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Informant: Aisenberg baby was dumped in bay

Baby Sabrina Aisenberg in an image captured from home video.

Special to the Times (2001)

Baby Sabrina Aisenberg in an image captured from home video.

TAMPA — For 34 days, two old friends shared unit 5-C, cell room 9 at the Orient Road Jail. One man thought he had lucked into a familiar roommate. The other man, equipped by detectives with a wired Walkman radio, knew better.

That informant, Dennis Byron, had a mission. During hundreds of hours of secretly recorded conversations starting in late December, he attempted to get his cell mate, Scott D. Overbeck, to tell what he knew about the 1997 disappearance of baby Sabrina Aisenberg.

Overbeck told Byron he was asked to dispose of the 5-month-old’s body, which he chopped up and dumped in crab traps in waters near the Courtney Campbell Parkway, according to a sworn statement to investigators from Byron obtained Saturday by the St. Petersburg Times.

Overbeck said he had retrieved a boat with the dead baby inside from the Aisenbergs’ home in Valrico before Sabrina was reported missing, Byron claimed in the statement. Byron said he was under the impression that Overbeck had done so at the behest of a longtime investigator for the law firm that would soon represent the baby’s parents.

These jailhouse chats appear to play into a new line of questioning in the decade-old investigation into Sabrina’s disappearance. Byron’s attorney, John Trevena, said Saturday that the Hillsborough sheriff’s attorney spearheading the investigation told him there were independent sources who corroborated the information gleaned by Byron.

Sheriff’s attorney Tony Peluso said “he had a rock solid case,” Trevena told the Times. Barry Cohen, the attorney for Steve and Marlene Aisenberg who has long feuded with the Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office over the case, blasted the current focus of the investigation as a misguided attempt to implicate him in Sabrina’s disappearance.

On Saturday, he gave the St. Petersburg Times copies of sworn statements he took last week from Overbeck and Byron, in which both men said they had no proof that Cohen or an investigator from his firm had orchestrated the removal of Sabrina’s body but that detectives had tried to get them to say as much. Byron said detectives told him that Cohen was “a prime target in their investigation.”

“That is the most ridiculous, absurd thing,” Cohen said. “What facts after 11 years of investigating support any such nonsense?”

Peluso and Sheriff David Gee did not return calls for comment Saturday.

• • •

Byron says his and Overbeck’s lives were a revolving party. Living in the waterfront Dana Shores home that had belonged to Overbeck’s father, they spent Overbeck’s inheritance on cocaine and sex. Both men have long rap sheets.

“If Scott was breathing awake, he was under the influence of cocaine,” Byron, 33, told Cohen last week. They spoke at the Gainesville Correctional Institution, where Byron is serving a nearly six-year sentence for violating his community control.

One night in 2005 when they were both high, Byron said, Overbeck showed him a small ski boat, maybe 12 or 14 feet long with two seats, in the driveway. The boat was old except for new black carpeting at the bow. Overbeck told Byron to smell the small space in the front that had “probably about enough room in that area for a small infant child,” Byron said in the statement.

Byron said it smelled like there possibly had once been something dead there. “At this point is when he told me that, you know, the baby Sabrina Aisenberg was in that boat,” he said in the statement.

Overbeck also said that he had “some dirt” on Cohen and a man named John E. Tranquillo. Known as Johnny T, Tranquillo worked for Cohen’s law firm and lived a few houses from Overbeck. Tranquillo died in 2006; his obituary mentions his work on the Aisenberg case.

Overbeck “had told me that, that, you know, that he had went out and picked the boat up out there at the house, the same house that was in the newspaper, on the TV,” Byron said in his statement. “He had led me to believe that he was basically operating under the instructions of his father for Johnny T.”

Tranquillo was an acquaintance of Overbeck’s father.

Detectives caught wind of these claims just last year. They enlisted Byron’s help as an informant in exchange for getting a judge to reduce his three-year prison sentence for battery on a law enforcement officer to 24 months of community control.

