With his team nearing the end of four days of excavation work on an Anna Maria beach, Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube vowed July 22, “We’re not done yet.”
The sheriff said the MCSO would continue this week to search for clues in the disappearance of Sabine Musil-Buehler, the co-owner of Haley’s Motel who is presumed dead. She has been missing since Nov. 4, 2008.
Last week, following the July 9 discovery of some of Musil-Buehler’s possessions in an overgrown area of City Park near Willow Avenue, the MCSO conducted a massive search of the beach.
A four-day excavation campaign followed a three-day scouring of the area that involved MCSO corrections cadets, crime-scene technicians, metal detectors and cadaver dogs.
The excavation work began July 19, after the MCSO received permission from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to dig on the beach during turtle nesting season.
A condition for the permit was that Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch, which monitors nesting activity, have someone at the scene to safeguard nests and collect eggs in the event the MCSO uncovered an unmarked nest.
So for the duration of the operation, which continued through July 22, AMITW volunteers shared the shore — and conversation — with MCSO detectives and technicians.
During that period, the focus of the search shifted from the open beach, where tractors operated July 19 and July 20, to lines of sea oats, where digging took place July 21 and July 22.
The dig, day 1
When the tractor drivers moved their first buckets of sand July 19, AMITW executive director Suzi Fox was talking with Sgt. John Kenney, formerly in charge of the MCSO command on Anna Maria and now a homicide investigator.
Both are convinced Musil-Buehler, once a volunteer with AMITW, is dead.
“I truly feel she is gone,” Fox said. “Now this whole island needs closure, needs to be able to rest over this.”
Kenney said, “We know she’s gone. But we’d like to find her.”
Kenney probably will be one of the two investigators who soon will travel to a Panhandle prison to talk with William Cumber, Musil-Buehler’s boyfriend and the last person known to see her alive.
Cumber has said that he and Musil-Buehler, 49 at the time of her disappearance, spent most of the night of Nov. 4, 2008, in their apartment on Magnolia Avenue in Anna Maria watching the presidential election returns on TV.
The two argued, he said, over his smoking cigarettes after promising to quit.
Cumber said Musil-Buehler left in her car. She was not seen again, but her car was ticketed early Nov. 5, 2008, near Gulf Boulevard and Magnolia Avenue, about 300 paces from where the search took place last week and 300 paces from the apartment.
Investigators, reporters and bystanders spoke often of Cumber last week — he is the only person of interest in the case.
On July 19, a woman who said she was close to Musil-Buehler told investigators at the excavation site that Cumber and Musil-Buehler often hung out on the beach near Willow Avenue. The woman also said she was on the telephone with Cumber after Musil-Buehler’s disappearance and he confided that he was at their “special place.”
July 19, at the couple’s supposed “special place,” two farm tractors and a heavy-duty front-loader, were employed to dig up large sections of open beach.
To the south and north of the operation, beachgoers erected colorful umbrellas and went on with plans to sunbathe and swim.
“It’s kind of grisly but interesting,” said beachgoer Greg Jones of Tampa. “And it isn’t intrusive.”
The tractor drivers, who work for the MCSO at the jail farm, dug a trench until they reached water. Then they filled in the trench, leveled the sand and moved on to repeat the process on another strip of beach.
The work was laborious, and the sun scorched.
The first excitement of the search came early in the day, when a tractor driver hit something buried about 3 feet in the sand. The find turned out to be a tire filed with concrete. Later, a resident told the MCSO a volleyball net was on the beach about five years ago.
The first day continued with a series of courtesies and pleasantries despite the grim task. AMITW coordinator Glenn Wiseman went home to find an umbrella to shade a tractor driver. Homicide investigators escorted families carting toys and chairs to the shore. One nearby resident offered to make a cooler of iced tea and another offered the press, AMITW volunteers and MCSO team the use of his bathroom. And everyone, it seemed, was willing to share sunscreen — SPF50.
Day one of the dig concluded after more than nine hours at the site, with the finding of the tire and the remains of a buried sea turtle, and with investigators making plans to resume early July 20.
The dig, day 2
The MCSO team resumed excavation of the beach at about 7:30 a.m. July 20, with plans to break for lunch but then continue to work until dusk.
