Sabrina was reported missing and claim to have recorded the couple talking about the child's death.

But the tapes have come under serious attack, with one audio expert hired by the defense saying he can't make out any incriminating statements.

On Monday, the same day investigators began searching the Pasco home, U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Pizzo ordered an evidentiary hearing to determine whether Hillsborough detectives lied or misrepresented facts to a circuit court judge in their application to wiretap extensions in early 1998.

On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Steven McKay agreed to postpone the hearing, originally scheduled to begin Monday, for 30 days.

The Aisenbergs moved to Maryland last spring.

Steven Aisenberg told a reporter at his Maryland home Wednesday that the couple thinks Sabrina still is alive and that he is outraged at the search. Law enforcement officials have said they think Sabrina is dead.

Aisenberg attorney Barry Cohen declined to comment Thursday.
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Aisenbergs' attorneys want notes on tapes

Post  milly on Thu 13 Oct - 0:54



The defense suggests federal authorities might have known the tapes were flawed even as they sought to indict the couple.

By CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 31, 2000

TAMPA -- Attorneys for Steven and Marlene Aisenberg want to know what an FBI analyst wrote in 325 pages of notes while reviewing secretly taped conversations of the couple.

The lawyers hope the FBI notes bolster their contention that the tapes -- key evidence implicating the Aisenbergs in an alleged plot to conceal their missing daughter's fate -- are inaudible. In papers filed with the court, and in courtroom arguments Monday, the defense has suggested federal authorities may have known the tapes were flawed even as they sought to indict the couple last year.

"It's very unusual that the government would not want to disclose what the FBI did," Aisenberg attorney Todd Foster said at the Monday hearing before U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Pizzo.

The Aisenbergs, who have denied wrongdoing, are charged with conspiracy and lying to investigators. The case began when they reported their 5-month-old girl, Sabrina, missing from their Brandon home in November 1997. In the days that followed, investigators bugged their home and claim to have recorded the couple discussing the child's death.

At Monday's hearing, the defense asked the judge to compel the government to release the FBI notes, along with police logs of who entered and left the Aisenberg home while it was being bugged.

Further, the defense asked for "work copy" tapes (presumably even less audible than the originals under attack) used by detectives when they sought a judge's permission to extend the audio surveillance of the Aisenbergs.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Rachelle Bedke told the judge the FBI analyst attempted to enhance the tapes by eliminating background noise but did not draft a report on whether they were audible.

The defense wants the evidence as it prepares for court hearings on whether the tapes are intelligible, and whether Hillsborough detectives lied or misrepresented facts to a circuit judge when they applied for permission to continue the electronic eavesdropping.

Pizzo ordered the government to turn over the tapes by Nov. 6 so a defense expert could review them. The judge said he would review the matter of the FBI notes and the police logs.
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Aisenbergs' attorneys to get notes on tapes

Post  milly on Thu 13 Oct - 0:55



A judge makes the notes available to the Aisenbergs' attorneys.

By JEFF TESTERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 2, 2000

TAMPA -- A federal judge has ordered government prosecutors to hand over 325 pages of work notes made by FBI lab technicians who analyzed secretly taped conversations between Steven and Marlene Aisenberg after they reported their baby Sabrina missing.

The order by U.S. Magistrate Mark A. Pizzo, filed late Tuesday, was in response to arguments Monday by the Aisenbergs' defense attorneys, who suggested that the government's failure to disclose the contents of the work notes might mean FBI lab workers found the tapes inaudible or otherwise flawed.

At issue are 62 audio cassettes made by Hillsborough Sheriff's detectives investigating the disappearance of Sabrina, who was 5 months old when she was reported missing from her Brandon home by Marlene Aisenberg on Nov. 24, 1997. Investigators obtained court orders to bug the Aisenberg home after they turned up no evidence of an intruder and became suspicious of conflicting statments by Marlene Aisenberg.

