ANNA MARIA — A legal battle has just begun between her estranged husband and a life insurance company over legally declaring her dead.
Her ex-boyfriend will spend the next decade of his life behind bars — not for her disappearance, but for fleeing Manatee County while on probation amid the investigation into his girlfriend’s disappearance.
Another man is also in prison for stealing her car just days after the last time anyone saw her.
And the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office is no closer to finding her body, but continue to say someone killed her.
But it is not the fallout from the disappearance of 49-year-old Sabine Musil-Buehler that is on the mind of many islanders. It’s the desire to have her back and the longing to know what happened to her.
It will be one year Wednesday since anyone has seen Musil-Buehler alive, a fact that still brings gut-wrenching pain to those who knew and loved her.
The hope among them is still for closure, to at least find her body and learn the fate of a woman well-known and respected on Anna Maria Island.
A hope that some still have, but some have lost.
The car thief
It was election night, Nov. 4, 2008, and no one had heard from Sabine Musil-Buehler, making at least one of her best friends immediately uneasy.
For days, all Musil-Buehler had talked about were her hopes that Barack Obama would be elected president. She had planned to attend a party to watch news coverage, but never showed.
“I knew something was wrong right then and there,” recalls friend Silvia Zadarosni.
Two days later, no one had seen Musil-Buehler, but she had not yet been reported missing. That would change when a Manatee County Sheriff’s Office deputy pulled her Pontiac Sunfire over in an area of Bradenton known for drugs and prostitution.
But Musil-Buehler wasn’t in the car. Instead, the driver stopped and fled, only to be caught a couple of blocks away hiding under a truck. Deputies arrested Robert Corona on charges that he stole the Sunfire.
Corona told a tale that would initially point investigators in the wrong direction. He claimed he had been doing drugs with Musil-Buehler and she let him drive her car. He later changed his story when he realized he was being investigated for her disappearance.
Corona had, in fact, stolen the car after finding it with keys in the ignition outside Gators Lounge, on 14th Street West. Deputies had pulled him over just a few blocks from the bar.
That traffic stop led detectives to the door of Musil-Buehler’s estranged husband, Thomas Buehler.
The estranged husband
When deputies came to Thomas Buehler’s door and told him they had found his wife’s stolen car, he reported her missing. In previous interviews with the Bradenton Herald, Buehler said it was at that moment he believed his wife to be dead. He did not respond to requests for an interview for this story.
“The minute they found her car, I knew she was dead,” Buehler said a month after Musil-Buehler disappeared.
Buehler told deputies he had last seen his wife Nov. 4, and also thought it strange not to hear from her after Obama was elected.
Detectives began looking into it as a missing person case, first suspecting the disappearance might be drug-related.
That changed when Buehler, as well as friends and family, called such a notion preposterous, describing Musil-Buehler as a health-conscious woman who had never even smoked a cigarette. When Corona’s story changed, it also became apparent that it was strange for her car to have been found on 14th Street.
Deputies asked Buehler about their relationship, and he told them they had been separated. The two met in the mid-1990s when Musil-Buehler moved to Holmes Beach from Germany, and they immediately fell in love, Buehler told the Herald. Twelve days after they met, they were married.
“It really was love at first sight,” Buehler said.
During their marriage, Musil-Buehler had managed two hotels on the island, but she was laid off when the tourism industry felt the brunt of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The couple decided to take on their own business, buying Haley’s Motel, a property on Gulf Drive that is a throwback to old Florida.
Over the years, their marriage took an unconventional turn. They decided to remain living together, but divided up their Holmes Beach house to live as friends. They did remain married.
“The marriage really turned into a friendship,” Buehler told the Herald.
An outsider eventually strained the friendship between the couple. Musil-Buehler began dating an ex-convict — a man Buehler later pointed to as a suspect in his wife’s disappearance.
In 2005, William Cumber III came into the Buehlers’ lives out of nowhere. He walked up to Haley’s and asked Thomas Buehler for a job, saying he had just gotten out of prison.
