ANNA MARIA ISLAND -- Wearing a white shirt with a turtle on it, a young and excited Sabine Musil-Buehler was excitedly telling a group of German tourists, in German, about why she worked to protect loggerhead sea turtles.
A photograph that captured the moment was taken at a picnic table at the Manatee County Public Beach in 1997. It is from the collection of Suzi Fox, director of Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch & Shorebird Monitoring.
The picture is a reminder that Musil-Buehler, who went missing in 2008, left a profound impact on everyone she met, Fox said Sunday.
“When I first met her she was taking in stray birds that had no feathers,” Fox said. “I thought to myself, ‘Man, this woman does a lot more than I do.’ One time we had been traveling to a convention and when we got home we discovered one of her cats had died. She fell on the floor and drew the animal to her and just cried and sobbed. She was incredible with animals. I was positive when she went missing that something happened to her and she didn’t leave. She would never leave her animals. She had cats, dogs and birds and I couldn’t tell you how many.”
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Musil-Buehler was an active member of Fox’s Anna Maria Island turtle group from 1996 until she went missing. She owned a motel on Holmes Beach. No one has ever been charged in her disappearance, although her boyfriend, William Cumber, now in prison on a parole violation, has been described as a person of interest in the case.
Remarkably, with Fox’s blessing, the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office obtained a federal permit Friday and will be digging this week near Willow Avenue, on the same stretch of beach where five turtle nests are filled with eggs, Fox said.
Working side by side with Fox’s group, the detectives will be trying to find clues to the disappearance of Musil-Buehler.
“It is very ironic that they will be digging up a nesting beach during nesting season looking for Sabine,” Fox said.
Loggerhead sea turtles are a federally protected threatened species, and there are only three reasons why the U.S. Department of Environmental Protection would grant a federal permit to disrupt a beach during turtle nesting season, which is May 1 to Oct. 31.
Those reasons are a hurricane or other catastrophic storm, red tide or the investigation of loss of life, Fox said.
On Thursday, Fox got a call from Manatee County Sheriff’s Detective John Kenney, who was formerly a sergeant assigned to Anna Maria from 2002 to 2009. In a gesture of respect, the sheriff’s office, through Kenney, was asking Fox’s group for their blessing to secure the permit.
“He came to my house and we sat down,” Fox said. “He said, ‘Will you allow us to do this, to continue this investigation?’ I looked into his eyes. He knew Sabine. It was clear that many people with the sheriff’s office knew her. I said, ‘Yes, and we will be there beside you.’ I realized right then we all need some closure on this.”
‘It’s eerie,’ say tourists
Orlando tourist Amanda Rivero and her family were sitting under a tent on the white and sugary beach Sunday near where the dig will begin sometime nest week.
The Riveros, including her parents, Alfredo and Corina of Venezuela, discovered Anna Maria in a successful quest to find a “Caribbean-like” experience, Amanda Rivero said.
“It may mess up the beach, but she needs justice,” Rivero said of possibly sitting near Musil-Buehler’s remains. “They have to get closure for the family.”
Beachgoers Rose Moore and her sister, Maria Miller, both of Bradenton, said they have been following the case.
“It’s an eerie feeling that we might be near her,” said Moore, who owns Rose’s Hidden Beauty on Manatee Avenue West. “What her story reaffirms for me is that its hard to know who to trust and believe anymore. People you have even known for years, you suddenly realize you never did know them.”
They will dig in sections
The sheriff’s office has identified an area they call The Sabine Perimeter around Willow Avenue where they think her remains may be.
The five nests in the Sabine Perimeter are in the middle of the beach, near beach dunes and in other locations.
“They are scattered throughout the Perimeter,” Fox said.
Anna Maria Island has 30 to 40 sea turtles and 121 nests as of Sunday.
“We protect the nests by cordoning them off and fielding calls when our volunteers think something isn’t right,” Fox said.
One can only imagine the concern Fox’s volunteers will feel with a front-loader lifting sections of beach to explore three to four feet below. “We will be right there if a nest hatches out while the work is going on,” Fox said.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 748-0411, ext. 6686.