Baby Sabrina never has been found. But the secret tapes provided the evidence to indict Steven and Marlene Aisenberg in September 1999 on federal charges of conspiracy and lying to authorities. Released with the indictments were transcripts of the tapes that prosecutors said proved the Aisenbergs had lied about Sabrina's disappearance.

After playing the tapes, defense attorneys Barry Cohen and Todd Foster disputed the evidence, disagreeing with some transcripts and arguing that many tapes are simply inaudible. Those arguments helped persuade federal judges to order a pair of hearings on whether the tapes should be admitted as evidence and whether the tapes are, in fact, audible.

The defense attorneys also wanted the government to turn over surveillance logs and documents detailing who came and went from the Aisenberg home during the secret taping. Pizzo rejected that request.

The government Wednesday asked for a 60-day postponement in the hearings to determine the tapes' admissibility and audibility.
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Aisenberg prosecutors suffer setback in court

Post  milly on Thu 13 Oct - 0:55



A judge in the case of a girl who vanished in 1997 calls tapes of her parents "largely inaudible.''

By GRAHAM BRINK

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 14, 2000

TAMPA -- Fourteen months after prosecutors said they had sensational audiotapes of Steven and Marlene Aisenberg discussing the death of their missing 5-month-old daughter, the case against the couple is foundering.

In a ruling made public Monday, Judge Steven Merryday said he had listened to the tapes and found them "largely inaudible" and of generally poor quality.

The judge appears to be leaning toward finding the tapes inadmissible, said former federal prosecutor Steve Crawford. Such a decision would cripple the prosecution's case against the Aisenbergs, accused of conspiring to cover up the disappearance of their infant daughter Sabrina.

"It's like a warning shot over the prosecution's bow," Crawford said. "This gives them a chance to dismiss the case."

Merryday gave federal prosecutors until Nov. 22 to submit a statement of how they plan to use the recordings to prove their case at trial. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office said prosecutors would comply.

At issue are the tapes made by Hillsborough sheriff's detectives investigating the disappearance of Sabrina Aisenberg from her home in Brandon on Nov. 24, 1997. Investigators became suspicious of the Aisenbergs after they turned up no evidence of an intruder, and obtained a court order to bug the Aisenberg home.

In indicting the Aisenbergs last year on charges of conspiracy and making false statements, prosecutors released partial transcripts they had made from the tapes.

At one point, Steven Aisenberg was quoted as saying: "We need to discuss the way that we can beat the charge. I would never break from the family pact and our story even if the police were to hold me down. We will do what we have to do."

Marlene Aisenberg reportedly told her husband 29 days after Sabrina disappeared: "The baby's dead and buried! It was found dead because you did it! The baby's dead no matter what you say -- you just did it!"

Merryday did not refer to specific quotes in his ruling, but said he could not hear at least some of the statements provided in the transcripts. He also said he couldn't hear large sections of conversation on the parts prosecutors did not make public.

On top of that, Merryday made it clear that simply being able to hear any of the words does not make the tapes acceptable. Jurors would have to be able to reasonably determine the context in which the speaker used the words, he said.

"A juror should not arrive at an interpretation of a recording based on mere speculation and unleavened imagination, stimulated by an occasional verbal fragment ... plucked from its intended context and placed provocatively in the juror's way," Merryday wrote in the ruling.

While Merryday has not yet ruled on whether the tapes are admissible, he did deny the prosecution's pitch to play the tapes at trial and rule on admissibility after the jury had listened to them.

"He made it clear that he does not want the jury put in a position to guess about what's on the tapes," said John Fitzgibbons, another former prosecutor.

The Aisenbergs' lawyers, Barry Cohen and Todd Foster, have maintained they could not hear what the government said was on the tapes.

The tapes are being challenged on another front, too.

Before a different federal judge, the defense lawyers filed a 116-page motion this year arguing that misrepresentations and omissions of facts were used to apply for permission to place the bugging devices. That judge could rule the tapes inadmissible if he finds something wrong with the way the authorities obtained permission to bug the house.