Buehler said he liked Cumber at first and put him to work at the motel.
But Cumber left much of his past out of the picture he painted for Buehler. He previously had been convicted and served jail time for domestic violence, marijuana possession and battery on a law enforcement officer. He lasted only four days on the Haley’s job, finding himself behind bars for setting fire to his girlfriend’s house.
Musil-Buehler met Cumber at the hotel on the day police arrested him for arson. He was sentenced to 3 1/2 years for the fire.
During his time in prison, Musil-Buehler and Cumber began to exchange letters. She even vouched for Cumber for a prison furlough program, and they began meeting.
“I think she fell in love with him during those furloughs,” Thomas Buehler said last year.
When Cumber got out of prison in fall 2008, he and Musil-Buehler moved into a duplex apartment in Holmes Beach, just a few block from Haley’s.
But things did not go well, and Musil-Buehler’s belongings began to trickle back into her husband’s home, Buehler said. When deputies called on Cumber after Buehler reported his wife missing, he said he had argued with Musil-Buehler on the night of Nov. 4 and she left angry. Cumber said he had not seen her since, and he remains the last person to have reported seeing her alive.
Cumber denied having any knowledge of what happened to Musil-Buehler, but detectives searched their apartment anyway, taking forensic evidence. Detectives conducted targeted searches for Musil-Buehler’s body for weeks that revealed nothing. Detectives also revealed that Musil-Buehler’s blood had been found in her car on the night Corona was arrested.
After tests on the blood came back, Manatee sheriff’s detectives said they believed Musil-Buehler had been killed in foul play. Then two weeks after Musil-Buehler disappeared, a stand-alone building on the Haley’s property went up in flames, and detectives named Cumber as the prime suspect in her disappearance.
Holmes Beach police, as well as state and local firefighters, called it arson, pointing to Cumber again as the suspect. But they didn’t have enough evidence to charge him.
In an interview with the Herald days after the fire, Cumber adamantly denied any involvement in Musil-Buehler’s disappearance or the fire, saying he had been “framed.”
Detectives still don’t have enough evidence to charge Cumber, 39, but they have plenty of time to make a case, sheriff spokesman Dave Bristow noted last week.
A little more than a month into the investigation, Cumber fled Manatee, violating his probation for the arson conviction. Cumber said he fled because he cracked as an innocent man being hounded by detectives about his girlfriend’s disappearance. He was brought back and sentenced in May to more than 13 years in prison.
In August, Corona also was sent to prison after a judge sentenced him to four years for stealing Musil-Buehler’s car.
The investigation into Musil-Buehler’s disappearance is at a standstill because a body has not been located, Bristow said.
“Even though we don’t have a body, if we had the evidence we would charge somebody,” he said. “But we just don’t have that. We are still urging the public to come forward with any information on the case.”
Musil-Buehler’s case will soon be making it into a court room, though in civil court, not criminal. Thomas Buehler has asked a judge to declare her dead so, as the sole beneficiary since his wife did not have a will, he can collect a $300,000 life insurance policy.
Great American Life Insurance Co. officials have said they will fight the declaration in court, claiming Florida law states Buehler has to wait five years.
“It is not surprising to us that he is seeking this declaration,” Bristow said. “We think she is dead, so there is no reason he shouldn’t.”
Whatever happens in court, a piece of paper declaring Musil-Buehler dead will be little solace for friends desperate to find out what happened to her.
“I want to know so badly,” said Zadarosni, who keeps a picture of Musil-Buehler on a wall in her Anna Maria flower shop, Silvia’s Flower Corner.
At the mention of her name, Zadarosni still chokes up as she recalls daily talks with her friend, going to movies and having dinner.
“She was a wonderful woman, I miss her terribly.” she said. “There is a big empty space on the island.”
Anna Maria businessman Pierce Combs echoes that loss. Musil-Buehler was one of his clients for his tourist map-making business, and she was a joy to be around.
“I fear we will never know what happened to her,” he said. “It is just not the same without her. She was very active in everything on the island, a big part of life here.”