Back on the beach. The search for the remains of missing motel-owner Sabine Musil-Buehler resumed early Friday near Willow Avenue in Anna Maria. Investigators said the search would be halted over the weekend, but may resume next week if necessary. Islander Photo: Lisa Neff
The search at Anna Maria’s Willow Avenue beach for the remains of Sabine Musil-Buehler was delayed this morning as investigators with the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office met with an agent for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. The MCSO wants to search in sea oats near the access and DEP must authorize damages to the sea oats. Islander Photo: Lisa Neff
The Manatee County Sheriff’s Office returned to the Willow Avenue beach at 7 a.m. Wednesday, July 20, to search for the remains of Sabine Musil-Buehler, missing since November 2008 and presumed dead. Homicide Detective John Kenney said he hoped for a find today. Islander Photo: Lisa Neff
Manatee County Sheriff’s Office investigators returned to the beach July 12-13 and July 15 to search for the remains of missing motel owner Sabine Musil-Buehler, who is presumed dead.
The search — which involved cadaver dogs and MCSO crime-scene technicians and cadets outfitted with shovels, probes and machetes — was prompted by the discovery of items belonging to Musil-Buehler on July 9. The co-owner of Haley’s Motel and Holmes Beach resident was last seen on Nov. 4, 2008, the night of the last presidential election. She had watched the election returns with boyfriend William Cumber in their apartment on Magnolia Avenue in Anna Maria, and left, he said, after an argument over his smoking cigarettes.
Musil-Buehler’s possessions, which the MCSO would not detail, were found by nearby resident and Crosspointe Fellowship pastor Ed Moss in an overgrown, woodsy area just south of the Willow Avenue beach access in Anna Maria.
Moss said he didn’t at first realize a connection to the Musil-Buehler case. He just thought, perhaps, a kid had robbed a woman.
Sheriff Brad Steube called the find “significant.”
“I wouldn’t say it’s the biggest lead we’ve had in this case since she disappeared, because we have been working this for a couple of years, but this is a significant find,” he said.
Early July 13, the MCSO, in a news release, announced that investigators and technicians would search the beach that day, and had searched the day before.
On July 12, cadaver dogs from Sarasota took an interest in two areas by the beach — one patch of palmetto brush, seagrapes and mother-in-law tongue to the north of the Willow Avenue beach access and another spot to the south of the access shaded by Australian pines and crowded by brush.
MCSO Sgt. Pete Rampone, the lead homicide investigator, said an “interest” means the dogs “were all trying to get to the same area,” and that they did not “alert” on an area, which would have been a stronger indication of human remains in the vicinity.
On July 13, as crime-scene technicians dug into the hard soil on the edge landward of the beach, law enforcement officers discussed the ongoing investigation.
The public affairs announcement brought a crowd of reporters and photographers, whose breaking news reports drew several of Musil-Buehler’s friends and a small, rotating group of onlookers to the scene.
The development also brought Steube to the beach. He told the press that Moss and his family were “clearing the land so they could get a better view of the beautiful beaches here and in doing so they located some items that were directly linked to Sabine.”
The search was suspended at about 11 a.m. July 13 as a rainstorm blew in off the Gulf of Mexico, but the crew returned to dig in the afternoon.
Then, on July 15, the MCSO oversaw another search of the area, with corrections cadets walking side by side to cover three blocks. The volunteers worked for three hours, sometimes in the sun, and with temperatures approaching 90 degrees, on what was a day off from school.
Steube, as the cadets gathered for a water break, said, “I appreciate what you’ve done.”
The crime-scene team collected a few items, but they appeared to be relatively new. There were no significant discoveries, said Rampone, who, pending approval from several parties, including the city of Anna Maria, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch, planned to return to dig on the beach this week between Willow and Magnolia.
“We have a perimeter set now,” Steube said. “I’d like to find more items associated with Sabine.”
The July 9 discovery of the belongings helps to prove the long-held contention that Musil-Buehler, 49 at the time of her disappearance, is dead, said MCSO spokesman Dave Bristow.
“We’re not done,” Bristow said as he stood on the wooden Willow Avenue beach access ramp. “We’ll come back out and do anything we can to further this investigation.”
“This refocuses us back in the area,” said Steube, who also returned to the beach July 15. Homicide prosecutor Art Brown also surveyed the scene July 15.
