Incredibly, the hideous case of Richard W. Spicknall II - who allegedly shot his kids, then concocted a ludicrous story about picking up a hitchhiker who threw him into the Choptank River - doesn't even take the day's honors for the most egregious attempt to cover up the murder of a child.

No, the prize must go to Steven and Marlene Aisenberg, now of Bethesda, formerly of Brandon, Fla., who early one morning in November 1997 claimed that their 5-month-old baby, Sabrina, had been kidnapped from her crib. The neighbors and police searched frantically for the child. Divers probed nearby lakes.

The parents went on national television to plead for help. They went on "Oprah` and "Larry King Live.` They talked about their tragedy with Matt Lauer on "The Today Show.`

The grandmother hired a psychic, who told her that her granddaughter had been taken by a man and a skinny blond woman in a red pickup truck.

Soon there was a Sabrina Web site. The site encouraged everyone to help in the search for Sabrina. It also chronicles the emotional anguish of the parents. A sample:

`December 22, 1997. Marlene Aisenberg heaved sobs of grief and frustration over the baby girl she hasn't held in nearly a month. A candlelight prayer vigil organized by friends Monday night provided a glimpse into the pain caused by the month long disappearance of baby Sabrina Aisenberg. Steven Aisenberg held his wife closely, whispering quietly into her ear as she choked back tears. Friends and family clutched their own children closely and offered prayers of hope and reunification while crying with them. Afterward, Marlene Aisenberg promised a public statement will come this morning. 'We want to talk to the person who has Sabrina,' she said.`

The next day, they made a direct appeal to the kidnapper:

Steve: "Your actions have not only affected our children and our family, but they've affected our friends, neighbors and community. We understand and hope at this time of miracles that you grant us our wish to bring Sabrina home. We hope you will look inside yourself and find the strength to do this.`

Marlene: "Please don't destroy our family. We just want you to do the right thing. Look inside yourself.`

According to federal authorities, it was the Aisenbergs who needed to examine their souls. Yesterday authorities arrested the Aisenbergs for making false statements in an investigation. Federal investigators don't have enough evidence for a murder charge, but they do say they have tapes of the Aisenbergs discussing a cover-up on the very night they made the plea to the kidnapper. Investigators say one recording includes the following exchange:

Marlene: "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!`

Steven: "Honey, there was nothing I could do about it. We need to discuss the way that we can beat the charge.`

In another conversation, Steven allegedly says: "I wish I hadn't harmed her. It was the cocaine.`

The attorney for the couple, Barry Cohen, says they are innocent. They aren't commenting.

The Spicknall case is reminiscent of that of Susan Smith, who fabricated a tale of black carjackers after she drowned her kids in a lake. Smith's case, in turn, had an echo of Charles Stuart, the Boston man who blamed a mysterious black gunman for the fatal shooting of his wife; he was the true killer. In all these cases there's a weird media-savvy element, in which people are all too happy to cry on cue and talk to the local anchorman and play to common fears and stereotypes. One wonders if they see the world as fundamentally a fictitious construct, an entertainment, a TV show in which we are all members of the cast and in which the script can be rewritten at a moment's notice.

These cases are not merely horrendous; they're incomprehensible. They give us a glimpse of a form of evil that the normal human mind cannot fathom. In a desperate attempt to get some purchase on how such a thing can happen, I just tell myself that some people lack a conscience altogether, that they are utterly incapable of remorse. I carry around in my head a statistic, the footnote for which has long since disappeared, that about 5 percent of the male population is sociopathic, without a conscience. And I like to recall something I read somewhere by an alleged expert who was analyzing a famous multiple murderer: "He's the kind of person who could blow out your brains and then go order a pizza.`

What's totally baffling, even in the context of monsters-roam-the-Earth, is how two people, a couple, could fake their way through a kidnapping lie, to the point of performing as victims on national television. How do two such awful people meet in the first place? (Is there a special dating service for people like that?)

On mornings like this I find myself thinking, perhaps irrationally, that there's something fundamentally wrong with human civilization, that there's a connection between Spicknall and Aisenberg and the Columbine shooters and the Atlanta day-trader and the white supremacist who shot up the Jewish school in Los Angeles and maybe even the militias in East Timor. Perhaps the story from Albany, of the massive outbreak of E. coli, and from New York City, of mosquito-borne encephalitis, are harbingers of some great millennial plague, punishment for our sins. Bacteria have been surviving on this planet for more than 3 1/2 billion years. Humans are but a recent experiment. It's not obvious how this experiment is going to turn out.

On the Sabrina Web site this morning: "We are aware of the recent events in Sabrina's case. Sabrina is still missing, therefore, we choose to keep this page operational.` Visit the excellent archive of news stories on the case, on the St. Petersburg Times' site.

Rough Draft appears on Mondays, Wednesday, and Fridays, except on national holidays, including very minor and obscure holidays to be determined by the whim of the writer, including Arbor Day and Guy Fawkes Day