A hearing in that matter is scheduled for December.

Merryday's ruling leaves the prosecution in a bind, Fitzgibbons said.

Merryday could decide that the tapes are inadmissible, a distinct possibility given the language in the ruling, Fitzgibbons said.

Even if he doesn't, the ruling forces the prosecutors to say publicly how they plan to use the tapes in their case. That gives the defense attorneys a look at the prosecution's trial strategy, a distinct advantage in the secretive federal system.

"The government has to know they are on the ropes," Fitzgibbons said. "If they have something else up their sleeve, this would seem the time to bring it out."

Sabrina Aisenberg has never been found. The Aisenbergs have denied any wrongdoing.

- Graham Brink can be reached at (813) 226-3365 or brink@sptimes.com.
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Aisenbergs want judge to testify

Post  milly on Thu 13 Oct - 0:56



Lawyers for the couple, whose daughter disappeared in 1997, say a court was misled when it granted wiretaps.

By GRAHAM BRINK

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 6, 2000

TAMPA -- The lawyers for Steven and Marlene Aisenberg want a Hillsborough judge to testify about his role in securing the wiretaps used to charge the couple with lying about the disappearance of their 5-month-old daughter.

County Judge Eric Myers, who at the time worked for the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office, was the prosecutor in charge of the application and subsequent extensions for authority to conduct electronic surveillance on the Aisenberg home.

In the motion, made public Tuesday, attorneys Barry Cohen and Todd Foster wrote that Myers' testimony could show that authorities acted in bad faith in obtaining the wiretaps.

The motion called Myers' testimony "essential" and unavailable from any other source.

Prosecutors told the Aisenbergs' lawyers that they did not think Myers' testimony was relevant and had no plans to call him to testify, according to the motion. The U.S. Attorney's Office does not comment on ongoing cases.

Myers said Tuesday that if subpoenaed he will testify. He said it would be inappropriate to comment about the motion before taking the stand.

At issue are the tactics used to secure the wiretaps during the investigation into the disappearance of Sabrina Aisenberg from her Brandon home on Nov. 24, 1997.

The Aisenbergs said someone must have crept into their home at night and stolen the child. Investigators obtained a court order to bug the home after they turned up no evidence of an intruder. No trace of the child has been found.

In indicting the Aisenbergs last year on charges of conspiracy and making false statements, prosecutors released partial transcripts they had made from the tapes. The tapes are the main evidence against the Aisenbergs that prosecutors have revealed so far.

Last month, U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Pizzo ordered a hearing to determine whether, as the defense claims, Hillsborough detectives lied or misrepresented facts to a circuit judge in their application for the two wiretap extensions in early 1998.

At the time, Pizzo ruled that the Aisenbergs' lawyers made "a substantial preliminary showing" that Hillsborough Detectives Linda Burton and William Blake had distorted conversations, taken them out of context, omitted evidence and falsely claimed particular words were on the tapes.

The judge cited 13 examples. For instance, in the detectives' first request to extend the wiretap, on Jan. 9, 1998, they cited a doctor's opinion that photographs developed from a home video showed bruises around the baby's eye, mouth, and scalp, as well as hair that had been pulled out. Detectives also said a hairstylist, who saw the baby just before her disappearance, had noticed hair missing from her head.

But detectives were fully aware, defense attorneys argued, that on the day the video was taken several witnesses who saw Sabrina up close noticed no bruises at all. The hairstylist, too, has sworn she saw no injuries on Sabrina, who was "happy and healthy."

Furthermore, the defense argued, detectives concealed a videotape that showed Marlene Aisenberg passing the baby to friends at a party, evidence that she wasn't attempting to hide the girl.

Faced with these discrepancies, the judge wrote, the detectives appeared to have omitted important evidence that contradicted their claims. If Pizzo decides after a hearing scheduled for Monday that the wiretaps were obtained in bad faith, the recordings could be suppressed, a potentially crippling blow to the prosecution's case.