“We’ve worked closely with the prosecutor all along,” Rampone said of the investigation. “We think we have a good case, a real good case.”
The MCSO previously had searched in the vicinity for clues to Musil-Buehler’s whereabouts, as well as other areas on the Island and on the mainland.
“You wouldn’t believe how many areas we’ve looked in,” Rampone said.
At least twice before last week the department, employing shovels, backhoes and bulldozers, searched the beach, focusing on the shady shoreline near the Magnolia Avenue access. That stretch of the beach is about 300 paces from where Moss found Musil-Buehler’s possessions. It’s also just two blocks west of where Musil-Buehler lived part-time with Cumber, and where her car was ticketed for a parking violation early the morning after she disappeared.
The crime-scene team collected a few items, but they appeared to be relatively new. There were no significant discoveries, said Rampone, who, with approval from several parties, including the city of Anna Maria, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch, planned to return to search on the beach Tuesday between Willow and Magnolia avenues.
The MCSO recovered the white Pontiac in November 2008 after it was left, with the keys in the ignition, in a tavern parking lot off 14th Street West in Bradenton. Authorities found Musil-Buehler’s blood inside and her clothing in the trunk. But they did not find her purse, identification cards and mobile phone.
In the days after Musil-Buehler’s disappearance, Cumber told The Islander he repeatedly had called his girlfriend’s cell phone.
“We’re all worried,” Cumber said in November 2008. “It’s not like her to take off, not to call anybody, not to respond to calls that are going out to her.” The Islander could not reach Cumber for comment last week.
Steube said last week that the MCSO would be re-interviewing people in the case, including “persons of interest.”
Bristow said the person of interest is Cumber.
Person of interest
Cumber is in prison in the Florida Panhandle.
In December 2008, as the investigation into Musil-Buehler’s disappearance intensified, he was arrested in another county for driving without a license and violating the terms of his probation on a 2005 arson conviction.
Cumber and Musil-Buehler had met in 2005, before he went to prison for setting a girlfriend’s house on fire. When he was released in the fall of 2008, Cumber and Musil-Buehler, estranged from husband Tom Buehler, began sharing the Magnolia Avenue apartment.
Cumber said in November 2008 that he and Musil-Buehler “had a future” and planned to go to Germany, but friends said Musil-Buehler confided to them that she planned to end the relationship.
As MCSO investigators sought information about Musil-Buehler’s disappearance, as well as an arson at Haley’s Motel soon after, Cumber repeatedly was interviewed.
In December 2008, he was arrested outside Manatee County for driving without a license. He was returned to jail and later convicted of violating probation and sentenced to 13.5 years in a prison.
“We know where he’s going to be for the next 12 or so years,” Bristow said last week.
Rampone said two investigators would soon be visiting Cumber for another interview, and to discuss the Willow Avenue discovery.
MCSO gets break in Musil-Buehler case
Natalia Rizzo of Holmes Beach is this week’s winner in the newspaper’s Top Notch contest, winning front-page placement of the photo and an Islander newspaper “More-Than-A-Mullet wrapper” T-shirt. Her entry — of Nieko Randazzo, Juan Martinez and Holly Rizzo getting some air — was shot at “Casa Rizzo” during the Manatee Players cast party for “Singing in the Rain.” Rizzo’s photograph will go into a pool of weekly winners eligible for the grand prize of $100 from the newspaper and a bevy of gift certificates and other prizes.
Anna Maria commissioners voted two weeks ago to proceed with purchasing six lots across from the city pier’s north parking lot from Blackhawk Bank of Iowa, but commissioners decided at their July 14 work session to first obtain an appraisal.
Commission Chair Chuck Webb was opposed to paying any price other than the fair market value established by the appraisal, while Commissioners Dale Woodland and Jo Ann Mattick said the city should proceed with the purchase, regardless of what the appraisal shows.
Commissioner John Quam appeared to side with Webb, saying he’s talked to several people who question the need to purchase the lots, and he wants an appraisal before moving ahead.
Blackhawk has offered the six lots to the city at $2.8 million with financing options, including one in which the city makes no payments for two years.
But Webb again suggested the city look into condemning the property and using eminent domain to acquire ownership.
