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Aisenberg informant: I was used

TAMPA — His feet shuffle as he enters a small conference room at the Orient Road Jail, chains securing his ankles.

A few months ago, Dennis Byron says he came to this same room regularly — no shackles, no cuffs — to talk with sheriff's officials about a missing baby named Sabrina Aisenberg.

Byron says he secretly recorded conversations with cell mate and friend Scott Overbeck. He says Overbeck admitted to cutting up the 5-month-old's body and disposing of it in Old Tampa Bay.

Back when Byron was feeding detectives information about the notorious 1997 case, he says, he got nothing but praise.

"It was high fives," he told reporters for the St. Petersburg Times and a television station in a jailhouse interview Tuesday night. "It was, 'Man, you're doing a good job. You're getting everything that needs to be got.' "

Initially, his cooperation won him freedom from a three-year prison sentence. But he violated house arrest and the three-year sentence was replaced by a five-year one.

As he sat down to talk about it all Tuesday, Byron lifted his chained fists before him.

"This is my thank-you from the Hillsborough sheriff's department for my cooperation," Byron said, rattling the metal.

He said if he could go back in time, he would never have agreed to inform on Overbeck.

But on Wednesday, he got a break. Judge Wayne Timmerman sided with Byron, restoring the sentence to three years.

• • •

Byron grew up in Town 'N Country —"on skid row," he says — and learned not to be a snitch. It was "the code of the street," he said. He didn't tell on the dealers he knew in 20-plus years of using drugs, he said.

At first he kept it to himself when Overbeck talked about disposing of Sabrina's body, Byron said. But in August 2007, his girlfriend gave birth. He thought about cleaning up his life.

Last fall, he was sentenced to three years for a crime committed before he learned she was pregnant, he said.

Detectives came in November offering him leniency if he helped them in the investigation. He said he turned them down until they showed him a picture of his baby.

"I'm not a fool to go through an investigation like this without asking for a lawyer," Byron says. "I'm a fool because I allowed them to persuade me and tell me I didn't need a lawyer."

• • •

For 34 days, Byron kept a Walkman in a cell he shared with Overbeck. When he got Overbeck talking about the Aisenberg case, he'd turn on the device to pick up the conversations, he said.

"Scott had no reason not to trust me," he said.

Overbeck said he had an affair with Marlene Aisenberg, Byron said Tuesday. Her attorney, Barry Cohen, denies that. And in an interview last month with Cohen, Byron said Overbeck both denied and affirmed an affair.

He said Overbeck talked about taking a small boat from the Aisenbergs and disposing of their baby's body in crab traps.

Overbeck led Byron to believe that Cohen's now-deceased investigator, John E. Tranquillo, was involved, Byron said. Tranquillo was a friend of Overbeck's father.

"I can't sit here and tell you that Barry Cohen's office was involved" in the baby's disappearance, Byron said Tuesday. "But from what Scott told me ... Johnny T was involved."

However, in the interview last month with Cohen, Byron admitted he may only have assumed Tranquillo was involved.

Byron says he heard talk of DNA evidence from the boat.

Cohen says the Aisenbergs didn't have a boat, and state records show nothing registered to them. He has denied any involvement by his office.

The Aisenbergs' former rabbi, Marc Sack, says he was the connection between the couple and Cohen. After the baby was reported missing, police had begun questioning them in an adversarial way.

"I remember very specifically telling them needed an attorney and they needed the very best and that was Barry Cohen," he said Wednesday.

Dino Michaels, Overbeck's attorney, pointed out that the Sheriff's Office has not charged his client in the case. "If they're as confident as Dennis Byron, they should do something about it," he said. "Right now, there's nothing."

The Sheriff's Office won't discuss its investigation.

•••

When Byron met with sheriff's detectives, he says, they lauded his work and encouraged more. Money appeared in his canteen fund. He had phone access and visits with family and friends.

But he defends himself against criticism that he had something to gain by implicating Overbeck.

"I didn't go to the sheriff's department," he said. "They came to me. I was doing my time, minding my own business."

He has an explanation for why, when released to house arrest, he jeopardized his sentencing arrangement and wound up back in prison.

He said he feared for his family's safety. A detective said he was going to see Byron's mother about some threats. And his ex-girlfriend called crying and scared about threats.

He said he asked a detective to intervene, but was told it would have to wait. So he left to try to help get his ex-girlfriend to safety, he says. That's when the sentence went sour, he says.

Byron wants no more favors from the Sheriff's Office. He says he feels used and discarded.

"They got everything they need from me," he said. "They don't need me any more."

Since the Times first reported the latest turn in the investigation last month, the Florida Department of Corrections moved Byron from the general population to closer confinement, with limited access to visitors and other inmates.

He fears that his life will never be the same.

"I wrote my death sentence for what I did with the Sheriff's Office," he says. "And now I'm here, in chains. Everywhere I go, I'm stuck in chains."

Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at rcatalanello@sptimes.com or (813) 266-3383.

Aisenberg informant: I was used 08/13/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 20, 2008 11:54am]
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