The decade's most triggering comedy
The morning of November 24, 1997, began like any other for Marlene and Steve Aisenberg. The couple woke up in their middle-class home in Valrico, Florida, and prepared to start their day.
But Marlene quickly noticed something was wrong: The door leading to the garage was open, as well as the garage door.
The couple said they regularly forgot to close the garage door and lock the door to their house, believing they lived in a safe neighborhood. After finding the door to the house open, Marlene rushed to check on her three children and discovered that 5-month-old Sabrina was missing.
Panicked, the Aisenbergs called the police at 6:42 a.m. and told the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office that baby Sabrina had been kidnapped. Police began a massive search for the baby, but never found her. The couple spent years appearing on major television programs such as “Dateline NBC” and “Larry King Live,” begging for the safe return of their child, to no avail.
As with many missing children stories, without leads or evidence, suspicion turned to the parents. In 1999, after the couple moved with their remaining kids to Steve’s childhood home in Bethesda, Maryland, the FBI smashed through the family’s front door with a battering ram. The couple was charged with lying to and misleading investigators, as well as the public, about the disappearance of Sabrina, and benefiting financially from the case’s publicity.
The government’s indictment admitted that it had secretly bugged the family’s home in the three months after Sabrina disappeared, and claimed it had recorded conversations between Steve and Marlene admitting they killed their own baby.
Outlets like The Washington Post published articles about the indictment clearly skewed against the Aisenbergs and mocking the minute differences in their story about the morning they discovered Sabrina was gone. For example, the Post chided the family because Marlene “said she was awakened by the noisy fish tank — or was it the television?” Later in the same article, the Post says the Aisenberg case “is reminiscent of the Susan Smith slayings, in which the South Carolina mother drowned her two children in a lake and then claimed they had been kidnapped.”
The federal government claimed in the indictment that it recorded Marlene telling Steve, “The baby’s dead and buried! It was found dead because you did it. The baby’s dead no matter what you say — you just did it!”
Steve allegedly responded by saying, “Honey, there was nothing I could do about it. We need to discuss the way we can beat the charge. I would never break from the family pact and our story, even if the police were to hold me down. We will do what we have to do.”
Despite not being charged for the murder of their child, public opinion turned on the Aisenbergs after the indictment, though they denied the charges and said they had never said the things the government claimed. A federal judge later declared that many of the recordings were inaudible or taken out of context by detectives, and ruled that the transcriptions were faulty, ABC News reported. In February 2001, the prosecution dropped the charges against the Aisenbergs before their trial began.
Three years later, the federal government was ordered to pay the family nearly $1.5 million in defense fees.
It’s been more than 20 years since baby Sabrina disappeared, and her whereabouts are still unknown. Police had one lead back in 1997 — a neighbor, Pete McDonald, who lived in the same neighborhood in Florida as the Aisenbergs and reported hearing a baby crying when he took his dog out at night.
McDonald has since passed away, but his wife Mary told “20/20” back in 2018 that her husband told her about hearing the baby at night, but “didn’t think anything of it” until she told him about Sabrina’s disappearance the next day.
“Then he says, ‘Wow, I heard a baby crying in the middle of the night,’” Mary said.
She said no one followed up with her husband after he reported hearing the baby crying. But several years ago, she did meet with the Aisenberg’s former private investigator and showed him where her husband said he heard the baby.
Around the 20-year anniversary of Sabrina’s disappearance, a couple of women contacted the Aisenbergs saying they thought they might be Sabrina and provided DNA samples. Nothing came of their claims.
At the same time, the Aisenbergs told “20/20” that they still believe Sabrina is out there and hope to see her again someday.
“We love you and we hope to see you soon,” Steve told the program.
“We want you home,” Marlene added.