To help substantiate their claims, the Aisenbergs' lawyers want Myers to say what the detectives told him and what he told the circuit judge who okayed the wiretaps.

"If Judge Myers did not listen to the tapes, if he were furnished false information regarding the clarity of the recordings . . . and if he was kept unaware of the testimony regarding to lack of abuse to Sabrina Aisenberg, his testimony is relevant to show the bad faith of the (detectives)," the lawyers said in the motion.

In preparation for Monday's hearing, prosecutors filed two motions Tuesday asking that nine sheriff's officers and four FBI agents subpoenaed by the Aisenbergs' lawyers not be compelled to testify. They called the subpoenas "unreasonable, overboard, oppressive" and an attempt to obtain evidence to which they are not entitled.

That issue and several others could be taken up at hearings scheduled for today.
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U.S. loses a round in baby Sabrina case

Post  milly on Thu 13 Oct - 0:56



By GRAHAM BRINK

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 7, 2000

TAMPA -- Wednesday brought another setback for the U.S. Attorney's Office in its case against Steven and Marlene Aisenberg.

A judge denied the government's motions to keep a Hillsborough County judge, several FBI agents and nine sheriff's deputies from testifying about how they obtained wiretaps used to charge the Aisenbergs with lying about the disappearance of their 5-month-old daughter.

The hearing was in preparation for a hearing next week, which will determine whether authorities acted in good faith in securing two extensions to keep using the wiretaps.

The wiretaps were used in indicting the Aisenbergs on charges of conspiracy and making false statements after the disappearance of Sabrina Aisenberg from her Brandon home on Nov. 24, 1997. The Aisenbergs have said someone must have crept into their home at night and stolen the child. Investigators obtained a court order to bug the home after they turned up no evidence of an intruder. No trace of the child has been found.

The Aisenbergs' attorneys contend that authorities acted in bad faith in securing the extensions by misrepresenting the clarity of the tapes, omitting pertinent information favorable to the Aisenbergs and making false abuse allegations, among other things.

Todd Foster told the judge that since County Judge Eric Myers was the prosecutor at the time in charge of securing the wiretaps, he "might be the most important witness we can present to you."

U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Pizzo said he would like to hear from Myers and would allow the subpoenas for the FBI and sheriff's deputies to stand. He said he would limit the testimony to only what was relevant to the wiretap issues and would not let the defense attorneys solicit answers that might tip them to other parts of the government's case.

If Pizzo decides the wiretaps were obtained in bad faith, some of the recordings could be thrown out, a potentially crippling blow to the prosecution's case. The hearing, the lawyers agreed, could take all of next week.

Later, U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday dealt with issues surrounding the audibility of the tapes.

Merryday gave prosecutors until Dec. 31 to declare which of the 30 tapes their audio expert was going to try to enhance. The expert would then have until March 1 to get the work done.
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Witnesses: We saw no signs of abuse

Post  milly on Thu 13 Oct - 0:57



Attorneys question whether authorities went too far to get warrant extentions allowing them to bug the Aisenbergs’ home.

By GRAHAM BRINK

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 12, 2000

TAMPA -- A parade of witnesses testified in court Monday that 5-month-old Sabrina Aisenberg showed no signs of abuse in the days before she disappeared on Nov. 24, 1997.

Not only that, many of the witnesses said they relayed those facts to authorities investigating the case. A few even said they felt pressured to say they saw bruises they didn't recall seeing.

[Times photo: Ken Helle]
Steven and Marlene Aisenberg leave the Sam M. Gibbons Federal Courthouse for the noon races on Monday.
"It felt like (the detective) was trying to lead me to see something," said Nancy Gray, a family acquaintence who saw Sabrina the weekend before she disappeared. "I didn't see any abuse."

The testimony was part a hearing that began Monday into whether authorities were overzealous in obtaining extentions for warrants that allowed them to bug Steve and Marlene Aisenberg's Valrico home.

