TAMPA — Growing up in Phoenix, Tony Peluso knew he wanted to be a lawyer or a paratrooper.
He found out he could be both.
In 1967 he joined the paratroopers and headed off to Vietnam, where he earned a Bronze Star. Then he pursued a law degree, re-enlisting in 1975 and serving as a judge advocate.
In 1992 he left the Army, with the rank of lieutenant colonel, and went to work with the U.S. Attorney's Office, a post he held for nearly 15 years.
Peluso said he followed the example set by his dad's best friend, an attorney.
"He a was decent, honorable, loyal, do-the-right-thing kind of guy," Peluso said. "Something I always wanted to be."
Now he finds himself under fire as the attorney advising the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office investigation about the 1997 disappearance of 5-month-old Sabrina Aisenberg.
A high-powered defense attorney representing Sabrina's parents has singled out Peluso, blasting the 61-year-old for trying to frame him. The lawyer says Peluso is using secretly taped jailhouse chatter between inmates to implicate him in the baby's disappearance. Those accusations have reverberated across shock jock radio and nightly newscasts in recent days, thrusting Peluso into the spotlight.
"If his integrity is called into question, that's his life," said his wife, Kathy Peluso, who is an assistant U.S. attorney. "That's what bothers him the most."
Defense attorney Barry Cohen said Peluso's investigation is payback because he defended Sabrina's parents, Steve and Marlene Aisenberg. In 2001, federal prosecutors dropped charges against the couple over making false statements. Cohen sued and won about $1.3-million in legal fees.
Cohen said Peluso is now trying to tie him to Scott Overbeck, a convicted felon, who allegedly told a cellmate that he disposed of Sabrina's body.
In a sworn statement, Overbeck has been described as acting at the direction of John E. Tranquillo, an investigator in Cohen's office who died in 2006.
The Sheriff's Office has repeatedly denied Cohen's claim.
"I try to be professional at every moment," Peluso said, declining to comment on the Aisenberg investigation.
An Arizona State graduate, Peluso developed a reputation as a zealous litigator during his military career, his wife said. He worked tough cases in the procurement fraud division in the Army's Judge Advocate General's Office in Washington.
A big, career-making case helped him reach his dream of becoming a federal prosecutor. Yet that same case raised questions about his fairness.
It involved a Lakeland munitions company that folded in 1988. Peluso worked out of the Tampa U.S. Attorney's Office preparing a case against the company, which was accused of bilking millions from the feds.
Ultimately, 10 out of 13 executives pleaded guilty or were convicted of other charges.
"That was a big case. It required a lot of investigation,'' said Assistant U.S. Attorney Donald Hansen.
But Wallace Nutting, a four-star general who was acquitted in that case, said Peluso went too far. He and his attorney, Sandy Weinberg, said that the evidence against Nutting was weak and that Peluso just included him to grab headlines.
"In all the battlefields, I never saw anyone as truly evil as Peluso," Nutting told the St. Petersburg Times in 1993.
Peluso stood by his prosecution of Nutting. "Being assistant U.S. attorney is not a popularity contest," he said Tuesday.
The case established Peluso at the U.S. Attorney's Office.
Michael Seigel, a former second in command at the U.S. Attorney's Office in Tampa who once supervised Peluso, called him a "go-to guy."
"Not only at the U.S. Attorney's Office, but in my nearly 30 years out of law school, I have met no person or prosecutor more honorable than Tony Peluso," Seigel said. "He gives 150 percent."
Seigel said when a case seemed close, his office gave it to Peluso.
"Tony has very, very good judgment," Seigel said. "He would be the right person to examine a case very carefully and decide whether we should move forward."
He got national notice for helping prosecute HCA, the Healthcare Co., in a 1999 Medicare fraud case. Two executives were convicted, but their sentences were later overturned on appeal. Still, HCA subsidiaries paid millions in damages.
"Aggressive is an accurate description, but tenacious is a better way to describe him," said Stephen Meagher, a San Francisco lawyer who represented the whistle blower in the HCA case. "But he was always fair."
Not everyone in the local legal community has good things to say. Several defense attorneys declined to speak publicly about Peluso because they said they only had negative comments.
He represented the government as an assistant U.S. attorney when the Aisenbergs and Cohen sued investigators.
Peluso argued that Cohen should receive only $250,000 in legal fees. A federal judge awarded $2.9-million, but an appeals court later reduced it.
Like Seigel, Tampa defense attorney Stephen Crawford doesn't view Peluso as one to seek legal revenge because of a personal grudge.
"Some attorneys always want to make it personal. They just need to understand everybody is doing their job," Crawford said of the allegations against Peluso. "If certain attorneys have problems with Peluso, I would tell them go look in the mirror."