TAMPA, Fla. - In a house in Maryland, a room sits filled with trinkets and toys bought for a little girl who never got to play with them. In the basement, lies a cedar closet full of baby clothes that were never worn. Throughout the house are photos of a baby who never set foot inside the residence.
Sabrina Aisenberg disappeared from her crib in Valrico, Florida, on November 24, 1997, when she was just five months old.
According to reports, her mother, Marlene Aisenberg, told authorities she last saw the little girl when she checked on her in her crib around midnight.
Today, the Aisenbergs tell FOX 13 News they still believe their daughter will be found, clinging to hope as cold cases are cracked with new technology in DNA and genealogy.
If found, Sabrina would be a 25-year-old woman with a story the world would be eager to hear.
Baby Sabrina vanished three days before Thanksgiving. According to reports, when Marlene Aisenberg woke up on November 24, 1997, her baby was missing from her crib along with a handmade blue and yellow blanket with imprinted animal images and yellow piping.
Marlene Aisenberg said she turned to see the garage door was open and the door leading from the garage into the home was unlocked.
She called 911 at 6:42 a.m. and within minutes police were swarming the home and canvassing the neighborhood in search of the missing baby.
Sabrina Aisenberg vanished from her crib on November 24, 1997, when she was 5 months old.
Neighbors reportedly told investigators that there had been several attempted break-ins in the neighborhood in homes with small children.
On the morning baby Sabrina disappeared, one neighbor reported hearing his dog bark around 1 a.m. When he let the animal out, he heard a baby crying somewhere in the distance.
He thought it was strange because none of his immediate neighbors had small children.
Even though investigators reportedly found seven unidentified fingerprints in the home, as well as an unidentified blonde hair, and a shoe print near the baby’s crib, suspicion quickly fell on the Aisenbergs.
Investigators questioned why nobody inside the residence woke up to the intruder and why the family dog never barked.
While everyone reacts to stress and trauma differently, at the time, members of the public and the media thought the Aisenbergs' behavior during a press conference where they pleaded for Sabrina's safe return was odd.
"The police told me that very first day that they thought I had done it," Marlene Aisenberg told PEOPLE in 2001. "A policeman looked me right in the eye and said, ‘We think you know what happened.’ "
The Aisenberg Tapes
According to FOX 13 News archives, shortly after Sabrina vanished, law enforcement authorities followed thousands of leads, searched lakes, and traveled to 49 states and several countries, but the investigation kept bringing them back to Steve and Marlene Aisenberg.
According to court documents, 16 days after Sabrina disappeared, law enforcement officers got permission to wiretap the couple’s home and secretly monitor and record the couple’s conversations – in their home and over the phone.
The documents stated that detectives believed there was probable cause to show that the Aisenbergs murdered their daughter.
On December 13, 1997, law enforcement officials placed electronic interception devices in the Aisenbergs' Valrico home.
The detectives were approved in January and February to extend the amount of time they could record the couple’s conversations because they said a pediatrician thought that pictures of the missing baby indicated that hair had been pulled out of the left side of the baby's head and the area around the left eye was bruised.
The detectives also claimed that the hairdresser of the Aisenbergs' children said that she noticed hair missing from the child's head.
The indictment alleged that a bald spot could be seen on Sabrina's head in a home video.
In all, law enforcement recorded the couple for 79 days. They gathered 2,600 conversations on 55 audio recordings, including what they claimed was a smoking gun.
On the tape, law enforcement claimed Marlene Aisenberg could be heard saying, "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 Aisenberg was accused of replying, "Honey, there was nothing I could do about it. We need to discuss the way that we can beat the charge. I would never break away 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 December 24, the tapes allegedly recorded Marlene Aisenberg saying "Oh, Steve! I tried to save her, and she died and as, we can’t confuse them, but we’ll try it, Hon, you know."
On January 21, 1998, investigators say they heard Steven Aisenberg say, "I wish I hadn’t harmed her."
Marlene Aisenberg allegedly replied, "I just can’t take the rap for this."
On February 17, 1998, as the federal grand jury began to investigate, investigators say Steve Aisenberg was recorded saying, "They didn’t know the truth, right?"
Marlene Aisenberg allegedly replied, "Yeah. So, in a way you know, that means nobody knows what we did still."
Steven Aisenberg is accused of then saying, "Exactly."
On January 30, 1998, the United States served the Aisenbergs with subpoenas to appear before the grand jury. Though the couple communicated their intent to invoke their Fifth Amendment rights, the government insisted they appear before a grand jury.
On February 11, 1998, the Aisenbergs appeared before the grand jury, invoked their Fifth Amendment rights, and refused to answer most questions.
On September 9, 1999, a federal grand jury returned a seven-count indictment against the Aisenbergs, and the couple, who had since moved to Maryland, was arrested.
