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Column | Sue Carlton

Sideshows take our eyes off Sabrina's fate

So we find ourselves back in the thick of an old and ugly war: the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office vs. bulldog lawyer Barry Cohen.

The battle centers — again — on Sabrina Aisenberg, the dark-haired baby girl whose face became so familiar to us after she disappeared from her suburban home in 1997.

The latest: A man with a felony cocaine conviction and the biker name Tombstone allegedly told a wire-wearing buddy in jail he was asked to dispose of the baby's body, which was in a boat he took from the Aisenberg home. Records do not appear to link a boat to the parents, however, and neighbors don't remember one there.

Notably, the felon's father knew a longtime investigator at Cohen's firm, which ultimately represented Sabrina's parents. The felon allegedly indicated he acted at the investigator's behest. He allegedly indicated he got rid of the body in crab traps out in the bay. (That's a lot of allegedlies, but best to step lightly in a case this battle-scarred.)

After 11 years, a failed prosecution of Steve and Marlene Aisenberg and still no Sabrina, this sounded big. The Sheriff's Office dived in.

The wire-wearing informer got his prison sentence whittled to community control for his efforts. (Such is the reality of informers, who tend not to be Boy Scout leaders or soccer moms, who tend to have favors to seek or axes to grind. It is a courthouse reality that can be about as pretty as seeing sausage made.)

Cohen is not a let's-just-wait-and-see-how-it-all-turns-out kind of guy, particularly when both men said sheriff's investigators seemed to have their sights set on him, not to mention the case's history of bad blood. (See the aforementioned failed prosecution.) When the news broke, Cohen cried foul, and a few other choice words. The Sheriff's Office quickly denied Cohen was ever a "subject, target, suspect or person of interest."

For the record, it's hard to imagine what could possibly motivate a well-known, well-heeled lawyer with a reputation as one of the toughest in town to risk that kind of involvement in something so terrible. For what? Even Cohen's enemies would be hard pressed to come up with an answer that makes sense.

This week Sheriff David Gee agreed. Cohen would never risk his career, Gee said, but his own attorney Tony Peluso also would never fabricate a case.

Where does all this leave us?

With questions. Such as: What does this informer really know?

Was his buddy telling his tale because, in his circles, a sinister involvement in a case so big might make a man a real tough guy? Because he happened to have a connection to a fellow from Cohen's firm? Is there any more?

For now, this particular tangent of the investigation appears to be at a standstill pending further evidence. Gee does say the overall investigation remains open, and there are leads out there.

Good.

Because you would hate to think something so serious could disintegrate in bad blood and finger-pointing. You would hate to think it.

One fact never changed, no matter how wild the ride that got us here: A baby girl disappeared 11 years ago, and someone knows what happened to her. The biggest injustice for Baby Sabrina would be to focus too long anywhere but there.

Sideshows take our eyes off Sabrina's fate 07/29/08 [Last modified: Thursday, July 31, 2008 3:35pm]
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