Detective John Kenney has been involved in the Sabine Musil-Buehler murder case from the beginning.
He was the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office sergeant in charge of the Anna Maria substation when Musil-Buehler, 49, was reported missing by her husband, Tom Buehler, Nov. 6, 2008.
Kenney, now a detective, sat at the table with Detective Rick Alvarado for the Oct. 15 press conference where Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube announced William J. Cumber, 43, Musil-Buehler’s boyfriend at the time of her disappearance, had been arrested that day by Kenney and Alvarado.
Cumber is charged with second-degree murder and faces, if convicted, a maximum sentence of life in prison.
The case goes back four years to the night of the national presidential election.
Two days later, early on the morning of Nov. 6, MCSO deputies stopped Sabine Musil-Buehler’s car in Bradenton for an equipment violation. Three people fled from the vehicle and were later apprehended. A check of the registration revealed the car’s owner.
One of the three arrested, Richard Corona, originally said a woman had loaned him the car to go find drugs. He later admitted to stealing the car from the Gator Lounge parking lot, where he found the keys in the ignition.
An investigation into the car theft became a missing person case when Tom Buehler, Musil-Buehler’s estranged husband, filed a report. Although estranged, the two were still friends and co-owners of Haley’s Motel in Holmes Beach, which Tom Buehler still owns and operates.
That same day, an MCSO deputy went to the vehicle’s registered address, an apartment on Magnolia Avenue in Anna Maria, and spoke with Cumber. He and Musil-Buehler had moved there together in October. The two had met when Cumber previously worked at Haley’s, before he went to jail on an earlier arson charge.
Cumber, at first, told MCSO that he and Musil-Buehler had an argument on the afternoon of Nov. 5 and she had driven away. He claimed he was unable to reach her on her cell phone.
MCSO paid a second visit to Cumber Nov. 6. In that interview, Cumber changed his story, saying the argument was the evening of Nov. 4 over his smoking while they were watching the election returns on television.
Detectives who visited Cumber said the apartment had a strong smell of bleach.
Forensic tests on Musil-Buehler’s car by the MCSO revealed the presence of her blood.
At that point, the investigation became a possible homicide, said Kenney, who aided in the initial investigation while still in charge of the sub-station, interviewing Cumber and helping follow up some of the anonymous tips that the MCSO received.
On Nov. 17, 2008, a fire, later determined to be arson, broke out at Haley’s.
Cumber, who had been in prison for arson, was interviewed by detectives, but said he had an alibi. No one has been arrested in connection with the arson.
In 2009, Kenney transferred to MCSO headquarters and was asked to join the homicide investigation team.
“I had been with the case from the beginning and was involved in the original search for Musil-Buehler. I had a lot of knowledge about the case, so I agreed to join with Detective Rick Alvarado in the investigation,” Kenney said.
Cumber’s arrest was “bitter sweet,” Kenney said.
“We don’t have Sabine with us anymore and we don’t have her body,” he said.
From the beginning, Cumber was the focus of the investigation because, in part, he was the last person to see her alive, Kenney said.
Steube said Cumber moved out of the Magnolia Avenue apartment in December 2008.
A search warrant was ordered and detectives found blood that later matched that of both Musil-Buehler and Cumber. Steube said there was still a strong smell of bleach in the apartment, as if someone had spent a lot of time cleaning the unit.
He declined to say if any of Cumber’s blood was found in Musil-Buehler’s car.
When Kenney joined the homicide division, he worked primarily on the Musil-Buehler case with Alvarado and other detectives.
“By then we knew it was homicide, but Cumber was a tough act. He didn’t give away anything in all the interviews,” Kenney said.
The MCSO searched the beach in Anna Maria in 2008, 2009 and 2011, but failed to find Musil-Buehler’s body.
“Without a body, it’s very difficult to arrest and convict someone for murder,” Steube said.
But detectives caught a break in 2009, when Cumber was arrested in Ocala for speeding and he was returned to prison for violating his probation on the earlier arson conviction. He was sent back to prison and was in the Charlotte Correctional Institute in Punta Gorda when arrested by Kenney and Alvarado.
With Cumber behind bars, detectives had time to take the case step by step, Kenney said.
“We then knew he wasn’t going anywhere, and we began arranging frequent interviews with him about the case,” Kenney said.
Steube said the MCSO can’t release the evidence it has collected, but he stressed that Cumber has given different answers to the same questions several times.
In July 2011, some of Musil-Buehler’s personal items were discovered in some underbrush near the Willow Avenue beach access in Anna Maria.
The MCSO began an intense search of the area looking for a body, but without success.
They brought in cadaver dogs and dug large holes in the sand, but failed to find additional evidence.
But there was something in the personal effects that provided Kenney and detectives with some clues, he said.
Steube said that evidence will be given by the state attorney’s office when it presents its case in court.
After the discovery of the personal effects and the resulting new evidence, the interviews with Cumber increased.
Kenney said the homicide team went to the state attorney several times in 2011 asking if the evidence warranted Cumber’s arrest. Each time they were told they needed more proof.
The most important evidence would be to find the body.
“We didn’t have that,” Kenney observed, so the homicide team had to dig deeper.
Kenney said it’s not impossible to get a conviction without a body, but the case has to be solid.
“At least we knew where he was and he wasn’t going anywhere. We took our time gathering more evidence,” Kenney said.
Finally, in March, Kenney, Alvarado and the homicide team brought what they believed was the best set of evidence against Cumber to the state’s attorney. Steube agreed with the evidence.
Earlier this month, Kenney learned the state attorney had agreed to file for a writ of capias, an order to arrest, which was approved Oct. 11 by a judge.
Early on Oct. 15, Kenney and Alvarado arrived at the Charlotte Correctional Institute with the arrest warrant.
Cumber seemed “stunned at first,” Kenney recalled. “But he had been tough in every interview and didn’t give away anything.”
Cumber was taken to the Manatee County jail and booked on a charge of second-degree murder.
Steube said anyone who knows anything about the whereabouts of Musil-Buehler’s body, or who has information on the case, can call the anonymous MCSO tip line.
Kenney said there was personal satisfaction in being on the case from start to finish and making the arrest, but the arrest has not brought closure of the case for him.
“We’re still looking for the body. We’ll find it. I don’t know if Cumber will confess, but we do have some leads,” he said.
Tom Buehler said Cumber’s arrest was good news.
“When I hear Cumber is behind bars for the rest of his life, it will be closure,” Buehler said.
He thanked the MCSO for keeping him informed the past four years, and gave tribute to Kenney.
“I especially want to thank him. He was there from the beginning to the arrest and always kept me up-to-date,” he said..”