Law enforcement battered the door of the Steven's childhood home where the couple was staying as they went into arrest Marlene.
Marlene Aisenberg faced up to 30 years in prison. Her husband was looking at 20 years in prison on charges they conspired and lied to authorities about their daughter’s disappearance.
The couple was never charged with harming their daughter.
The case against the Aisenbergs was built on the couple's recorded conversations – eavesdropping, which the Aisenbergs’ attorney at the time, Barry Cohen, who has since passed away, called "a law enforcement vendetta."
Aisenbergs leaving courthouse.
In February 2001, a judge ruled that investigators lied when seeking permission to place the wiretaps inside the Aisenberg’s home and they were cleared of all charges against them.
The judge stated that the wiretaps were largely unintelligible and that the statements from the pediatrician and the hairdresser were misquoted or taken out of context in the extension applications.
The judge also noted that there was nothing on the tapes that matched what was in the transcripts of the Aisenbergs' conversations.
The lead prosecutor in the Aisenberg case was demoted in July 2001.
Turning the Tables
After being acquitted, the Aisenbergs’ attorney filed a lawsuit against the federal government and won nearly $3 million to cover legal fees under the Hyde Amendment, which gives the court permission to award attorney's fees and other litigation expenses if the "court finds that the position of the United States was vexatious, frivolous, or in bad faith."
The judgment was for the bad faith prosecution of Steven and Marlene Aisenberg in connection with the disappearance of their daughter Sabrina, and the wholesale disclosure of all grand jury transcripts.
The amount was eventually reduced to about $1.5 million.
The couple sued again for additional damages and accused prosecutors of conspiring to deprive them of their civil rights, fabricating evidence and lying about it.
However, in 2004, a judge dismissed the case, saying the law gives prosecutors immunity from such lawsuits against their official actions.
The Aisenbergs also dropped a similar lawsuit against the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office in 2006.
Pointing the Finger
Nearly 11 years after baby Sabrina disappeared, an inmate named Dennis Byron claimed that HCSO detectives asked him to wear a wire to record his conversations with his fellow inmate and friend about the Aisenberg case.
Inmate Scott Overbeck was in jail on weapons charges, but according to previous FOX 13 reports, he once lived down the street from Tony Tranquillo, an investigator with the Aisenbergs' lawyer's firm in the Dana Shores neighborhood.
Previous reports from FOX 13, which reference sworn statements cited in the Tampa Bay Times from Byron, stated Overbeck said he was asked to go to the Aisenbergs' home and pick up a boat with the baby’s body inside. Then he said he disposed of the body in the waters near the Courtney Campbell Causeway.
In the sworn statement, Byron said it was his impression that Overbeck was asked to do it by Cohen’s investigator, Tranquillo, who died in 2006.
FOX 13 archive image of Scott Overbeck.
Byron's attorney, John Trevena, said his client sent a letter stating that Cohen, Tranquillo, and the Aisenbergs were the targets of the HCSO investigation.
"I don’t see how there can be any court proceedings after this. The credibility of the informants now by the sheriff’s office has been attacked. They’re going to call these people as their own witnesses after suggesting that they’re not credible? I don’t see that happening," Trevena said in an old interview with FOX 13. "Was the investigation ever worth anything, to begin with, is the point. I mean, it seems so preposterous. If there is no forensic evidence to support these kinds of wild accusations then it should have been written off on day one as preposterous. Anyone who would even look at this from the outside would say this is ridiculous. If you don’t have any physical evidence to support it there never should have been an investigation. That’s the whole point. I think that’s the point Mr. Cohen is making. The sheriff’s office invested thousands and thousands of dollars in this case."
"All Mr. Byron did, in this case, was relay what Mr. Overbeck had told him. He had no independent knowledge of any of this information and never claimed to. The only thing he could claim directly was that he saw this boat that Overbeck claimed was used in the disposal of the baby."
At the time, HCSO sent FOX 13 a statement that said the agency denies ever viewing Barry Cohen as a subject, target, suspect or person of interest. The statement added, "There is no political, personal or other improper agenda. Detectives treat all these leads in a professional and scientific manner."
According to a FOX 13 report, Trevena stated in a press conference that HCSO purchased the boat from Overbeck for $2500 in November of December 2007.
In April 2003, a woman in Michigan saw Sabrina’s missing child poster and noticed a resemblance between the photo and a child who was living in Illinois.
When the Aisenbergs were shown a photo of the girl who was called "Paloma Unknown," they agreed that she looked like their missing baby.
According to the Charley Project, "Paloma Unknown" was taken into Mexico through the Texas border by a teenage girl claiming to be her mother.
The teen gave the girl to a woman who may have been working in the textile industry and was about to be deported.
Image of girl given the nickname 'Paloma Unknown' courtesy of the Charley Project.
