BETHESDA, Md. — They came here nine years ago, to the soft hills above the Potomac, as the search became a prosecution. They were four-fifths of a family.
This place has an Aramaic name. It means house of mercy. They moved into a house of brick. They bought a security system and locked the doors.
Bethesda is a safe place, 10 miles from Washington, a haven of old money and old stone. Narrow roads wind through the hardwoods, and the leaves form a high, green ceiling. It has been called the smartest town in America, because nearly 80 percent of its adults have graduated from college and nearly half hold advanced degrees.
The national naval hospital is here, and so are the National Institutes of Health. People mind their own business because they have so much to mind.
Here, 920 miles from Tampa Bay, where late last month they fell under fresh suspicion, Steve and Marlene Aisenberg began again.
Their story is one of Florida's great unsolved mysteries. On Nov. 24, 1997, the Aisenbergs, who lived east of Tampa in Valrico, said their 5-month-old daughter, Sabrina, had been stolen from her crib in the dead of night.
The report set off one of the largest missing-persons searches in state history. But authorities came to doubt their story. They wondered how a kidnapper could have gotten in the house without waking anyone up or making the dog bark. They began to suspect that Sabrina was dead and that the parents had something to do with it.
The parents took the Fifth before a grand jury. Deputies bugged their house, to listen in on more than 2,600 conversations in 79 days. Those taped conversations gave rise to a federal indictment on charges of lying to the authorities. Investigators said they heard Steve admitting he had hurt Sabrina while under the influence of cocaine. They quoted Marlene saying, "The baby's dead and buried! It was found dead because you did it!"
By then the Aisenbergs were already here in Maryland. When the indictment came down, the agents came to Steve's workplace and took him away in handcuffs. They came to the house for Marlene and smashed the door.
But the case dissolved after a federal judge declared the tapes largely inaudible. He said detectives transcribing the audio had taken statements out of context or changed their meaning. In February 2001, the government dropped the charges.
The case remained open. No one could find a trace of Sabrina.
• • •
In Bethesda, the Aisenbergs took out their trash without detectives sifting through it. They walked outside without seeing satellite trucks in the street. Their smiles were no longer converted into televised evidence of guilt.
They talked in the kitchen and bedroom without spies on the fringe. If they talked about salad and table-setting, no one claimed they had been discussing cocaine. There were no more disputed transcripts.
Their children, William and Monica, left toys on the floor and no one saw it as a sign of child neglect, as they had in Tampa.
They all lived in the house, the same place Steve grew up, surrounded by lawyers and bankers and analysts. Steve's father, Irwin, had bought the house in 1967, for $45,000. When he heard about the trouble in Florida he called Steve and offered to move out so his son's family could move in. And that's what happened. If the indictment was meant to pry them apart, to turn them against each other, it did not work. They fixed the door and put a basketball hoop in the driveway.
But the story wouldn't stay in Florida, and Steve had trouble finding a job.
"There was an attitude of, anyone who did away with their daughter, we don't want them," said the father, Irwin Aisenberg, a retired patent lawyer who now lives in a senior community a short drive away.
Finally, Steve's old friend Lanny Plotkin approached his own boss and asked him to hire Steve.
"If you're positive he's okay," the boss said, as Plotkin recalled last week.
"Yes," Plotkin said. And with that, Steve, 44, got a job delivering and operating high-tech equipment for eye doctors. After enough time passed, he was allowed to coach Monica's rec-league soccer team.
Steve Levy, a retired government analyst who lives around the corner from the Aisenbergs, estimates that a quarter of the people in the neighborhood have heard the story. When Marlene asked his wife about carpooling to Hebrew school, she thought about it and then agreed. Now they are friends.
"You have to give people the benefit of the doubt," Levy said.
Marlene, 45, found customer-service work with an airline. She recently got her real estate license and is listed in state records as a salesperson for Coldwell Banker. Bethesda is a good place to sell real estate. Values have held better here than they have elsewhere. The Aisenbergs' home, a split-level built in 1963, is assessed at nearly $758,000.
The children bought into Harry Potter and attended some of the best public schools in the country. They both went to Walt Whitman High School, home of the Vikings, where they found friendship and respect. Monica was an officer in the freshman class last year. William is headed for college.
If it is a charade, as the authorities said, it has been long and elaborate. They turned Steve's old room into Sabrina's room and set up a row of 2-foot teddy bears. They went on national television, pleading for her return. A few months ago, they sent out a mass e-mail with her latest age-progressed photo from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. She is grinning in the photo, with grown-up front teeth.
Friends and relatives are convinced of their innocence.
"The best thing would be to find her somehow," Plotkin said.
"Their hope is that she'll come back," Irwin Aisenberg said.
"It's just criminal how they were persecuted," Levy said.
But last week, none of them had heard of the latest development in the case: In a sworn statement, an informant said a friend of his had admitted retrieving Sabrina's body from the Aisenbergs' house and dumping it in the bay.
Authorities won't talk about their investigation, but they have been following up on the informant's details.
No one answered the door at the Aisenbergs' house last week. Newspapers piled up outside, and a chipmunk scurried up the drainpipe. A sign in front said Protected By Brinks Home Security.
The family left town the previous Friday, Plotkin said. They packed their bags and headed south. Florida is still good for something. They were going to Disney World.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Thomas Lake can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.