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New leads emerge in Aisenberg case

TAMPA — The St. Petersburg Times has learned that detectives are pursuing new leads in the 1997 disappearance of baby Sabrina Aisenberg, armed with jailhouse chatter secretly recorded by an inmate who wore a wire.

Sheriff's investigators for the first time have shown mug shots to residents of the Aisenbergs' old Valrico neighborhood and have inquired about boats for sale at the time of the crime. They are asking other people about a long-haired felon known to frequent Tampa Bay by boat.

The disappearance of 5-month-old Sabrina was followed by years of drama, as prosecutors brought criminal charges against her parents, only to see their case collapse after embarrassing errors and tactical flaws.

The investigation's new focus included a man wearing a listening device at the behest of Hillsborough sheriff's detectives and providing them with information from a jailmate, Scott D. Overbeck, according to court transcripts.

Overbeck, a 6-foot-tall biker described by friends as an adrenaline junkie who loved boats, is currently in custody, facing federal charges of being a felon in possession of a firearm and an explosive device.

Authorities have not named Overbeck, 44, as a suspect, but his friends say detectives have questioned them in recent months. Investigators asked one man if he knew of any connection between Overbeck and Marlene Aisenberg, the baby's mother.

Detectives showed the friend a photo of a small boat that he recognized as having sat idle in Overbeck's driveway and garage for many years.

Some former Aisenberg neighbors got the sense that investigators had made significant progress in the case.

"They said they were real close to solving it," said neighbor Charles Jones.

Tony Peluso, the sheriff's attorney in charge of the investigation, declined Friday to answer any questions.

• • •

The Hillsborough Sheriff's Office has followed some 2,000 tips since Sabrina vanished from a crib in her family's home on Nov. 24, 1997. Last December, after the 10-year anniversary passed, Peluso said more investigators had been added to the case to chase down "some very promising leads."

That same month, court records show, detectives returned a man to Hillsborough County who had been serving a three-year prison sentence for battering a police officer.

The man, Dennis Byron, was a friend of Overbeck's. Records show he once was in two car crashes in one day while driving Overbeck's Dodge Ram.

Detectives had visited him in prison to learn what he knew about the Aisenberg case, Byron said.

After his Dec. 20 return to the Orient Road Jail, Byron wore a wire to obtain information from Overbeck, he later told a judge.

The two men were in jail together for 50 days. At a court hearing later, Byron said his recorded conversation with Overbeck had confirmed everything that Byron previously told detectives about Sabrina's disappearance. He also said he passed a polygraph test.

In court, Byron did not offer specifics of that information. But authorities rewarded his cooperation. In January, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Wayne Timmerman reduced Byron's three-year mandatory-minimum prison sentence to 24 months of community control.

Karen Stanley, second-in-command to Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober, attended the hearing and did not object.

On Friday, she told the St. Petersburg Times that at Peluso's request she did not challenge the resentencing. Citing the pending investigation, she declined to elaborate.

"Karen is entitled to say whatever she wants," Peluso said. "I'm not going to comment on an active and ongoing investigation."

Byron was rearrested Feb. 8 after fleeing his residential drug treatment program. He tried to get leniency from a new judge, based on his previous assistance to the Sheriff's Office, but a prosecutor said detectives had severed ties.

The judge sentenced Byron to more than five years in prison. He is now at Gainesville Correctional Institution.

• • •

During the past five or six months, detectives have focused attention on the people who know Overbeck.

They talked to John Doyle, 60, who cared for Overbeck's father at his Dana Shores home while Clark Overbeck was ailing from cancer. The elder Overbeck, who owned a successful construction company that built apartment complexes around the Tampa Bay area, died in 1999.

Doyle said this week that he recognized Dennis Byron from a pack of photographs shown by sheriff's detectives.

"He was a mess," Doyle said, characterizing Byron as the kind of guy who always invited trouble.

Doyle said he also recognized a picture of Scott Overbeck's boat, a narrow, white, "miniature cigarette boat," with two seats, and a red stripe.

Most of the time Doyle saw the boat, it was sitting with a broken motor in the driveway of the Overbeck home at 3903 E Eden Roc Circle. Early on, Doyle said, Scott and a girlfriend used the boat on canals and in the bay near the Courtney Campbell Parkway.

For years, the boat sat in a driveway already cluttered with dune buggies, a refrigerator, a Corvette and more. "It looked like a junk yard," Doyle said.

He figures detectives have the boat now, given the photo they showed him.

"What I heard," Doyle said, is "Scott … said he bought that boat off one of the Aisenbergs. I don't know if that's true."

