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  •   Md. Parents's Story of Kidnapping Unravels

    Steven and Marlene Aisenberg
    Steven and Marlene Aisenberg leave court after being indicted by a federal grand jury on Sept. 9. (AP)
    By Michael E. Ruane
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, September 11, 1999; Page A1

    Twenty-two months after the November morning that Marlene J. Aisenberg said she was awakened by the noisy fish tank -- or was it the television? -- and found that baby Sabrina was missing from the home on the Florida cul-de-sac, the case of her vanished child has come back to where it started.

    After almost two years of tearful appeals and prayer vigils, of appearances on "Dateline NBC," "Geraldo" and "Larry King Live," of fund-raising, of please bring our baby home, an FBI battering ram splintered Aisenberg's front door in Bethesda on Thursday.

    Yesterday, Aisenberg, 36, and her husband Steven B. Aisenberg, 35, each posted $25,000 bond in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt on charges that they conspired and lied to investigators about the alleged kidnapping of the infant in 1997.

    The couple, who moved back to Steven Aisenberg's childhood home in Montgomery County's Oak Wood Knolls subdivision in May, left the courthouse hand-in-hand, silent now that officials have formally accused them with involvement in their daughter's disappearance.

    The Aisenbergs have not been charged with killing the baby. The long indictment filed Thursday accuses them of lying, of misleading investigators and the public about the baby's disappearance and of capitalizing financially on the case's publicity.

    The indictment suggests that the Aisenbergs know what happened to the baby, that they may be responsible for the infant's death and that they had a long "family pact" to conceal Sabrina's real fate.

    It is a strange tale in which officials accuse the couple, who made several appearances on national television, of playing on public sympathy and using money raised by the case to pay off credit card debts.

    Although the Aisenbergs have not been charged with murder, the case is reminiscent of the Susan Smith slayings, in which the South Carolina mother drowned her two children in a lake and then claimed they had been kidnapped.

    And even as the FBI was breaking down the door to arrest Marlene Aisenberg, police officials in Easton, Md., were investigating a Laurel man who said his children had been carjacked but who, police now say, actually had shot them himself a few hours before.

    But the Baby Sabrina case is much longer lived -- and the baby has never been found.

    The story began at 6:42 a.m. Nov. 24, 1997, when Marlene Aisenberg called 911 from the Valrico, Fla., home where the couple lived with their three children -- William, now 10; Monica, now 6; Sabrina, not quite 6 months old; and their dog, Brownie.

    Marlene Aisenberg told the Hillsborough County sheriff's office that Sabrina had been kidnapped from the baby's bedroom, according to the indictment.

    Over the subsequent minutes, days and weeks, she and her husband would provide authorities and the public with what the indictment suggests was a shifting account of exactly what happened and when.

    They sought to embellish the story and added layers of conflicting facts, and they incriminated themselves in conversations that apparently were secretly tape-recorded by investigators, the indictment says.

    But the Aisenbergs' Tampa attorney scoffed at the government's lengthy accusations yesterday.

    "If they have evidence to support a murder charge, they should charge them with murder," said Barry Cohen, according to the Associated Press. "It's not supported by any evidence."

    And on the quiet suburban street where the Aisenbergs now live with Steven's father, Irwin, a noted patent attorney -- and where the front door remains splintered from the battering ram -- there was support for the family.

    "I lived here for 36 years," said one neighbor, who declined to give her name. "I know them very well. I think they're innocent. I think they're being shafted."

    The indictment paints a different picture. It says that Marlene Aisenberg told a deputy sheriff who came to the house about 18 minutes after her call that morning that she had been awakened by a noisy fish tank and discovered her child gone.

    About two hours later, she told other investigators that it was a wake-up alarm in her television that had interrupted her sleep, the document says.

    Two months later, the indictment says, the couple had a discussion in which they realized that they couldn't remember what they had originally said and decided to tell a federal grand jury that the television alarm had gone off at 6:22 or 6:24 a.m.

    The indictment contains few hints as to what might have happened to Sabrina. It contends that investigators enlarged photographs taken from a family videotape of Sabrina made two days before her disappearance that appeared to show injuries to her head and face.

    It states that when the enlargements were shown to the couple, Marlene Aisenberg "ran out of the room" and her husband was silent and "became red faced."

    The most damning parts of the indictment, though, appear to be the fragments of the couple's conversation secretly recorded by the investigators.

    "The baby's dead and buried!" the indictment quotes Marlene as telling Steven on Dec. 23, 1997. "It was found dead because you did it. The baby's dead no matter what you say -- you just did it!"

    "Honey, there was nothing I could do about it," the document quotes Steven telling Marlene in what appears to be the same conversation. "We need to discuss the way 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."

    On Jan. 21. 1998, the indictment says, Steven told Marlene: "I wish I hadn't harmed her."

    And on February 17, 1998, it says, Steven told Marlene: "They don't know the truth, right?

    "Yeah," Marlene replied. "So, so, in a way, you know, that means nobody knows what we did, still."

    "Exactly," her husband said.

    By then the Aisenbergs had gone quite public.

    The couple's first appeal to the media had been at 9:30 p.m. the day of the alleged kidnapping.

    "This morning, someone came into our home and took our baby . . . out of her crib and took her out of her home, and I'm begging that person to please bring our baby back to us," Marlene told reporters.

    The next January the couple participated in a media blitz.

    On Jan. 10, they arranged to have the media cover their appearance at the Missing Children Help Center, in Brandon, Fla., where they went to help stuff envelopes. Two days after that, Steven taped a statement for a local radio station.

    Two days later, on Jan. 14, the Aisenbergs appeared on the network television news magazine "Dateline NBC" in what was billed as their "first network prime-time interview."

    Family videos were shown. Marlene wept. Steven told viewers that Sabrina "made our family whole."

    "We know she's out there," he said, "and we know she's going to come back."

    "Because whoever took her can't keep her," his wife added. "She belongs to us."

    Two days later, it was "Larry King Live."

    "In my heart," Marlene told King's audience, "I believe that . . . somebody out there wanted a baby to love and that they took mine to do that." Someone called in from California and said, "To the Aisenbergs, my heart goes out to you."

    By then suspicion already had fallen on the parents.

    That March, the couple was back on "Dateline," with Marlene proclaiming "total disbelief" at the situation: "Not only is my daughter gone, but they think I had something to do with it. It's just unbelievable."

    A month later it was Geraldo Rivera.

    "It's hard enough for us to comprehend that this even happened," Stephen told the television host. But it's even harder for us to comprehend that somebody would come in and take her to hurt her. The only thing we can believe is that they came in because they wanted a baby as darling as ours."

    Staff writer Ruben Castaneda contributed to this report.

    © 1999 The Washington Post Company

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