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Lawyer defends late friend amid allegations in Aisenberg case

TAMPA — John E. Tranquillo had quadruple bypass surgery the day after Steve and Marlene Aisenberg reported their baby missing.

Defense lawyer Barry Cohen, his longtime friend and boss, remembers being in the waiting room the next day when the phone rang.

The Aisenbergs had called his office. They wanted legal help.

A decade would pass, with Cohen fending off federal charges that the couple lied about their daughter's disappearance. The Aisenbergs moved away. Tranquillo died of cancer.

But last week, when reports surfaced of new activity in the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office investigation, Cohen found himself with a new client: the reputation of his late friend.

An informant claimed to have heard a man admit to disposing of 5-month-old Sabrina Aisenberg's remains, possibly at the request of Tranquillo.

Cohen scoffed at the idea.

For more than 20 years, Tranquillo was the guy who did what Cohen asked, chauffeuring clients, photographing crime scenes, spying on people when the need arose.

Cohen looked to Tranquillo for blunt and honest advice. Street smart, he could read people. Barrel-chested and brash, he shooed away annoyances.

He kept an eye out for Cohen's family, picking up daughter Geena at the airport, fishing with son Kevin in Alaska. Cohen's children called him Uncle Johnny; most others called him Johnny T.

It was Tranquillo who carried his boss to the bathroom after Cohen's own heart surgery.

When Tranquillo turned 70, Cohen, then 65, threw a party, where he likened Tranquillo to a brother.

"I love Johnny from the core and soul of my existence," Cohen told a crowd of 130.

• • •

It was at a club pool in the 1960s that Cohen first saw Tranquillo, surrounded by children.

"Who is this guy?" Cohen asked the pool staff.

That's Johnny T, they responded. Each Sunday, he picked up kids at the Children's Home and took them swimming.

Cohen swore to repay the man's charity someday. In 1969, he made good, helping Tranquillo beat a drug charge.

Tranquillo had a few brushes with police, but none since 1980. Born Dec. 11, 1934, he grew up in a family of six kids in north Boston, raised by a Sicilian mother who sang when she washed clothes. His 20s were still ahead of him when he moved to Tampa with two friends, brothers Lou and Guido Caggiano, to open a club called Chez Louie. Other clubs followed for Tranquillo, including the Trophy Room.

On July 7, 1962, both Tranquillo and Guido Caggiano were arrested on charges relating to prostitution. Cohen attributes it to prostitutes hanging out in bars. Then, in the mid 1980s, Lou Caggiano was convicted on racketeering and bookmaking charges.

When the Trophy Room closed, Cohen hired Tranquillo.

"I enjoyed being around him," Cohen said.

Everyone saw Tranquillo around town, sometimes with two women on his arms, sometimes driving a white Cadillac convertible. He wore jewelry and talked like a wise guy. Two fingertips were missing, reportedly taken by mower.

"Nice guy who smiled at everybody and knew everyone," said former Mayor Dick Greco.

He never married but had two sons. Shawn Hersey, 47, first spoke to his father on the phone when he was 19, he said. Over the years, they spent time at Cohen's house, Bucs games and, just once, fishing.

Tranquillo seemed to take in the salty wind with gusto until he began throwing up in a bucket. He had a dock at his house on Eden Roc Circle in Dana Shores, but didn't like boats and never owned one, Hersey said.

His Eden Roc neighbors included Clark Overbeck, who worked on Tranquillo's home and lived down the street. The two rode motorcycles together.

Overbeck had a son named Scott, who was in and out of jail. The Overbecks didn't matter much until late last year, when Scott's name came up in the Aisenberg case.

By then, Clark Overbeck was gone. He died in 1999.

Nor did Tranquillo live to defend himself against the allegation that would lay dormant for years. He died of bladder cancer in 2006. At his side: his brother, his friend Josephine Vitale — and, of course, Cohen.

• • •

Last year, the Sheriff's Office heard whispers from a prison informant named Dennis Byron about missing Sabrina.

Byron said Scott Overbeck led him to believe that he had — at Tranquillo's behest — retrieved a boat from the Aisenberg home with the baby's remains in it.

Detectives wired Byron to record Overbeck, the informant said in a sworn statement released by Cohen on July 26. The recordings have not been made public.

Cohen refutes involvement by Tranquillo, furious that the Sheriff's Office could be "stepping on the grave of my dear friend." Tranquillo, after all, was hours away from heart surgery when the baby was reported missing.

Longtime girlfriend Kay Bullard recalls talking about the Aisenbergs with Tranquillo.

"He was adamant that they were innocent," she said.

Overbeck, in a sworn statement, implicated neither himself nor Tranquillo.

Byron's statements varied. He said Overbeck led him to believe that he was "operating under the instructions of his father for Johnny T." But he also said he may have made assumptions while talking to Overbeck.

The Sheriff's Office said Sunday that Cohen was not a target of its investigation, but did not discuss Tranquillo.

• • •

In the downtown law office, poster-sized photos hang in memory of Tranquillo. His image beams from a news photograph, celebrating an acquittal.

"Always looking over my shoulder," Cohen said.

In one photo, Tranquillo, bald and weak from chemotherapy, reads to Cohen's son.

In the largest photo, Tranquillo cradles the son, Barry Alexander, just after birth.

In dark glasses, he looks like a bodyguard.

Times researcher John Martin and staff writers Kevin Graham, Rebecca Catalanello, Michael Van Sickler and Colleen Jenkins contributed to this report. Justin George can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3368.

Lawyer defends late friend amid allegations in Aisenberg case 08/02/08 [Last modified: Thursday, August 7, 2008 11:25am]
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