It is a scenario that draws measures of compassion and cynicism: A child is reported missing. The parents appear tearfully on television. Friends and strangers rally to search, distribute posters and support the couple -- even as the parents become suspects.
Yesterday Steven and Marlene Aisenberg of Bethesda were arraigned in federal court in Greenbelt on charges they fabricated the story that their 5-month-old daughter Sabrina was kidnapped two years ago.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Rachelle Des Vaux Bedke told a judge: "The baby is in fact dead. They knew that and had some hand in it."
But Barry Cohen, the Aisenbergs' Tampa attorney, said the incriminating statements attributed to the Aisenbergs were taken out of context, and that Steven Aisenberg does not use drugs, as the prosecutors allege.
"If they have evidence to support a murder charge they should charge them with murder," Cohen said. "It's not supported by any evidence."
The Aisenbergs used the deed of Aisenberg's father's Bethesda home to cover $25,000 bond each, and they left the courthouse without comment.
Sabrina, her parents say, vanished in November 1997, from the family's home outside Tampa. The family lived there until returning this spring to Maryland, where both parents have roots.
In Thursday's indictment, prosecutors released transcripts said to detail private conversations that indicate the child was killed by her father. The alleged statements apparently were procured from listening devices hidden in the home.
"I wish I hadn't harmed her. It was the cocaine," federal prosecutors quoted Steven Aisenberg as saying in a conversation with his wife. Other discussions allegedly refer to the child being "dead and buried" and how the couple can "beat the charge."
Despite the incriminating nature of the taped conversations, though, the Aisenbergs have been charged with neither murder nor kidnapping. Instead, the indictment charges them with lying to investigators and using contributions to a fund for Sabrina to pay their credit-card debt.
Steve Aisenberg is charged with one count of conspiracy and four counts of false statements and faces up to 25 years in prison if convicted. His wife is charged with one count of conspiracy and five counts of false statements, for which she can be imprisoned for up to 30 years.
Steven, 35, and Marlene, who is 36, met at the University of Maryland, College Park, where he graduated in 1985 and she the following year. They married in 1987, and their son, William, was born two years later. They moved to Florida in 1991 and had two more children, Monica, 5, and Sabrina.
A Washington native, Steven worked in real estate in Florida while Marlene, who grew up in Maryland, ran a program for toddlers and their mothers.
On Nov. 24, 1997, Marlene Aisenberg called 911 to report that Sabrina was missing. Police launched an investigation, and child advocacy groups quickly took up the cause, printing and mailing fliers nationwide.
Even as police and volunteers searched for the child, the Aisenbergs apparently were suspects. It had been only two years since Susan Smith, who initially said a carjacker had driven off with her two sons in South Carolina, was found to have drowned them in a lake.
The indictment allegedly provides a glimpse into parallel lives that the Aisenbergs have lived for two years: Privately, officials say, they were discussing their dead child and trying to keep police at bay. Publicly, they were making the media rounds -- from "Oprah" to "Today" to "America's Most Wanted" -- to claim they had nothing to do with Sabrina's disappearance and to plead for her return.
On Dec. 22, 1997, for example, the Aisenbergs held a news conference to beg "whoever took Sabrina" to return her. The very next day, the investigators' listening devices allegedly picked up this conversation: "The baby's dead and buried!" Marlene Aisenberg tells her husband, according to transcripts. "The baby's dead no matter what you say -- you just did it!"
"Honey, there was nothing I could do about it," he allegedly responds. "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."
Yesterday, child advocacy groups that had helped distribute fliers for the Aisenbergs said they were saddened by the indictment.
"We're just shocked," said Ivana DiNova, executive director of the Missing Child Help Center, located near the Aisenbergs' former Tampa area home. "But Sabrina is still a missing child and we're going to continue to show her picture until she is found."
The Associated Press contributed to this article.