Doyle scoffed this week as he recalled his reaction to a detective asking about any link between Marlene Aisenberg and Scott Overbeck.

"You go look at Scott and you tell me what woman? He looks like Man Mountain Dean!" Doyle said. "That's ridiculous. No woman of that stature!"

• • •

Overbeck's arrest history dates back to 1987. In March 2007, he was sentenced to two years of house arrest on a cocaine possession charge. He has served probation for resisting an officer with violence, driving under the influence, fleeing and eluding at high speeds and battery. Detectives once described his home as a "distribution point and supply house for crack cocaine."

According to Overbeck's neighbors and acquaintances, Overbeck kept company with fellow drug users and Willie Crain, a crab fisherman awaiting execution for the murder of 7-year-old Amanda Brown.

"Scott knew Crain enough to stop and speak to him if he saw him on the water tending to his traps,'' said Thomas J. Obenski, a 40-year-old construction superintendent who once lived and partied with Scott Overbeck.

Amanda disappeared on Sept. 9, 1998 — less than 10 months after Sabrina Aisenberg vanished from her parent's home. The second-grader's body has never been found, but prosecutors alleged that Crain snatched Amanda from her bed, murdered her and disposed of her body in one of his crab traps in Old Tampa Bay.

Overbeck, who used the nickname "Tombstone" as a biker, sometimes gave chilling accounts of his own activities, Obenski said, leaving friends to wonder if the tales were flights of fancy or terrible truth.

Once, asked how his Oldsmobile Cutlass had been severely damaged, Overbeck said, "I killed a n----- last night while I was doing 120,'' Obenski said. After that, the Cutlass "just vanished,'' said Obenski.

"Scott was a very demented and twisted person,'' Obenski said.

Obenski recalled Overbeck owning boats, including one like the boat in the sheriff's photo — a scaled-down cigarette boat — with no title or registration. Obenski always wondered if it had been stolen.

• • •

Several of the Aisenbergs' former neighbors have been questioned recently by investigators who showed them pictures. None of the neighbors recognized them.

Charles Jones, who lived next door to the Aisenbergs, said detectives asked if he'd seen a boat parked in their driveway the night Sabrina disappeared. Not then or ever, Jones said.

Mary and Peter McDonald, who live a few blocks up the street, didn't remember the Aisenbergs having a boat or water scooters either.

The Hillsborough County detectives told the couple they were starting from scratch on the case.

Tampa defense lawyer Barry Cohen, who represents Steve and Marlene Aisenberg, had no comment Friday. Federal prosecutors indicted the couple in 1999, accusing them of lying about their daughter's disappearance. But the charges were dropped after a federal judge called parts of the indictment "trivial," "gratuitous" and "misleading" and called the secretly recorded audiotapes from the Aisenbergs' home largely unintelligible.

Interim U.S. Attorney Robert O'Neill said his office has stopped investigating the Aisenberg case.

"We closed out any case that may have ever been open," O'Neill said Friday. "I don't foresee it ever being reopened. There is no open case with us."

Prosecutor Stanley said the Sheriff's Office sometimes consulted the State Attorney's Office about their investigation, but "it's been a while since I've heard anything about the case."

A man who inherited Overbeck's father's construction business and has known the younger Overbeck since they were teens believes that detectives are wasting their time with him.

"They are trying to connect him to some larger realm," Jeffrey Johnson said. "There is no larger realm. He's a druggie. That's all he is."

Times staff writers Jeff Testerman, Kevin Graham, Michael Van Sickler and William R. Levesque contributed to this report. Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

Time line

Key developments in the Aisenberg case:

Nov. 24, 1997: 5-month-old Sabrina Aisenbergs reported missing from her Valrico home. Investigation begins.

Nov. 26, 1997: Steve and Marlene Aisenberg hire attorney Barry Cohen.

May 1999: The Aisenbergs move back to Maryland.

Sept. 9, 1999: Federal prosecutors charge the Aisenbergs with conspiracy and giving false statements.

Feb. 21, 2001: Prosecutors drop the charges against the Aisenbergs.

March 2002: Cohen and the Aisenbergs disclose their intent to sue the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office for malicious prosecution.

May 2003: Investigators test the DNA of a girl in Illinois who looks like Sabrina.

Feb. 6, 2004: An appeals court rules the government must pay the Aisenbergs $1.3-million for attorney's fees.

September 2006: The Aisenbergs drop their lawsuit against the Sheriff's Office.

New leads emerge in Aisenberg case 07/25/08 [Last modified: Monday, July 28, 2008 5:04pm]

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