A Bethesda couple who reported that their baby daughter was kidnapped as she was sleeping in her crib two years ago in Florida were charged in federal court yesterday with making the story up and lying to investigators.
The child has never been found, but prosecutors yesterday blamed the couple, Steven B. Aisenberg, 35, and Marlene J. Aisenberg, 36, for the death of their 5-month-old daughter, Sabrina Paige Aisenberg. Prosecutors also accused them of conspiring to cover up the death. But they acknowledged that they did not have enough evidence to support murder charges.
The couple were indicted in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt only with making false statements to officials about Sabrina's disappearance. Steven Aisenberg was charged with five counts, his wife with six.
The Aisenbergs called 911 early on Nov. 24, 1997, to report that they had awakened to discover that Sabrina had vanished from her bedroom during the night. At the time, the Aisenbergs were living in Brandon, Fla., outside Tampa; they moved to Montgomery County in May of this year.
Scores of federal and local investigators carried out an intensive search for the baby, combing through neighborhoods, diving in ponds and sifting through hundreds of leads.
Suspicion shifted to the Aisenbergs after they appeared on numerous television news and talk shows--from "Oprah" to "Geraldo" to "Dateline NBC"--appealing for the safe return of their daughter. Instead of looking like panic-stricken and grieving parents, they came off as oddly detached or even happy to be receiving so much attention, prosecutors said.
In court yesterday, Rachelle DesVaux Bedke, an assistant U.S. attorney from Tampa who is prosecuting the Aisenbergs, declared: "The baby is in fact dead. They knew that and had some hand in it."
Authorities did not spell out why they thought the parents would have killed their daughter. Bedke said investigators had taped conversations between the Aisenbergs, and in one of them, Bedke said in court, Steven Aisenberg was heard telling his wife: "I wish I hadn't harmed her--it was the cocaine."
The Aisenbergs were arrested in Montgomery County after a federal grand jury in Tampa returned the indictments yesterday morning. U.S. Magistrate Charles B. Day released them from custody last night but required that each parent post a $25,000 secured bond by today.
As they walked out of the courthouse with their attorneys, the Aisenbergs held hands tightly and declined to comment.
Michael CitaraManis, a public defender appointed to represent Steven Aisenberg, said the allegations were overblown. One of the indictments, he noted, merely accuses Marlene Aisenberg of lying about what clothes she was wearing when she discovered that Sabrina was missing. Another charges that both parents incorrectly described their daughter as having a full head of hair when she in fact had a bald spot.
"If this were a football game, the government should be penalized for piling on," CitaraManis said.
The Aisenbergs have been living with relatives on Kirby Road in Bethesda, along with their two other children, William, 10, and Monica, 6.
Their attorneys said the Aisenbergs had realized that they were considered prime suspects in their daughter's disappearance and had almost come to expect that they would be arrested.
"They're not stupid people," said Jeffrey Wennar, Marlene Aisenberg's court-appointed attorney. "They knew that the focus was on them."