Nov. 4, 2008. A memorable night.
Islanders, like those elsewhere in the nation, in the world, sat up late to watch the election returns, to see the broadcast of Barack Obama’s victory speech from Chicago’s Grant Park.
Some Islanders remember blasting car horns, trumpeting an election day victory.
Some Islanders remember taking a solitary stroll after learning of their party’s loss.
What else do Islanders remember about a night that was a watershed moment in U.S. history and also the night Haley’s Motel co-owner Sabine Musil-Buehler likely died?
“Is there anything that people recall about that night? About her disappearance? About her actions before?” asked Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube. “Did they have any interactions with our person of interest?”
Musil-Buehler was 49 at the time of her disappearance and had a reputation as an active volunteer on the Island — a doer involved in promoting the business community, protecting the environment and wildlife, rescuing pets and caring for children.
“Sabine is just a very wonderful person,” one friend said days after Musil-Buehler disappeared. “She’s an upstanding citizen, an outstanding person.… Sabine thinks she can save the world.”
In February 2007, the Holmes Beach Police Department recruited Musil-Buehler as a volunteer for its missing-child program.
“I think that it is important to start a search at the earliest possible time, to get the word out and have people look for missing children,” Musil-Buehler said at the time. “The chances to find them are a lot bigger when things happen fast.”
Law enforcement officials believe that by the time word was out that Musil-Buehler was missing, she was dead.
“We believe that she’s no longer with us,” Steube said in a recent interview with The Islander. “That this is a death investigation.”
The first MCSO notice about Musil-Buehler in November 2008 indicated she was missing — that she was last seen Nov. 5 in the area of 14th Street West in Bradenton and that foul play was not suspected in her disappearance.
Missing person notices that went into national and international networks described Musil-Buehler as petite, about 120 pounds, 5 feet, 5 inches tall, with silver hair, braces on her teeth, a German accent and possibly wearing a floral-print top and Converse sneakers.
Foul play suspected
While an intensive search for Musil-Buehler was under way in those first weeks of November 2008, law enforcement officials increasingly began to talk about the likelihood of foul play, for various reasons.
• The witness who reporting partying with Musil-Buehler Nov. 5 in the 14th Street West area had lied to conceal his theft of her white Pontiac from the parking lot of the Gator Lounge.
Robert Corona, according to authorities, told at least two accounts of how he came into possession of Musil-Buehler’s vehicle.
In one account, he said an acquaintance gave him the keys to go buy drugs.
In another account, he said he found the car parked outside the Gator Lounge with the doors unlocked and the key in the ignition.
• In a search of her vehicle, investigators found some of Musil-Buehler’s possessions and blood, but no IDs and no cell phone.
• Friends and family hadn’t seen the motel owner since Nov. 4 and wondered why she — a devout Barack Obama enthusiast — wasn’t rejoicing loudly, with friends.
• There were compounding questions about the man who provided the details of Musil-Buehler’s last known whereabouts — a rented cottage on Magnolia Avenue in Anna Maria on election night.
Musil-Buehler, estranged from husband Tom Buehler, had rented the cottage with boyfriend William J. Cumber, an ex-convict released two months earlier from prison after serving time for arson.
Cumber, who was operating a woodworking shop in Holmes Beach at the time, said he and Musil-Buehler were watching election coverage on TV when they argued.
“She got mad because I was smoking cigarettes, and she left,” Cumber said in an interview with The Islander in November 2008.
She left angry, he said, and he tried for days afterward to reach her on her cell phone.
“She normally leaves and goes home,” Cumber said.
He added, “It’s not like her to take off, not to call anybody, not to respond to calls that are going out to her.”
On Nov. 16, 2008, the mystery intensified. Flames broke out in a two-story accessory building at the Haley’s Motel complex, drawing a crowd of onlookers to the intersection of Gulf and Marina drives in Holmes Beach on an unseasonably cold November night.
The fire began sometime after 7 p.m. Two 911 calls were received at 7:17 p.m., with the dispatch going out at 7:18 p.m. and firefighters were on their way by 7:21 p.m., according to West Manatee Fire Rescue Capt. Tom Sousa.
