TAMPA — Defense attorney Barry Cohen still feels like he's in a bull's-eye, never mind that sheriff's officials said Sunday that they aren't targeting him.
He doesn't believe them. Nor does he think anyone else should. So, on Monday, Cohen assembled a throng of journalists.
He said the Sheriff's Office has been trying to frame him, by making it appear that his law firm helped dispose of the remains of 5-month-old Sabrina Aisenberg.
Along with answering questions about a missing baby, a boat and DNA, the attorney borrowed the words of felons to bolster his suspicions.
He quoted self-described informant Dennis Byron and Byron's longtime friend Scott Overbeck. Byron said detectives put the two in the same cell and enlisted Byron to find out whether Overbeck had a role in the baby's 1997 disappearance — but also made it clear they wanted to get something on Cohen.
A former Cohen investigator, now dead, had known Overbeck's father.
Cohen interviewed Byron at Gainesville Correctional Institution last week and asked him about conversations with several Hillsborough sheriff's officials.
"Was there any discussion … that they intended to bring me down or take me down, words to that effect?" Cohen asked, according to a transcript of the conversation.
"That all of you are going to go down," Byron responded. "That you were going to go down, that the Aisenbergs were going to go down and that Overbeck is going down."
Byron said it was clear to him that Cohen was a "prime target."
Cohen asked Byron about Tony Peluso, the Sheriff's Office attorney handling the Aisenberg investigation.
"Well, why did he tell you he didn't like me?" Cohen asked.
"He didn't directly come out and say, 'Mr. Byron, I can't stand Mr. Cohen,' " Byron responded. "He never did that. He just kind of said, you know, 'Well, Mr. Cohen will get his too. You don't have to worry about Mr. Cohen.' "
Cohen and Peluso have a history. Cohen vigorously defended parents Steve and Marlene Aisenberg against federal charges of conspiracy and giving false statements about Sabrina's disappearance. Prosecutors dropped the charges in 2001 after a federal judge questioned the way authorities collected evidence, particularly secret audio that turned out to be inaudible.
When a judge ordered the government to pay the Aisenbergs $2.87-million in legal fees, Peluso was a federal prosecutor who argued that Cohen's firm should get only $250,000.
Now, Peluso is overseeing the Sheriff's Office investigation, a fact Cohen says he finds troubling, given Peluso's past involvement in the case.
"What the hell is he doing out there as a prosecutor or an investigator?" Cohen said. "He's a civil lawyer."
Cohen said that after David Gee was elected sheriff in 2004, he assured Cohen he would staff the investigation with a fresh crew. It was on that condition that Cohen made the Aisenbergs available to detectives in May to look at a series of mug shots.
The defense attorney said he was surprised Peluso was so involved.
Overbeck told Cohen last week in a sworn statement that officials placed him in solitary confinement when his lawyer refused to allow Peluso's pointed questions about Cohen.
"They're trying to frame me, because I zealously defended the Aisenbergs," Cohen said, "and they're trying to use these low life people who need them to get out of jail."
Peluso, who joined the sheriff's legal staff in 2006, did not comment Monday. Nor did the Sheriff's Office, standing by Sunday's statement denying Cohen was "a subject, target, suspect or person of interest."
According to the sworn statements first made public by the St. Petersburg Times on Sunday, Overbeck told Byron that an investigator in Cohen's law firm named John E. Tranquillo asked Overbeck to dispose of Sabrina's body. Tranquillo died in 2006.
Byron said in the statements that Overbeck told him he chopped up Sabrina's body and dumped it in crab traps in waters near the Courtney Campbell Parkway.
Overbeck said he had retrieved a boat with the dead baby inside from the Aisenbergs' home in Valrico before Sabrina was reported missing, Byron said in the statement.
John Trevena, Byron's attorney, agrees the Sheriff's Office has targeted Cohen and employed "outrageous" tactics.
Trevena said Peluso told him that if he refrained from telling the media Byron's story, "good things would happen for me. Likewise, the flip side of that is … that things wouldn't be so good for me if it did get media attention."
Trevena said he does not doubt Byron's recollection of conversations with Overbeck. But he does wonder whether Overbeck told Byron the truth.
"Anyone looking at this, including Mr. Byron, would think this sounds pretty far-fetched, but the Sheriff's Office didn't take that approach," Trevena said during his own news conference at his Largo law office Monday.
He said Peluso told him last week that detectives had "rock-solid evidence" corroborating Byron's statements.
Trevena said the Sheriff's Office purchased Overbeck's boat for $2,500 in November. Both Cohen and Trevena said they have heard rumors that detectives obtained DNA evidence from the boat.
Though the Sheriff's Office remains silent, Cohen has his own theory about the DNA rumor.
He speculates that detectives may have told people they have DNA evidence just to get them to talk.
Times staff writer William R. Levesque contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3383.