The alleged statements captured by the bugging devices led to the Aisenbergs' arrests last September on federal charges of conspiracy and lying about their daughter's disappearance.

From the start, the Aisenbergs said someone must have crept into their home at night and stolen the child. Investigators obtained a court order to bug the home after they turned up no evidence of an intruder. No trace of the child has been found.

The Aisenbergs' attorneys want U.S. Magistrate Mark Pizzo to conclude at the end of the hearing that any taped statements obtained by the bugs after authorities applied for the extensions should be thrown out, a scenario that could cripple the prosecution's case.

The attorneys claim that authorities acted in bad faith when they sought extensions by misrepresenting the clarity of the tapes, omitting pertinent information favorable to the Aisenbergs and making the false abuse allegations.

To prove their case, Aisenberg attorney Todd Foster began the hearing Monday by calling to the stand John Smialek, a forensic pathologist and chief medical examiner for Maryland who had reviewed a videotape made of Sabrina playing at home just days before she disappeared.

Smialek said that the dark spots under Sabrina's eyes in parts of the tape were not bruises and that her hair looked thin and clumped together, not ripped out. He doubted that anyone who saw the videotape could conclude that Sabrina was abused.

Carroll L. Lucas, a photo interpretation expert who once worked for the CIA and was summoned by Congress in the 1960s to examine pictures of Lee Harvey Oswald after President John F. Kennedy was killed, testified that the spots under Sabrina's eyes were just shadows caused by poor lighting. They appear in some frames of the videotape and not others, Lucas said.

Foster also questioned three women who worked at the barber shop where Marlene Aisenberg had brought Sabrina and her two other children a few days before the disappearance. All three testified that Sabrina seemed happy and healthy. None noticed any bruises.

During the investigation, Hillsborough County sheriff's detectives and FBI agents showed the women photos printed from the videotape. The women said the investigators kept asking whether they were sure they didn't see anything in the photos that looked like abuse.

"I said it looked normal for a 5-month-old," said Jeanne Blevins, the former barber shop owner. "I wondered why we were doing this over again."

Stacey Allen, who was at the barber shop the day the Aisenbergs came in, said it was untrue that she said anything to investigators that would have hinted at abuse, despite what they wrote in their reports. She also said that their claims that they interviewed her on Dec. 17, 1997, at the shop were simply impossible.

She was out on maternity leave, she said, and delivered her baby the next day.

The hearing continues today and could last until next week. Once Foster is through putting on his case, the prosecutors will have a chance to respond with their own witnesses.
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Witness says he trusted detectives' evidence

Post  milly on Thu 13 Oct - 0:57



The former prosecutor says applications to extend bugging at the home of Steve and Marlene Aisenberg did not raise any questions.

By GRAHAM BRINK

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 13, 2000

TAMPA -- A former assistant state attorney testified Tuesday that he had no reason to question the evidence detectives brought to him when applying for extensions to continue bugging Steve and Marlene Aisenberg's home.

Previous coverage
Eric Myers, who is now a county judge, said there may have been some minor discrepancies in what the detectives wrote in the application and what appeared in the transcripts, and they may not have told him everything they had found. But taken in their entirety, the applications were correct and truthful.

Besides, he said, it wasn't his job to investigate the investigators.

"It's what they do as professionals," he said.

Myers was the featured witness in the second day of testimony in the hearing to determine whether the investigators acted improperly when applying for the extensions.

If they did, U.S. Magistrate Mark Pizzo could recommend that the taped statements acquired after they applied for the extensions could be thrown out, a potentially crippling scenario for the government's case.

After Sabrina Aisenberg disappeared Nov. 24, 1997, her parents said someone must have crept into their home at night and taken the baby. A massive search was unsuccessful. No trace of the child has been found.