WMFR deputy fire marshal Kurt Lathrop remembered thinking, when he arrived to the scene, “‘How did this fire get going to that degree so fast?’… It was going through the roof when the guys got there.”
The Holmes Beach Police Department investigated the fire, along with WMFR and the state fire marshal.
The morning after the fire, HBPD Chief Jay Romine said that due to the totality of damage and the circumstances involved, the fire “has to be considered suspicious.”
Authorities quickly determined the fire was set by human hand — arson.
But, as with the investigation into Musil-Buehler’s disappearance, no one has been charged with the crime.
“It is what it is,” said Lathrop. “It was a set fire.… If the intent was to make that building go away, the fire did what it was intended to do.”
It seemed everyone had a theory as word of the fire spread, the WMFR official said, remembering “a lot of finger-pointing.”
Today, Lathrop, stressing he’s a fire investigator and not a law enforcement officer, declines to discuss persons of interest or name potential suspects.
“Short of someone standing there with a match” an arson case can be difficult to solve, said Lathrop. “Was anybody standing there with a match in the hand? Unfortunately not.”
In the days and weeks following the fire, investigators conducted a number of interviews, including with Haley’s co-owner Tom Buehler, Cumber and motel guests.
Lathrop, two years later, still wonders how the fire was set on a Sunday evening so close to motel guests and so close to a busy traffic intersection.
“At that building, on that corner, at that time of the day, somebody probably saw something,” Lathrop said.
An arrest and conviction
While authorities have not made an arrest in the disappearance and likely slaying of Musil-Buehler or the arson fire, there have been convictions related to the investigation.
Corona, a tile-setter from Bradenton, pleaded no contest to grand theft auto in August 2009 and was sentenced to four years in prison for stealing Musil-Buehler’s car. In a letter to his attorney, Corona confessed, “I used the car to joy ride around the neighborhood.”
Cumber, too, is in prison, for violating the terms of his probation on the 2005 arson conviction. He was arrested in late December 2008 driving a pickup truck with expired tags and under a suspended license in Marion County.
By May 2009 he was on his way to prison for violating the terms of his probation, which required him to get permission to leave Manatee County and forbade the commission of another crime.
In court, Cumber claimed that he fled Manatee County because he was getting “cold shoulders” on the Island and the media had portrayed him as “an evil monster.”
“I wasn’t able to put up with anything.… I was just running because I had no future.… Bradenton was dead to me,” Cumber said.
In the days after Cumber’s arrest in Marion County, MCSO supervised a search on the beach near Magnolia Avenue. The MCSO repeatedly would go back to search the area, as well as other locations in Manatee County, using dogs, sonar equipment and excavators.
MCSO investigators have characterized Cumber as a “person of interest” in Musil-Buehler’s disappearance and have repeatedly interviewed him.
“And we have plans to interview him in the near future,” said Steube, adding that Cumber, in the weeks just after Musil-Buehler’s disappearance, offered information to the press that he did not provide to the MCSO.
Two years later
Two years after Musil-Buehler disappeared, Steube said his team doesn’t have a cold case.
“We’re still doing things,” the sheriff said. “I can’t tell you what we’re doing. I can’t say. But I wouldn’t categorize this as a cold case.”
Two detectives are permanently assigned to the investigation, still following up leads and tips, still conducting interviews when necessary.
“It’s a case where we run to the end of every lead,” the sheriff said.
The leads and the tips, however, do not come as often as in the earlier days of the investigation.
“We haven’t had one in quite some time, months,” said Steube.
With the anniversary at hand, authorities are hoping that Islanders and vacationers again will reflect on November 2008.
“Maybe this, going over the case again, will jog memories,” Steube said. “Maybe there was someone here then who is just now returning, who left and missed a lot of the publicity and is back.”
A new witness could break the case.
So, too, could the discovery of Musil-Buehler’s remains, a development that would provide closure for family and friends but also likely provide forensic evidence that could lead to the identity of a killer.
“It would be wonderful if we could find her,” Steube said. “She’s out there somewhere. We would certainly like to locate her.”
And, of course, Steube said, the MCSO certainly would take a confession.