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Date of Issue: May 20, 2009

Cumber sentenced to 13.5 years

William Cumber, left, listens to his attorney, Thomas Ostrander, during a sentencing hearing May 14. Cumber was sentenced to 13.5 years in prison for violating his probation on a felony arson conviction. Islander Photo: Courtesy Grant Jefferies/Bradenton Herald

The man police identified as a person of interest in the disappearance of Islander Sabine Musil-Buehler was sentenced May 14 on an unrelated charge to 13.5 years in prison.

William Cumber, 39, pleaded guilty last month to violating the terms of his probation on a 2005 arson conviction.

Last week, Cumber was sentenced to prison for that violation, with Circuit Court Judge Gilbert Smith saying, “This court is not involved in rehabilitation.… This is a court of punishment.”

In late December 2008, Cumber was arrested for driving on a suspended license in Marion County.

After pleading guilty to the traffic offense and serving 10 days in the Marion County Jail, he faced a charge in Manatee County of violating his probation because he left the county without permission from his probation officer and by committing a new offense.

Cumber first pleaded not guilty to the probation violation charge, but later changed the plea and requested a sentencing hearing, which took place at the courthouse in Bradenton.

For about an hour, Smith listened to Cumber, defense attorney Thomas Ostrander and assistant state attorney Tony Casoria present their sides in the case.

Casoria’s argument was succinct — the state was lenient with Cumber when, after pleading guilty, he was sentenced to 42 months in prison and three years probation for setting fire to a Bradenton woman’s home, but now Cumber no longer deserved leniency.

In an arrest warrant on the 2005 arson, Bradenton Police Department detective James Curulla said Cumber told him that “after a verbal argument with the female tenant he returned to the residence by crawling through an opening in the patio screen. He then lit a chair on fire with a lighter. He stated he did not have the intent to burn down the house, but wanted to leave a message since he felt scorned.”

Casoria said four adults and two children were in the home when the fire began. There were no injuries, but “when law enforcement arrived the home was fully ablaze.”

Cumber has told The Islander that he set the fire because the residence was being used as a meth lab, and in court he had started to tell the judge about drugs in the home when the prosecutor interrupted and asked whether the arson case was going to be retried during the sentencing hearing. Ostrander then instructed Cumber not to continue in that direction.

Cumber, however, did talk at length about his time in prison, his release, his attempt to build a career in woodworking on the Island, his illness and injury that interrupted his work, his relationship with Musil-Buehler, and then the media scrutiny he came under when she disappeared and when fire destroyed a structure at Haley’s Motel in Holmes Beach.

Cumber had met Musil-Buehler prior to his conviction in the Bradenton fire, and, by the time he left a St. Petersburg work release program and began serving probation, he had saved money to rent a house on Magnolia Avenue in Anna Maria to share with Musil-Buehler. At the time, she was living apart from husband Tom Buehler, with whom she co-owns Haley’s.

“When I got out, I was seeing a woman,” Cumber said. “We moved in together.”

On Nov. 6, 2008, Tom Buehler reported Musil-Buehler missing after learning that a man, Robert Corona, was arrested fleeing from her car in Bradenton.

Corona first told authorities he was in a bar on 14th Street West in Bradenton, where he was given the key to the car to go buy drugs. Later he told authorities he found the car behind The Gator Lounge on 14th Street with the key in the ignition.

Authorities found small amounts of Musil-Buehler’s blood along with some of her possessions in the car, and the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office began treating the disappearance as a possible homicide.

Authorities identified Cumber as a person of interest in Musil-Buehler’s disappearance.

Cumber said he last saw Musil-Buehler on Nov. 4, when she left their rented home in Anna Maria after an argument about Cumber smoking a cigarette.

“After that she’s missing.… I can’t help that she left the house,” Cumber told the judge.

Cumber said when she was reported missing, “Who do they want to decapitate over the situation? Me.”

While the missing person investigation was ongoing, Cumber said he was struggling with a shoulder injury and shingles that prevented him from working and he lost his woodworking shop at Holmes Bros. Construction in Holmes Beach.

Then the duplex at Haley’s burned. No people were injured, but two exotic birds died, and the motel garden was charred.

The Holmes Beach Police Department continues to investigate, but has ruled the fire an arson.

Cumber, with several MCSO detectives in the courtroom last week, said he told police he was somewhere else when the fire began but “they call my alibi weak.”

He said he felt stuck, and, under intense media scrutiny that he labeled unfair and inaccurate, he felt outcast.

The media portrayed him as “an evil monster of sorts,” Cumber said.

And, he added, “I got a lot of cold shoulders.”

With problems piling up, Cumber said by Dec. 22, 2008, “I wasn’t able to put up with anything.… I was just running because I had no future.… Bradenton was dead to me.”

Ostrander told Smith that Cumber had been a successful prisoner prior to probation and had been trying to improve his life after his prison release.

Leaving the county was not a mature act, but an understandable response to the pressure, the defense attorney said, recommending that Cumber not be returned to prison.

“He just felt a need to leave the county and to drive the car,” Ostrander said. “That’s all he did.”

Smith, however, said Cumber’s actions were not to be taken lightly, and that “from everything I’ve heard so far, probation doesn’t seem to be such a good idea.”

The judge asked several questions about Cumber’s prior record, which includes 10 prior convictions, including four felony convictions, according to Casoria. Cumber served eight years in prison for burglary and a year in North Carolina for cultivating marijuana.

The prosecutor recommended a 15-year sentence. “He’s described himself as the victim,” Casoria said. “There are lots of victims in this defendant’s past.”

Smith took several minutes to review papers and his notes, then asked Cumber, wearing his jail uniform and chains, whether he wanted to stand or stay seated. Cumber stayed in his seat and Smith explained his sentence.

“In this case, you were convicted of the serious crime of arson,” the judge said.

A violation of probation also is a “very serious matter,” Smith said.

Smith then announced the 13.5-year sentence, with credit for the 42 months Cumber already served in prison, as well as for the time he has been detained in the Manatee County jail.

Cumber had 30 days to appeal.