That woman allegedly gave the baby to a friend who was a registered nurse at a migrant clinic and signed paperwork allowing the child to be put up for adoption.
Off-the-books adoptions were not unusual near the Mexican border at the time.
The nurse gave the child to her sister who raised her in Illinois.
However, when the couple tried to adopt "Paloma Unknown," they were denied because they did not have the baby’s birth certificate or information on her background.
Instead, the couple was appointed as the girl’s guardians. Though several agencies tried to identify the girl’s parents, they were unsuccessful.
A DNA sample was taken from "Paloma Unknown" but it did not match the Aisenbergs.
DNA, genealogy and finding the missing
FOX 13 spoke with Steve and Marlene Aisenberg shortly after the 25th anniversary of Sabrina’s disappearance. Though the couple did not want to talk about the events of that fateful day, they do have faith their daughter will be found and believe her case will be solved through DNA and genealogy.
Marlene Aisenberg said she regularly gets Facebook messages from women who think they may be Sabrina, but they have not had a match.
When the Aisenbergs hear of people such as Melissa Highsmith, who was reunited with her family 51 years after being kidnapped thanks to a 23 and Me test, it boosts their faith they will find Sabrina.
"It gives us continued hope that Sabrina is still out there and that she’ll do a DNA test and we will find her," Steven Aisenberg said.
Age-progression images of Sabrina Aisenberg courtesy of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
The Aisenbergs have their DNA on several familial genetics sites including Ancestry.com and 23andMe.com.
They also work with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which uses GEDMatch.com and FamilyTree.com to help reunite missing people with their families.
"That’s how we’re going to get her home. Anybody that thinks they see somebody that looks like they could be our family, look like Sabrina, look like William and Monica, please have your friends take a DNA test. That’s how it’s going to happen," Marlene Aisenberg stated.
The Aisenbergs often refer to themselves as Sabrina’s birth parents and hold tight to the belief that she is alive and someone else is raising her.
"We believe somebody took her to love her and that’s all we can believe. Twenty-five years later, she’s an adult now. She’s probably out there living on her own and she may not feel like she was ever really part of that family and that’s when it’s time to take a DNA test. There’s something deep inside somebody that they just don’t feel like they were in the right spot. We pray that she was loved and taken care of, but we want her home with us to love and take care of and get to know our family. My mom is 91 years old now. I lost my dad last January and I want her to come home to meet my mom. We’ve lost Steve’s parents and it’s time for her to come meet her family."
Though the disappearance of their daughter left a huge hole in their family, the Aisenbergs say they don’t let it define them.
"It’s impacted us greatly, but I can’t say that we let it define us," Marlene Aisenberg stated. "I think that we pulled our strength, and we live with grief every day in a different way. You learn how to push that grief down so that you can move forward, and it’s there. It will always be there until she comes home."
Steven Aisenberg said one thing they’ve always tried to do was keep the focus on their other two children, William and Monica, who were 8 and 4 when their baby sister disappeared.
The couple said they tried to give them the best childhood and life they could, despite what happened.
An age-progression photo of Sabrina on Marlene Aisenberg's phone.
"I know it’s affected them in ways we’ll never know because they don’t share it with us, and we don’t push them hard on that," Steven Aisenberg shared. "We just let them know that it’ll be OK. We’re working toward trying to bring her home."
William and Monica are now 33 and 29. William is married with a 2-year-old son named Nathan, who the Aisenbergs say loves to play in what they call Sabrina’s room.
Bringing Sabrina Home
Every few years, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children releases an age-progression photo of Sabrina in hopes somebody recognizes the now 25-year-old woman.
Age-progression photo of Sabrina Aisenberg at age 23. Courtesy of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
FOX 13 reached out to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office for an update on the case and while an agency spokeswoman said they do not have someone who can speak on it, in order to protect ‘the integrity of the decades-long ongoing investigation,’ she did provide the following statement:
"Twenty-five now, we’ve been married 36 years and our family is still holding it together waiting for her to come home and that’s what we want more than anything," Marlene Aisenberg stated.
The Aisenbergs keep those photos along with Sabrina’s baby photos throughout the house.
"We still have photos of Sabrina throughout the house, and she’s always in our hearts and always with us, and we believe with all our heart that, that’s going to happen, and she’s going to come home to our family," Marlene Aisenberg shared. "You find where you have strength and when I’m having a bad time Steve’s there to pick me up and, you know, our whole life we’ve had to move forward. William and Monica are amazing adults and living very productive lives. We’re a very close family and that’s what it’s all about. It’s keeping our family together and being strong for when she does come home and incorporate back into us."
And when she does come home, Marlene Aisenberg says she plans to donate all of Sabrina’s baby clothes, saved in that cedar chest, with her daughter by her side.
Anyone with information on the disappearance of Sabrina Aisenberg is asked to contact the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office at 813-247-8200 or the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at 1-800-843-5678.