After a lengthy debate, commissioners voted 3-1 to authorize Mayor Mike Selby to contract an appraiser who specializes in barrier-island properties to complete a full appraisal.
Blackhawk has given the city a deadline of Aug. 15 to make a firm commitment to purchase the property and close the transaction by Sept. 29.
Mike Coleman of Pine Avenue Restoration LLC said Blackhawk turned down a $2.5 million cash offer from his company, so it’s not likely the bank will lower its $2.8 million asking price.
Attorney Mickey Palmer, a specialist in eminent domain procedures, presented commissioners with a brief explanation of what eminent domain involves. In all scenarios, the city would have to pay reasonable attorney fees for itself and the property owners, in addition to the costs of any expert witnesses, even if the city declined to purchase the property after going through the proceedings, he said.
Palmer also said the city had to have a specific need for the property, such as a public park, before it could enter into legal proceedings to acquire the lots.
He declined to suggest a course of action for the city after Coleman asked him if the city should go to eminent domain or take the Blackhawk offer. Coleman said he thought using eminent domain to acquire the lots would end up costing the city around $2.8 million, the same as the asking price.
“That’s up to the commission to decide,” Palmer said.
Palmer said if the city took the land by eminent domain, it would have to have funds for the final purchase price deposited with the court within 20 days of a final order or lose the property.
Woodland and Mattick said they were opposed to using eminent domain to acquire the property.
Woodland said it makes more sense to take the Blackhawk offer and spend the next two years arranging a public-private partnership to obtain at least 50 percent of the purchase price. He did not think the city needed 20 years to pay off a mortgage.
If he didn’t believe a partnership would work, he would oppose the purchase, he said.
But the city has not established a use for the property and Webb said he couldn’t support buying the lots just to prevent development.
“To me, that’s not a reasonable use of city funds,” he said.
Palmer agreed. Using eminent domain to stop construction of dwellings is not a legitimate reason for condemnation.
Woodland countered that eventually the city will have to replace the humpback bridge on North Bay Boulevard and it will need right of way to extend the approach. That’s one reason to acquire the property, he said.
Webb also said his best estimate of the fair market value of the land is about $2.4 million at a maximum, and probably closer to $2.2 million.
In any event, Webb said, anyone buying any or all of the six lots would first acquire a professional appraisal.
Woodland, however, was concerned that the commission had “slid back” on a purchase.
“We need to move on the information we have. We had this discussion two weeks ago,” he said.
The commissioner said he hoped a large number of the public would attend the commission’s July 28 meeting, where a formal vote to purchase the property under one of the various terms Blackhawk offered could take place.
Quam agreed with getting an appraisal before signing any purchase agreement.
“I agree we should purchase the lots, but we’re moving too fast. We should think this through and possibly negotiate a better price. Look at all aspects before we jump in, and we should start with an appraisal.”
Quam also wanted the city to establish a use for the property before any purchase.
Both Webb and Quam said they still favor buying the property, but only at the right price.
“Politics is the art of compromise,” Webb said. “So, let’s all think how we can compromise on this issue.”
Selby said he had an appraiser ready to begin the process and hoped to have the final document ready by the July 28 commission meeting.
In other business, the commission heard a presentation from Drew Smith of Two Trails Consultants about becoming a certified green city.
He said his company is certified to give green ratings and could guide the city through the process and there would be no charge to the city.
Based upon green energy techniques employed by PAR and Mike and Lizzie Vann Thrasher at the Anna Maria Historic Green Village, Smith said he believed the city already has achieved one level of green certification.
The north boardwalk, parking lot and trolley shelters at the Anna Maria City Pier were expected to open this week, a Florida Department of Transportation press release said. Construction of the $857,000 project began in mid-May, with contractor Woodruff & Sons Inc. of Bradenton concentrating on completion of the north parking lot, the north portion of the boardwalk and the two shelters before beginning the south boardwalk and parking. Motorists can expect temporary, intermittent lane closures at the Pine Avenue-Bay Boulevard intersection and along Bay Boulevard this week, with a flagging operation in place. Pedestrians can expect to use alternate routes to reach the pier during construction, and the pier restaurant remains open. The entire boardwalk project should be completed in October, the DOT said in the release. Funding for the boardwalk is from a federal grant administered by the DOT through its maintenance of State Road 789/Gulf Drive. For more information on the project, go to www.mysr789.com.
