What happened to baby Sabrina Aisenberg, who vanished in 1997?

Baby Sabrina Aisenberg, 1997 photo

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) —  Baby Sabrina Aisenberg vanished from her crib without a trace. There were no witnesses, no sounds, no signs of forced entry into her family’s Valrico home.

It was November 1997, and Hillsborough investigators maintain – things like that just “didn’t happen.”

Sabrina Paige Aisenberg had not even taken her first steps when she became the center of an international mystery – a case that garnered global headlines. Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office deputies worked around the clock, sometimes up to 40 detectives per day, searching for baby Sabrina.

One of those members of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office was Colonel J.R. Burton.  He was one of the first investigators on scene that fateful Monday morning.  The young newlywed and then-corporal remembers that moment like it was yesterday.

“November 24, 1997 is forever etched in my memory. I was driving on the Crosstown when the calls went out” he told WFLA during an exclusive interview. “Never in a million years would I have thought that I would be involved or working on a case for 20 years.”

He recalls the case “taking over his life,” wanting desperately to find the missing infant.  He worked no less than 16-hours a day in the early days of the case. “I was a newlywed, married for just six months. I would leave home and go on a trip running leads.”

When he wasn’t working leads around Tampa Bay and beyond, he was working leads at home, even in his sleep. “I kept a notepad by my bed. When I’d wake up at 3:00 in the morning, things to do, I’d jot them down.  I didn’t want to miss anything.”

The case has meant so much to the longtime lawman that he’s carried a Polaroid of baby Sabrina every day since the case began.

It’s been two decades, and he still has the faded photo with him at all times. “I’ve carried a photograph of her for 20 years. I never forget, and I’ve never forgotten.”

Colonel Burton describes those initial days as “the largest search this agency has ever put on,” he says.  He also admits to being “frustrated” that all these years later – the case remains an “unsolved kidnapping.”

“What I wait for every day is that DNA hit that tells me she’s in New Mexico living a happy life as a 20-year-old young woman,” he says.

For Sabrina’s parents, Steve and Marlene, it has been a particularly brutal experience. Over the years, they have appeared numerous times before television cameras and microphones. In the beginning, it was an arduous experience, day after day, pleading for answers as they appealed to the public.

It wouldn’t be long before they, themselves, began to be investigated. Their lack of emotions, some say, was unsettling and unusual for the parents of a missing infant.

The Aisenbergs claim they were traumatized and numb from the grief, the glare of the spotlight and the scathing scrutiny from both media and law enforcement.  We tracked down the family at their home in Maryland where the Aisenbergs now run a real estate company.

When we address the topic of seemingly lack of emotion, Steve Aisenberg had this to say. “I think those type of things are a little ridiculous because until you’re in the shoes of someone who had their baby taken from them, then let them act in a way they feel is appropriate to act,” he told WFLA. “I don’t cast judgements on anybody for the way they present themselves in interviews on TV.”

Steve and Marlene Aisenberg were the last people to see their baby girl alive, as they placed Sabrina in her crib on a Sunday night with her yellow blanket.

In the morning, both the baby and the blanket were gone.  When we asked Steve why someone would kidnap baby Sabrina, he answered, “You know, if I had that answer, she’d be back with us. I just don’t know. All I can think of is somebody wanted a young girl, a baby to love and raise as their own. Why does anybody take a child from someone else?”

Indeed, the circumstances have long vexed and baffled detectives and case-watchers alike. To this day, baby Sabrina has never been found and her parents have never stopped looking for her.

At one point during our lengthy conversation with Steve Aisenberg, we ask the question so many have posed before – “Did you and your wife have anything to do with the disappearance of your daughter?”

The answer from Sabrina’s father is emphatic and immediate. “As I’ve said 1,000 times, we had nothing to do with Sabrina’s disappearance. We don’t know where she is, all we know is she’s somewhere out there, hopefully was raised by a loving person.”

That is exactly what Colonel Burton is also hoping for – a sign of life from Sabrina Paige Aisenberg.  “We are hoping for a DNA hit,” he says.

Colonel Burton is now the second in command at the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, and even though many years have gone by, he says with a heavy sigh, “I think about this case every day. It took over my life.”

In fact, as he walks into the office each day, he passes her photo – hanging in the hallway amidst other missing Tampa Bay children. “I see her every morning. I look at her face every day. I want her to be found,” he says.

Through an age progression photo, Sabrina Aisenberg is shown as what she might look like as a 20-year-old young woman – decades after her mysterious disappearance.

The question remains – is she still out there?

Her father says, “We think about her every day. We have pictures around our home. She is a continual part of our family. Instead of focusing on the past that we can’t change, we want to focus on where she might be now.”

If the photo looks familiar to you, please do not hesitate in calling the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at 1-800-THE-LOST.

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