• • •

At a meeting in May, detectives showed the Aisenbergs a pack of mug shots. They asked whether the couple had ever owned a boat and whether Marlene Aisenberg had had an affair with a man featured in the photos. The couple answered no to both questions, Cohen said.

Investigators told Marlene that they might have discovered what happened to her baby and that the outcome wasn’t good, Cohen recalled.

“They were full of s---,” he said Saturday.

Cohen was incensed when he got hints this month of the investigation’s new direction. He launched his own investigation, believing that Peluso, the sheriff’s attorney, has a vendetta against him and is building a case based on the allegations of felons.

Cohen is used to being on the attack, not under it. For more than three decades, the defense attorney has battled prosecutors in high-profile criminal cases. His legal machine kept teacher Jennifer Porter out of prison after two children died in a hit-and-run accident in 2004 and won an acquittal for William LaTorre, the Pinellas chiropractor accused in the deaths of four teenagers in a 1989 boating accident.

Cohen has a history of bad blood with the Sheriff’s Office over the Aisenberg case. He mounted a vigorous defense when federal prosecutors indicted Steve and Marlene Aisenberg in 1999, accusing them of lying about their daughter’s disappearance. The charges were dropped after a judge questioned the way law enforcement officials went about collecting evidence, particularly secret recordings from the couple’s home that prosecutors said were incriminating but that turned out to be largely unintelligible.

A federal judge ordered the government to pay the Aisenbergs $2.87-million in legal fees. At the time, Peluso was a federal prosecutor who argued that Cohen’s firm should get only $250,000.

Ironically, secret recordings may once again be playing a key role in the Aisenberg case, this time from Byron’s conversations with Overbeck. The details of the tapes have not been made public, making it impossible to know whether they back up Byron’s sworn statement.

Cohen’s take?

“It’s called confabulation,” he said. “It’s putting facts in the story to make it fit.” He says the Aisenbergs never owned a boat.

Friday evening at the Pinellas County Jail, where he is being held on unrelated federal charges, Overbeck, 44, told Cohen he played no role in the baby’s disappearance, Cohen said. Overbeck said he had followed the Aisenberg case when it first broke. As years passed without any answers regarding Sabrina’s whereabouts, Overbeck said he began to wonder if a boat he had purchased without official paperwork from a woman in Valrico the week before the baby vanished might have played a role in the case.

The boat seemed like it had gotten an overhaul, Overbeck told Cohen. And he thought it had space enough at the front to hide a baby’s body.

“Just a hunch,” he said in his statement. “There’s no fact to it.”

Overbeck said he mentioned the possibility once to Tranquillo, Cohen’s investigator. “He told me I was crazy,” Overbeck recalled.

Overbeck said in his statement that neither Tranquillo nor Cohen asked him to get rid of the body. He said he was “100,000 percent sure” that he never had anything to do with the baby at all. When Byron tried to imply those things in their cell, Overbeck said he mocked his suggestions.

Byron admitted during his statement Wednesday to Cohen that he had made assumptions regarding Cohen’s and Tranquillo’s involvement because of their later roles in the case.

Byron and Overbeck said detectives and Peluso seemed to have it out for Cohen and tried to put words in their mouths to support their theories.

Overbeck’s attorney, Dino Michaels, could not be reached for comment Saturday. Cohen doesn’t believe the claims that the Sheriff’s Office may be close to breaking the case. He thinks authorities are ignoring obvious flaws in Byron’s account in their eagerness to focus suspicion toward him.

“They’re very hurt,” he said of the Aisenbergs, “because they thought these people were really trying to find out what happened with the baby.”

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

Time line

Nov. 24, 1997: 5-month-old Sabrina Aisenberg 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.

December 2007: Dennis Byron enters a prison cell in the Orient Road Jail wearing a wire and begins surreptitiously recording the statements of cell mate Scott Overbeck.

Informant: Aisenberg baby was dumped in bay 07/27/08 [Last modified: Saturday, August 2, 2008 7:34am]

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