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Date of Issue: February 10, 2010

Beach searched for Musil-Buehler’s body

Investigators monitor excavation work on the beach in Anna Maria, where Manatee County Sheriff’s Office officials searched last week for clues in the disappearance of Sabine Musil-Buehler. Islander Photos: Lisa Neff

A pair of sandals were found in the sand and collected for examination.

Detectives, forensics experts and a farmer plowed the sand on the beach in Anna Maria last week as the search for clues in the disappearance of Sabine Musil-Buehler continued.

On the scene — the beach between Magnolia Avenue and Spring — Manatee County Sheriff’s Office detectives said they were searching for evidence in the case, which dates back to November 2008.

MCSO spokesman Dave Bristow was more direct. He said the excavation team, which also included members of a special forensics team from the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office, was searching for a body.

Musil-Buehler has been missing since late Nov. 4, 2008, the night of the presidential election. Musil-Buehler, the co-owner of Haley’s Motel in Holmes Beach, had been watching the election returns with boyfriend William Cumber in their apartment on Magnolia in Anna Maria. Cumber said the two fought over his smoking a cigarette and Musil-Buehler left in her white Pontiac convertible.

The vehicle was recovered early Nov. 6, 2008. The car had been stolen from a parking lot on 14th Street West in Bradenton and was involved in a high-speed chase.

Inside the car, MCSO investigators found some of Musil-Buehler’s possessions and her blood.

MCSO detectives interviewed a number of people in the case, which now rests with the homicide division, as well as searched several locations.

Investigators and forensics specialists have returned several times to search the beach just three blocks from the apartment Musil-Buehler and Cumber shared.

In the first search, authorities used dogs trained to locate cadavers.

In a subsequent search, authorities used sonar-detection equipment.

The most recent search, which began early Feb. 2 and continued for two more days, involved the use of front-end loaders, shovels and trained eyes.

MCSO employee Dale Hancock usually works on the farm at the county jail compound. He arrived to work Feb. 2 expecting to move hay, but learned he was to assist with the excavation work on the Island beach.

For much of the first day, Hancock, a fifth-generation Floridian who began driving a tractor at 17, used the Kubota front-end loader to move sand, creating a 7-foot wide, 5-foot deep trench behind several beachfront homes.

He dumped the sand in ever-growing piles as homicide detectives and crime-scene investigators studied newly uncovered layers of sand.

“It’s going to be tedious,” Bristow said of the operation.

At one point on the first day of operation, Hancock uncovered a pair of flip-flop sandals, which were examined and then placed in a paper bag for further study.

Whispers ran through the crowd of onlookers and a detective asked two acquaintances of Musil-Buehler’s whether they recognized the sandals. Both said they did not, and that the shoes seemed too big.

Nearby the operation, the MCSO set up a canopy against a persistent drizzle of rain, as well as set out a Thermos of coffee and a cooler containing bottles of water.

Among the detectives on the scene was an officer familiar to the Island. John Kenney, who retired last summer as the head of the MCSO Anna Maria substation, returned to the MCSO in the fall as a homicide detective and is working on the Musil-Buehler case.

Bristow said authorities repeatedly return to the beach because of its proximity to the Magnolia Avenue apartment.

“It’s right down the street from where she lived,” he said. “And there’s other information that leads us to there, where the body might be.”

On Feb. 3, the digging continued, with a second tractor and driver brought in to expedite the process, which due to gray skies and a biting wind was not impeded by a sunbathing crowd.

Beach-walkers occasionally stopped to ask for details about the MCSO operation, clearly marked with yellow crime-scene tape. A number of onlookers took photographs and called friends from cell phones to report their vacation at a potential crime scene.

Detectives said they also are working other aspects of the case, but declined to elaborate for the record.

The MCSO has named one “person of interest” in Musil-Buehler’s disappearance — Cumber, who currently is in prison in north Florida on an unrelated charge. In December 2008, Cumber was arrested for violating parole on an arson conviction. Last spring he was sentenced to 13 years in prison.