A couple of weeks after Sabrina was reported missing, Hillsborough Chief Judge F. Dennis Alvarez signed a warrant allowing investigators to bug the Aisenberg home. Investigators returned to Alvarez twice to obtain extensions. The bugging lasted nearly three months.

Federal prosecutors used statements acquired from the bugs to indict the Aisenbergs last year on charges of conspiracy and making false statements. Their lawyers have argued that many of the statements the prosecutors said were on the tapes were inaudible or taken out of context.

This week's hearing, however, focuses on whether the investigators lied, omitted pertinent facts or misrepresented what they claimed were on the tapes in order to get Alvarez to extend the bugging.

During questioning, Myers agreed that some of the transcripts from the tapes did not match exactly the wording the investigators used in the application to Alvarez. He also said that he knew some of the tapes were inaudible, but not enough to raise any serious red flags. He also told Aisenberg attorney Todd Foster that, depending on the interpretation, some of the wording in the reports submitted to Alvarez could be taken out of context.

Foster asked Myers whether the investigators ever told him about witnesses who said Sabrina showed no signs of abuse in the days before she disappeared. In the applications, investigators said a home video of Sabrina showed that she had bruises on her face and hair torn from her scalp. The Aisenbergs dispute those claims and argue that the investigators should have told Alvarez about all the witnesses who said there was no abuse. Foster has called it, at best, an omission of pertinent facts; at worst, an outright lie.

Monday, the judge heard from a handful of witnesses who claimed they saw no signs of abuse. Some had seen Sabrina the day before she disappeared.

During testimony Tuesday, Marlene Aisenberg began weeping. She dabbed away tears as the witnesses described a happy, healthy child. She broke down again later when more photographs and video were shown of Sabrina.

One of Tuesday's witnesses said Hillsborough sheriff's detectives kept asking her whether she was sure Sabrina had no bruises. They asked so many times that she felt intimidated, as if they wanted her to recant what she had said to agree with their theory.

Another witness, Virginia Westberg, said they were looking for a particular answer that she wasn't willing to give.

"I said, "I'm no expert but I don't see any (signs of abuse),' " she said.

The hearing continues today and could last until next week.
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Detective in Aisenberg case grilled on bugging

Post  milly on Thu 13 Oct - 0:57



She admits she thought a witness used to get permission to bug the couple's home was a liar.

By GRAHAM BRINK

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 15, 2000

TAMPA -- For weeks, Steve and Marlene Aisenberg's attorneys have been waiting for the chance to question Hillsborough sheriff's Detective Linda Burton, who they think is at the center of a botched investigation into the disappearance of the Aisenbergs' 5-month-old daughter.

On Thursday, Burton admitted that she thought one witness authorities used to obtain permission to bug the Aisenberg home was a liar.

She testified that investigators did not tell the judge who okayed the bugging that at least nine witnesses who saw Sabrina Aisenberg shortly before she was reported missing thought she appeared happy and healthy, not the victim of abuse portrayed in the applications to bug the home.

She agreed that transcripts from the surveillance tapes do not contain the incriminating statements attributed to the Aisenbergs in the applications, signed and sworn to by Burton and one other detective.

The detective had trouble explaining some of the discrepancies. "I don't know the (bugging) procedure really well," she said. "I'm not real clear as to how it works."

After Sabrina disappeared Nov. 24, 1997, investigators grew suspicious that her parents may have played a role. They obtained permission to bug the home and twice received extensions.

The content of the applications to secure those extensions is at the heart of this week's hearing. The Aisenbergs claim investigators misrepresented facts, omitted others and at times lied to build the case against them. They also say the surveillance tapes don't include the incriminating statements authorities say they made.

Those statements helped prosecutors indict the Aisenbergs last year on federal charges of conspiracy and making false statements.

U.S. Magistrate Mark Pizzo has the job of deciding if the investigators acted in bad faith in obtaining the extensions. If he thinks they did, he can recommend that the tapes be suppressed, which could gut the government's case.

