TAMPA — The January meeting involved a briefcase stuffed with cash.
It would all be Scott Overbeck's if he promised to keep quiet about his alleged role in the 1997 disappearance of baby Sabrina Aisenberg.
But the man with the cash, pretending to be an associate of the Aisenberg family, was actually a Hillsborough sheriff's deputy who wore a wire, allowing detectives to eavesdrop, according to a sworn statement from an informant in the case.
The covert recording was one of several tactics investigators used in their inquiry into Overbeck, said the informant, Dennis Byron.
But in a 310-page sworn statement taken last week, Byron said investigators were interested in others as well, including defense attorney Barry Cohen, who became the Aisenbergs' attorney just days after their daughter disappeared.
In Byron's statement, taken by Cohen himself, Byron described an investigation he said relied on wires, fake identities and phony payoffs to coax confessions and possibly other tips from Overbeck. Byron says Overbeck told him he was asked, apparently at the behest of one of Cohen's investigators, to pick up a boat from the Aisenbergs' home containing the dead body of Sabrina. He then told Byron he disposed of the remains in crab traps in Tampa Bay.
Byron's account provides an inside peek — though one possibly skewed by his self-interest — into how sheriff's deputies are investigating one of the county's most high-profile cold cases.
It is also a case in which the role of investigators has been an issue in the past. Years ago, when the Aisenbergs were charged with lying about their daughter's disappearance, the case collapsed. A special prosecutor in 2001 called some investigators' actions "cursory," "irresponsible" and "reckless."
After Byron described the most recent methods in his statement, Cohen and Byron's attorney, John Trevena, denounced investigators once more. Trevena called the tactics "outrageous" and unlike anything he has seen in his career.
Hillsborough sheriff's officials declined to comment beyond a statement issued Sunday saying Cohen wasn't a target of the investigation, and they wouldn't discuss details of the investigation.
Byron got involved in the case last year, when investigators learned of his recollections of a 2005 conversation in which he talked with his friend Overbeck about the Aisenberg case.
From the Gainesville Correctional Institution, Byron told Cohen he agreed to cooperate with investigators to reduce his sentence for battery on a law enforcement officer. He said detectives showed him photos of his newborn daughter, who was in foster care.
"They came to talk to me about getting me out of prison to get with my daughter," Byron told Cohen. "Kind of like, 'Let's show him some pie, and then pull it back a little and see if we can draw some information out of him.' "
On Dec. 19, Byron was given a radio and headphones that doubled as a recording device and was put in the same Hillsborough jail cell as Overbeck.
Byron said deputies encouraged him to cooperate by treating him to lunches, buying him thousands of dollars in phone calls and paying off about $300 in jail fees. On Dec. 22, detectives gave him an immunity agreement signed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Trezevant that they said gave him protection, Byron claimed.
Byron said he persuaded Overbeck to write a letter extorting $500,000 from the baby's father, Steve Aisenberg, claiming he still had the boat that once contained Sabrina's remains. Although detectives intended to intercept the letter, they needed to provide a plausible way for Overbeck to get an address so he could mail the letter to the Aisenbergs, who had moved to Maryland. So Byron volunteered his sister to get the address in her job as a paralegal.
Detectives had the sister write an address and cell phone number for Aisenberg and mail it to Byron so he could give it to Overbeck. The plan was to have Overbeck call the cell phone number, dummied with a Maryland area code. A detective posing as Steve Aisenberg would answer, Byron said, hoping to hear clues from Overbeck about the baby's whereabouts. But it didn't pan out because detectives didn't pick up the phone when Overbeck finally called, Byron said.
"They dropped the ball," Byron told Cohen in his statement. "So I called the detectives and I'm like, 'Dude, what are you all doing man?' "
He said detectives told him: "Oh, man, we left the phone in another room, we couldn't get to it."
Byron said he helped write the letter from Overbeck to Aisenberg. In it, they wrote lines like "the white boat, you want your little white boat back" and "I need a half-million dollars, I'm in some trouble." He said detectives then videotaped him dropping the letter into a U.S. postal box. They had a warrant to intercept the letter.
Days later, a man carrying a briefcase and posing as an Aisenberg representative arrived at the Hillsborough County jail to meet with Overbeck. During the meeting, Byron called detectives, who told him they were listening in to the conversation. After 45 minutes, Overbeck returned to his cell and told Byron that the briefcase was "full of money," Byron said.
Byron explained to Cohen that the briefcase was a message to "let him know they got the money" for the boat.
Times staff writer Rebecca Catalanello contributed to this report. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (813) 226-3402 or firstname.lastname@example.org.