A search and rescue team with the U.S. Coast Guard pulled four boaters from Sarasota Bay near Tidy Island on July 10.
The Coast Guard’s dispatch in St. Petersburg received an emergency call at about 8:30 p.m. from a man who said his boat had capsized near the small island. The man said he swam to shore, but four people still clung to the vessel.
A rescue team from the Coast Guard station in Cortez set out for Tidy Island and found the boaters, holding on to the hull of a 17-foot Wellcraft, at about 8:50 p.m.
Rescuers pulled the uninjured boaters from the water and called Seatow to recover the boat.
Reporting the incident, Coast Guard officials reminded boaters of maritime safety rules and recommendations — use a float plan, equip the boat with a VHF radio, wear life jackets. Also, outfit the boat to send an emergency-position radio beacon.
Operators of golf carts in Holmes Beach must be made aware that they have to conform to traffic laws and city ordinances, Mary Buonaugera told city commissioners at their July 12 meeting.
Buonaugera said she lives in the Jones Beach subdivision, which is between 43rd and 52nd streets, and she’s been observing golf-cart operations there the past two months and taking notes.
She said she’s seen cart operators cut across private property to reach another street, ignore stop signs and speed limits, drive on the sidewalk, take corners on two wheels and carry too many passengers.
Additionally, she said many of the drivers appear to be around 13 or 14 years old and likely have little understanding of road regulations.
“It’s an accident waiting to happen,” she said.
Buonaugera suggested rental agents include a page on safe operation of a golf cart to vacationers, noting that the minimum age is 14 to operate an unlicensed golf cart.
Commissioner John Monetti agreed, but said the companies that rent the golf carts also should provide the information to vacationers. Many vacationers who operate the carts “probably have no idea what they’re doing is illegal,” he said.
But Buonaugera admitted she had not called police when she observed her alleged transgressions.
“That’s the first thing to do,” said Mayor Rich Bohnenberger. He pledged that police will follow up on a call and would be on the lookout for golf carts in the Jones Beach subdivision and elsewhere in the city.
And officers have stopped golf cart operators for breaking driving regulations, he said.
The mayor said he had a safety meeting with police that morning and golf cart operations and licensing was a subject of their discussion.
Bohnenberger said the Florida Department of Motor Vehicles has licensed some golf carts in the city as “slow-moving vehicles.”
Additionally, he said, the DMV and city allow unlicensed golf carts to operate on some city streets, but not a state road such as State Road 789-Gulf Drive or State Road 64-Manatee Avenue.
Operators of a licensed golf cart have to be at least 16 years old and have a valid driver’s license, while an operator of an unlicensed golf cart must be at least 14 years old.
Holmes Beach Police Chief Jay Romine and representatives of other area law enforcement agencies will meet this week with DMV to clarify what the DMV considers a “slow-moving vehicle,” a licensed golf cart and an unlicensed golf cart or vehicle.
Romine said a “slow-moving vehicle” must have an orange triangle on the rear, have turn signals, brake lights, headlights, and meet other safety requirements. Some licensed golf carts and electric vehicles in the city might not meet those requirements, he indicated.
Bohnenberger said he’d like to see all golf carts licensed under DMV regulations.
He said he’s instructed Romine to have Holmes Beach police officers stop any golf cart if the operator appears to be underage. Police also will stop any unlicensed golf cart driving on a prohibited road.
The mayor encouraged Buonaugera and the public to call police if they see any illegal operation of a golf cart or question the age of the driver. If the cart is found to be licensed and the driver does not have a valid driver’s license, the operator is “in for a rude awakening,” the mayor said.
Bradenton Beach Police Department officers arrested a Bradenton man July 13 for allegedly choking a woman.
The man, Gregory Hermes, faces a charge of felony domestic battery by strangulation and two charges of battery. The BBPD incident report identified the woman as Hermes’ ex-girlfriend.
The incident occurred in a residence in the 100 block of Seventh Street South, where the woman was living.
Hermes allegedly threatened to kill the woman and also threatened her roommate.
The police report indicated that Hermes forced open the door to the residence before attacking the woman.
Hermes allegedly confessed to BBPD, “She hurt me really bad, man. I choked her.”
He was taken to the Manatee County jail, where bond was set at $1,000.