TAMPA — The Hillsborough Sheriff's Office denied Sunday that investigators are trying to implicate defense attorney Barry Cohen as they explore new leads in the Sabrina Aisenberg case.
"We feel compelled to deny the implication that our investigation has ever viewed Mr. Barry Cohen as a subject, target, suspect or person of interest," the agency said in a prepared statement.
"Assertions to the contrary are simply wrong, baseless and designed to distract from the legitimate endeavor in which we are engaged."
Steve and Marlene Aisenberg's 5-month-old daughter had been reported missing for two days when Cohen emerged as their attorney on Nov. 26, 1997.
On Saturday, he accused the Sheriff's Office of trying to link him or his law office to the disposal of Sabrina's body, which has never been found. He said he believed sheriff's attorney Tony Peluso, who is leading the Aisenberg investigation, has a vendetta against him.
The Sheriff's Office statement released Sunday was written by Peluso and approved by Sheriff David Gee, a spokesman said.
Cohen bristled after hearing it.
"If Sheriff Gee feels that way, he needs to tell his investigators that," Cohen said.
The Sheriff's Office has remained quiet about the apparent new direction in its investigation. Sunday's statement said nothing new about the progress of the case but noted that some of the agency's informants are "more reliable and trustworthy than others."
"Regardless of the source, we are honor bound to lawfully investigate every viable lead, no matter whose feathers it might ultimately ruffle," it said.
On Saturday, the St. Petersburg Times reported that sheriff's investigators were asking around about a boat that may have been for sale around the time of Sabrina's disappearance and showing mug shots in her old neighborhood.
On Sunday, the Times published the substance of sworn statements from two jailed felons, one of whom said he had worn a listening device at the behest of detectives to get the other to discuss his alleged role in the disposal of the Aisenberg baby's remains.
The two men, informant Dennis Byron and former cellmate Scott D. Overbeck, also described detectives intent on building a case against Cohen.
Byron said detectives told him Cohen was "a prime target in their investigation."
Byron said he was under the impression that Overbeck was asked to dispose of the body at the behest of longtime Cohen investigator John E. Tranquillo, who died in 2006. Tranquillo knew Overbeck's father.
Byron said Overbeck told him he chopped up the body and put the remains in crab traps in waters near the Courtney Campbell Parkway.
Overbeck, in his sworn statement, said he had nothing to do with the baby's disappearance. He recalled buying a boat in Valrico, where the Aisenbergs lived, and wondering if it had played a role in the case.
Overbeck's attorney said Sunday that investigators have been so eager to implicate his client — who is currently in custody on unrelated federal charges — that they bought another jailed felon's story "hook, line and sinker."
The attorney, Dino Michaels, called the connection between Overbeck and the Aisenbergs "absurd."
"I think what happened is they got a jailhouse snitch and pre-programmed him to get Scott to say certain things," Michaels said.
He speculated the investigation's latest turn represents "some sort of payback to Barry Cohen by Tony Peluso."
Cohen mounted a vigorous defense when federal prosecutors indicted the Aisenbergs in 1999, accusing them of lying about their daughter's disappearance. Charges were dropped after a judge questioned the way law enforcement collected 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.
Byron's attorney, John Trevena, also said the investigation was being driven by Peluso's dislike of Cohen.
"I really believe he is being framed," Trevena said. "There's no question in my mind."
Times staff writer Colleen Jenkins contributed to this report. Emily Nipps can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3431.