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Tab kept rising in Sabrina Aisenberg investigation

TAMPA — The Hillsborough Sheriff's Office has spent $305,377 over the last two years investigating the decade-old disappearance of baby Sabrina Aisenberg, according to agency figures.

More than half of that was spent this year alone.

"That's probably the most they've ever spent on any investigation," said attorney John Trevena, who represents a jailhouse informant in the case. "Given the age of the case, one would not expect such resources to be devoted to one investigation."

Sheriffs spokeswoman Debbie Carter said she could not say how the cost compares to other cases.

Sabrina was 5 months old when she was reported missing from her Valrico home in 1997. Though her parents fell under a cloud of suspicion, a federal case accusing Steve and Marlene Aisenberg of lying about their daughter fell apart in 2001.

A judge threw out charges against them.

Since then, the Sheriff's Office has had to prove to the court that the case is still active. In 2005, Hillsborough County Circuit Judge William Levens ruled it was "ongoing and substantive."

But no one has been arrested and no new charges filed.

Last month, the St. Petersburg Times reported new activity in the case.

Detectives traveled to North Florida several times to interview inmate Dennis Byron.

Byron, 33, says he told detectives that his longtime friend Scott Overbeck admitted disposing of the baby's remains. For 34 days, Byron says, he secretly recorded Overbeck. Byron said deputies bought him lunches, paid for thousands of dollars in phone calls and paid off $300 in jail fees.

He says a detective told him the Sheriff's Office twice spent $2,500 take a helicopter to see him in Lake Butler, and that undercover detectives bought a boat from Overbeck. In a sworn statement last month, Overbeck told the Aisenbergs' attorney that he sold that boat for $2,200 or $2,300.

The Sheriff's Office has followed 2,000 tips since Sabrina disappeared. Typically, two deputies are assigned.

But in December, Tony Peluso, the Sheriff's Office attorney advising the investigation, said more detectives had been added. Carter couldn't confirm Thursday how many.

Barry Cohen, the Aisenbergs' attorney, has been an outspoken critic of the Sheriff's Office investigative tactics and says the recent round of questioning was designed to implicate him as payback for his criticism. The Sheriff's Office denies that.

"If their investigation is like what we have seen in this amateurish investigation so far, the money would be better spent on putting Tony Peluso and his cabal on the prostitution squad," Cohen said Thursday.

He wouldn't say how much the Aisenbergs have spent on the case. But in February 2004, an appeals court ruled that the government should pay the couple $1.3-million for attorney's fees.

Police investigation price tags are hard to compare, since each case differs. Marianne Pasha of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office said overtime accounts for the bulk of the expense.

Temple Terrace police reported they have spent $195,201 over three years in the unsolved 2006 case of missing ACTS Inc. executive Sandra Prince. Detectives conducted two extensive digs beneath the foundation of a South Tampa home for that case.

Three years after 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey was found murdered in her home in Boulder, Colo., officials announced the investigation had topped $1.3-million.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (813) 226-3383 and rcatalanello@sptimes.com.

Tab kept rising in Sabrina Aisenberg investigation 08/14/08 [Last modified: Thursday, August 21, 2008 2:43pm]

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