Burton, one of two lead detectives in the case, fumbled through much of her testimony Thursday. Burton laughed nervously several times as defense attorney Stephen Romine fired questions. At one point, she looked at the prosecutors and mouthed the words, "I'm sorry."

Romine spent a lot of the afternoon asking why so many witnesses who saw Sabrina just before her reported disappearance were not interviewed, or ignored when they said she was happy and healthy. The applications to continue bugging the home said Sabrina was the victim of abuse, as she had a bruise under her eye and hair torn from her head.

The applications included a statement from Stacey Allen, a hairdresser who saw Sabrina three days before her reported disappearance. Allen was paraphrased saying that Sabrina had hair missing from her head. Left out, though, was that Allen had gone on to say that it seemed natural, as many babies are susceptible to losing clumps of hair.

Burton told Romine that she did not include the latter part of Allen's statement because she thought Allen "was the type of person to vacillate." She thought Allen was a liar, she said.

At that point, Pizzo jumped in, asking Burton point blank why she thought Allen was prone to vacillating when her statements had remained the same through three different interviews.

Burton's answer was clumsy and hard to understand.

She is expected to take the witness stand today for more questions.
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Doctor denies determining Sabrina was abused

Post  milly on Thu 13 Oct - 0:58



Her testimony conflicts with earlier contentions by Aisenberg investigators.

By GRAHAM BRINK

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 16, 2000

TAMPA -- Defense attorneys continued to pick at the government's case against Steve and Marlene Aisenberg on Friday, getting a doctor to admit she never told detectives she was sure the Aisenbergs' baby had been abused before her disappearance.

The testimony came during the fifth day of a hearing to determine whether investigators lied or misrepresented facts in obtaining permission to continue bugging the Aisenbergs' Brandon home.

Prosecutors used comments the investigators said were on the surveillance tapes to indict the Aisenbergs on federal charges of conspiracy and making false statements. But even those statements are in dispute, as some of the tapes are hard to hear.

U.S. Magistrate Mark Pizzo will have to decide whether investigators acted improperly.

If so, he could recommend that the tapes be suppressed, which would be a heavy blow to the government's case. The hearing could last most of next week.

After Sabrina Aisenberg disappeared on Nov. 24, 1997, her parents said someone must have crept into their home at night and taken the baby. A massive search was unsuccessful. No trace of the child has been found.

Investigators grew suspicious of the Aisenbergs and decided to bug their home. In the applications to obtain a warrant, they painted a picture of Sabrina being abused in the days before her parents reported her missing.

They included in the applications a statement from Dr. Laleh Posey, who had looked at photos made from a family videotape, that in her expert opinion their were bruises on Sabrina's face and hair missing from her head.

On Friday, Posey testified that she told the investigators that it was possible the dark spots on Sabrina's face were bruises, but their also could be other explanations. Posey said she never told anyone that she was certain they were bruises.

Posey went on to say that the investigators never told her that several witnesses had seen the baby in the days before her disappearance and that none of them had seen any bruises. Posey also didn't know about the Aisenbergs' hairdresser, who had not seen anything that suggested abuse regarding the thinning and missing hair.

Posey told the judge that such witness statements would have been relevant in making an abuse assessment.

Posey said she was not shown the entire videotape upon which she made her assessment. Instead, detectives showed her only the parts they wanted her to see.

As she watched the entire video in court Friday, Posey saw Sabrina happily crawling on the floor, smiling and playing with her brother. Marlene Aisenberg could be heard cooing and telling the baby "Come on pretty girl" and using other terms of affection.

Posey agreed with Aisenberg attorney Todd Foster that Sabrina's behavior on the tape suggested she was happy, not a victim of abuse. Mrs. Aisenberg wept as she watched the video and heard the testimony.

On Monday, the prosecution's audio expert is expected to testify.

In the extension applications, the investigators used the tapes to quote the Aisenbergs making statements such as: "Our tiny baby didn't suffer," "I didn't say nothing," and "You cannot trust a soul." They said the incriminating statements warranted continued bugging.

