The Baby Vanishes

updated 03/09/1998 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/09/1998 AT 01:00 AM EST

AN OPEN DOOR WAS THE FIRST sign of trouble, as Marlene Aisenberg tells it. She had just awakened her 8-year-old son William for school early on the Monday before Thanksgiving, she says, when she noticed that the side door of the family's suburban Tampa home was open, as was the garage door beyond it, leaving a clear view to the street. She remembers panicking and running straight to her 5-month-old daughter Sabrina's bedroom, where her worst fears were confirmed. The baby was gone. "It was bone-chilling," her husband, Steve, 34, says of the shriek Marlene let out. "It wasn't like a horror-movie scream. It was like a terror, panic scream."

That piercing yell was just the beginning of what the Aisenbergs describe as a nightmare from which they have never awakened. "It's unbelievable," says Marlene, 35, "that anyone could have done this to us."

As the months have passed without any sign of the brown-haired, blue-eyed infant, some Floridians are indeed finding the incident hard to believe. "It didn't smell right, right from the beginning," says a police official with knowledge of the exhaustive investigation. Authorities have neither eliminated nor named the Aisenbergs as suspects, but, like the parents of JonBenét Ramsey, they have become the subject of persistent speculation in local and national media. ("Parents' Stories Trouble Police," read one local headline.) And since three days after the abduction, when they hired prominent local criminal-defense lawyer Barry Cohen, they have declined to answer police questions about their actions and demeanor following the crime. "It would be the biggest tragedy one could imagine," Cohen, 58, says of the possibility the couple might be convicted of a crime they didn't commit. "But it's certainly not improbable or impossible."

Brandon, the quiet suburb where the Aisenbergs have lived in their four-bedroom home since 1993, seems the most unlikely of spots for a kidnapping. Marti Jones, who lives next door to the Aisenbergs, asked Steve about their peaceful cul-de-sac when she and her husband, Chuck, were shopping for a home. "We don't even have our burglar alarm activated, we feel so safe here," she recalls him saying. Indeed, the Aisenbergs (who also have a daughter, Monica, 4) evidently felt so secure that they routinely left their garage door—and even a front window—open, despite neighbors' repeated warnings that they should be more cautious.

Yet there had been no problem until the morning of Nov. 24, when Steve woke up to his wife's scream. "I ran to Sabrina's room, and she's not there," he says. "I'm looking under the crib and around the crib." Within minutes police responded to their 911 call, but an investigator quickly began treating them like suspects. "He just leaned over and said, 'We believe you know where your daughter is,' " recalls Marlene, who burst into tears at the statement.

It was not surprising, perhaps, that investigators turned their attention to the Aisenbergs. In the majority of child abductions, a relative turns out to be responsible, according to the Department of Justice. And as the Aisenbergs have told their story on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Larry King Live and other national programs, questions still remain unanswered: If the side door was frequently unlocked and the garage door up, why had Marlene panicked? Why had she run immediately to the nearby baby's room before shutting the side door or looking outside? ("I'd wonder why it was open before anything else," said Winfrey.) Callers on local talk radio—who have vigorously debated the case for weeks—wondered why the family's mixed-breed dog Brownie hadn't barked. (The Aisenbergs say it never barks at strangers.) "The community is very split on this—and very vocal," says Tampa talk-radio host M.J. Kelli, who attributes public wariness to the 1995 case of Susan Smith, who made public pleas for her two sons' return, then was convicted of their murder.

In the days after Sabrina disappeared, dozens of sheriff's deputies used machetes to search through the palmetto brush and pine trees surrounding the neighborhood. Police have searched 20 ponds, lakes and canals in the area. Investigators, including FBI agents, have searched in 41 states and conducted hundreds of interviews to no avail, says Lt. Greg Brown, a spokesman for the 22-member task force assigned exclusively to the case and headed by Hills-borough County Sheriff's major Gary Terry. "Whatever it takes, we're going to do," says Terry. "We're going to be here for the long haul."

That commitment has brought little comfort to the Aisenbergs. "When I look at Marlene," says Judy Bailey, a neighbor and friend, "it hurts, because you can see the life is sucked out of her." By all accounts, before Nov. 24, Marlene had been almost perpetually cheerful. The youngest of three children of a retail manager and his home-maker wife, she grew up in Maryland and was a high school cheerleader. "She was like the Pied Piper," her mother, Joan Sadowsky, says of her daughter's popularity. As a junior at the University of Maryland, Marlene met Steve, a Washington native who was the youngest of four children. They married in 1987, and after William was born in 1989, they moved to quiet suburbia in Florida in 1991.

Having worked in a series of child-care jobs, Marlene borrowed $10,000 from her parents to start Playtime Pals, a mother-and-child program on the grounds of a local preschool. "She basically taught a lot of mothers how to be with their children," says a friend. (Since Sabrina's disappearance, the program has virtually closed.) The husband of a woman in the program steered Steve to a lucrative job selling homes for a large builder. But the Aisenbergs' life centered around their three kids. "They seemed like an all-American family; they loved one another," says Eileen McCall, 42, a former neighbor. "They have lovely, well-behaved children."

But even some of the Aisenbergs' friends have questions. Next-door neighbor Jones notes that the couple have never asked her or her husband about the night the baby vanished. "I just expected them to be more inquisitive," she says. "I would have been saying 'Do you remember anything? Did you hear anything?' "

Police have not made public any evidence they may have linking the Aisenbergs to the disappearance. On Feb. 11 the couple appeared before a federal grand jury investigating the case. Though their testimony remains sealed, legal observers infer from its brief duration—about 15 minutes each—that they asserted their Fifth Amendment right not to answer questions. Such speculation only helped fuel public suspicion.

The search goes on for the little girl who was only beginning to recognize her name when she vanished. "We feel like the answer is right here in Hillsborough County, here in the community," says Terry. The question is, Who has it?

THOMAS FIELDS-MEYER
TIM ROCHE and GAIL CAMERON WESCOTT in Brandon

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