While the three tractor drivers worked on the beach, crime-scene technicians began searching in the sea oats.
The search was prompted by a question investigators were trying to answer: What did the beach look like on Nov. 24, 2008?
They knew that in April, the beach was renourished with sand from Tampa Bay, which complicated the excavation because crime-scene technicians could not identify disturbances in the layers of sand.
Also, a number of residents suggested to investigators that the sea oats weren’t as plentiful and thick in 2008, and the beach was narrower three years ago.
Aerial photographs provided by Island photographer Jack Elka also suggested a narrower beach and fewer sea oats in the fall of 2008.
The MCSO officials began to talk about the possibility of digging up the sea oats, which could have been open sand in November 2008. If so, the City Park tree line could have shielded someone digging there from the homes nearby, said MCSO spokesman Dave Bristow.
By the end of the second day of the excavation, the MCSO was working with the DEP to expand its search into the dunes.
“We’ve got to look,” Bristow said.
The dig, day 3
On July 21, the tractor drivers were on standby at the excavation site as they awaited the arrival of DEP agent Steve West.
MCSO investigators wanted to talk with West about digging up the sea oats, plants that are protected by law and are a natural tool against beach erosion and storm protection.
The meeting took place mid-morning on the wooden walkway at the Willow Avenue access, with West talking with detectives, crime-scene technicians and Maj. Connie Shingledecker, the head of the MCSO’s investigations division.
Anna Maria Mayor Mike Selby also talked with West. The mayor said he wanted “to help in any way I can.”
West, after a brief discussion, authorized the search in the dunes. His instruction to the MCSO was to replace the sea oats after the search.
“They have been very accommodating, very gracious,” Bristow said of the DEP. “The cooperation has been fantastic.”
Selby said, “I’m very happy that Mr. West is going to allow them to do what they need to do.”
With the expanded search approved, Selby called Island horticulturist Mike Miller to the site, as well as Anna Maria public works director George McKay.
The two men took investigators through City Park, providing a course in Island vegetation, invasive species and beach formation.
Meanwhile, a crime-scene team from the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office arrived with ground-penetrating radar, equipment purchased several years ago with a U.S. Department of Homeland Security Grant.
After an area of sea oats was cleared, the radar — which looked like a cross between a push-mower and Segway — was rolled over the area.
“It will pickup anything reflective — like a ship radar — and send it back,” said MCSO crime-scene technician Jason Smith.
The MCSO had used radar on the beach before — in December 2009, when it searched the Magnolia Avenue area in the Musil-Buehler case. But technicians had problems with the radar because it was sensitive to the salt water just a few feet underground.
On July 21, the first patch of sea oats cleared was yards from where Musil-Buehler’s possessions were found, and at the end of a closed beach path.
Over the next several hours, the excavation turned up shells, turtle remains, trash and a toy soldier.
At about 8:30 p.m., the operation shut down for the night.
The dig, day 4
On July 22, the fourth day of the excavation work, MCSO Detective Jeff Bliss arrived to Willow Avenue with the sun still rising.
Resident and former city Commissioner Chris Collins approached the officer. “I just want to say I appreciate what you guys are doing out here,” Collins said.
Knowing the heat would intensify and the work hours had been long, Collins added, “It must be hell.”
Bliss thanked the commissioner, and they talked briefly about Island life, the beach and the search before the detective walked out to monitor the tractors already moving earth.
“It has to be done,” Collins said of the search.
The fourth day continued like the third, with the tractor drivers digging up the sand and sea oats, and then watching for anything unusual as they emptied the buckets.
At about 11:30 a.m., the MCSO closed the Willow Avenue walkway and erected a shield for two crime-scene technicians used hand tools to excavate a small site next to the footbridge.
The dirt was loose and in a long, narrow shape, catching an investigator’s eye, but nothing was found.
Steube, who made several visits to the site last week, arrived about noon on the fourth day and watched the technicians work near the walkway.
The sheriff said the search would resume this week, after the investigative team met to strategize.
Day five of the dig began July 25.
For updates this week, follow the news at www.islander.org.