Defense attorneys have argued that the statements cannot be heard or were taken out of context. The expert, Anthony Pellicano, is expected to say that he has enhanced the tapes and the statements, indeed, are intelligible.
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Tapes leave listeners doubtful

Post  milly on Thu 13 Oct - 0:58



The enhanced tapes of the Aisenbergs sounded unnatural, and the credentials of a government audio expert were questioned.

By JEFF TESTERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 19, 2000

TAMPA -- A renowned audio expert testified Monday that he could identify a number of critical taped statements suggesting Steve and Marlene Aisenberg lied to authorities about the disappearance of their daughter Sabrina.

Previous Times coverage
Anthony J. Pellicano, who owns a trademark on a computer program to analyze recorded sound, said his advanced technology allowed him to "surgically remove" background noise from the Aisenberg tapes and enhance the recordings so incriminating statements allegedly made by the couple could be discerned.

The playing of the enhanced tapes in court Monday, however, had several observers shaking their heads.

The enhanced version sounded unnatural, as if recorded in a chamber or a cave. Few words on the seven-minute tape were intelligible to reporters, even those who followed along on transcripts of the recording secretly made on Christmas Eve 1997, in the master bedroom of the Aisenberg's Brandon home.

In the end, U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Pizzo listened to Pellicano's enhanced recording, then said he would rely on the original tape investigators first played on a Dictaphone three years ago.

"The enhanced copy heard in court is more difficult to hear than the others," Pizzo said. "I haven't noticed a lot of difference between all these versions, except that some have less background noise."

Monday's court session was the sixth day in a hearing to determine if Pizzo should recommend suppression of the Aisenberg tapes, a move that might cause the collapse of the Aisenberg case.

Five-month-old Sabrina vanished during Thanksgiving week in 1997, an apparent kidnapping victim. Unable to find a trace of any intruder, Hillsborough sheriff's detectives became suspicious of her parents and obtained court orders to install listening devices in the couple's bedroom and kitchen.

Taped conversations of the Aisenbergs purportedly talking about Sabrina's disappearance were later used to get extensions of the court-ordered surveillance.

Sabrina is still missing and presumed by investigators to be dead.

Comments on the surveillance tapes formed the basis for a grand jury indictment of the Aisenbergs on federal charges of conspiracy and making false statements.

The couple have maintained their innocence and were back in court Monday, listening without a hint of emotion to tapes that prosecutors want to use to send them to federal prison.

Defense attorneys claim investigators misrepresented what the couple actually said on tape. Last week, they elicited the testimony of their own audio expert, former FBI agent Bruce Koenig, who said the Aisenberg tapes were "audible but not intelligible."

Monday, defense attorneys spent much of the morning trying to pick apart the credentials of Pellicano, the government expert who says the tapes are intelligible.

Regarded as the celebrity's private eye, the Los Angeles-based Pellicano has testified as an audio expert in state and federal courts more than a hundred times. He analyzed the tape of the Kennedy assassination and the 18-minute gap in the Nixon tapes.

But under persistent questioning, Pellicano acknowledged that he was a high school dropout who earned a GED while in the U.S. Army, and who has no college degree or formal training in engineering or mathematics.

Defense attorney Todd Foster scoffed at Pellicano's assertion in ads and resumes that he is an expert in disciplines ranging from handwriting analysis to the art of finding missing persons.

And Judge Pizzo seemed incredulous when Pellicano, paid $250 an hour by the U.S. government to examine the Aisenberg tapes, testified that he listened to one snippet "500 times" trying to determine if what was said was "fake it" or "David."

"If you had to listen to it 500 times, didn't the conclusion occur to you that you couldn't make heads or tails of it?" Pizzo asked.

The judge admitted Pellicano's testimony and many of his enhanced tapes into evidence, but said he would only give it the weight he deemed proper.
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