Manatee County trials to watch in 2015
BRADENTON -- Looking ahead at the new year, there are several high-profile courts cases to watch.
Cases involving including animal cruelty, a random shooting and, most recently, a triple murder, are a few of the more prominent trials to be aware of in the months ahead:
The case against the owners of Napier Horse and Animal Sanctuary is set to go to trial beginning Jan. 26.
Napier's was raided Feb. 5, 2014, by a multi-agency law enforcement team led by the Manatee County Sheriff's Office that resulted in the confiscation of about 300 animals found in deplorable conditions, and the discovery of the remains of 20 other animals.
Owners Alan and Sheree Napier were arrested April 7, and again June 2, on charges stemming from the sheriff's office investigation.
Alan Napier faces one count of scheming to defraud $50,000, three counts of soliciting to defraud and 15 counts of animal cruelty.
Sheree Napier faces 14 counts of animal cruelty, one count of scheming to defraud $50,000, and one count of soliciting to defraud.
If convicted, the couple could face as little as over three years in prison or a maximum of 85 years in prison if sentenced consecutively, according to Assistant State Attorney Garrett Franzen.
The case will be presided over by Circuit Judge Peter Dubensky with testimony expected to last about six days. Jury selection could also take as long as one to two days, according to Franzen.
"Mainly because of the media coverage, there may be a lot people that are going to be biased," Franzen said.
Most recently on Dec. 22, the defense refilled a motion to sever the charges but was denied by Dubensky.
The couple is currently out on bond.
Over six years after the disappearance of Sabine Musil-Buehler, a well-known businesswoman who lived in Holmes Beach, her ex-boyfriend is slated to stand trial Feb. 23 for her presumed death.
Musil-Buehler, 49, went missing Nov. 4, 2008.
William Cumber, her boyfriend, was charged with second-degree murder in October 2012 although investigators were never able to recover her body. Traces of her blood found in her car and apartment were among the evidence that led to Cumber being charged with second-degree murder.
He is scheduled to be in court during the Feb. 23 trial period before Circuit Judge Diana Moreland.
Investigators had searched the gulf side of Anna Maria Island previously for Musil-Buehler's body but after drawing new conclusions from evidence, investigators decided to search an undeveloped plot on the bay side off of South Bay Boulevard last May.
On Aug. 18, undergarments were found by a backhoe crew at the south end of Bay Boulevard in the city of Anna Maria and were sent to a DNA lab for testing. No DNA was located on the undergarments, however, according to lead detective John Kenney.
The sheriff's office is gearing up for the case to finally go to trial, he added, having worked closely with the State Attorney's Office.
"There is a lot of physical evidence," Kenney said.
Cumber has remained in custody since his 2012 arrest.
Two men charged with the fatal shooting of a Sarasota teen outside a Manatee County movie theater will each stand trial separately.
Teria'le Rawls, 17, was shot July 28 during an exchange of gunfire in the Carmike Royal Palm 20 theater's parking lot, 5126 26th St. E., near U.S. 301 at State Road 70. She died about 10 minutes later while her sister and friends were rushing her to a hospital.
Jasper Dudley, 19, of Bradenton, and Frank Brice, 19, of Palmetto, each face second-degree murder charges.
Both remain in custody at the Manatee County jail on $1 million bond each.
On Sept. 4, Circuit Judge Charles Roberts granted a motion by the defenses to give Brice and Dudley separate trials.
Brice is currently set to stand trial during the Feb. 23 trial period before Moreland. Dudley is currently set to stand trial during the April 27 trial period before Roberts.
A man who incited a massive two-day manhunt by the Manatee County Sheriff's Office in 2013 after investigators say he kidnapped and raped a 5-year-old girl is set to stand trial beginning March 16.
Dominick Hawkins, 36, is facing charges of kidnapping and capital sexual battery. If convicted he faces life in prison.
The girl was kidnapped July 15, 2013, from near her home off U.S. 41 and taken to a vacant mobile home, where she was raped, according to authorities. The girl was then locked inside the mobile home and he reportedly walked away. She escaped through an unlocked window and run home.
The state attorney's office has DNA linking Hawkins to the crime it has said in previous court proceedings.
The trial will be presided over by Circuit Judge Deno Economou and is not expected to go longer than a week.
Hawkins has been held in custody at the Manatee County jail since his arrest on July 17 in Sarasota.
A former Manatee County Sheriff's Office lieutenant charged with molesting two girls is currently set to stand trial late February.
After multiple delays, Dale Couch, 51, faces two counts of lewd and lascivious molestation on a child under 12 years old and one count of lewd and lascivious molestation on a child between 12 and 16 years old. If convicted, he could face up to life in prison.
The 20-year veteran resigned his position with the sheriff's office the day when he was arrested on May 23, 2012.
Initially, accusations against Couch were investigated after a complaint was filed July 25, 2012, which led to an internal affairs investigation. Couch was suspended throughout the investigation and later returned to duty Nov. 22, 2012, when the State Attorney's Office said charges would not be filed.
Charges were filed when the case was reopened early last year after one of the children making accusations against Couch made a disclosure to a therapist.
Couch is currently out on bonds totaling $207,500. Conditions of his supervised release also include a curfew from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. and that he must check in with the court twice a week.
The retrial of a Everrick Houston charged with the fatal shooting a 19-year-old pregnant woman has not yet been set.
Houston, 33, was charged with two counts of first-degree murder and one count of armed burglary. If convicted Houston faces life in prison.
In the early morning hours of July 12, 2009, Crystal Johnson was shot when at least two men burst into the home she shared with her mother, sister and boyfriend. Lawrence Funsch, Johnson's boyfriend and the father of her unborn baby, exchanged gunfire with the intruders.
Johnson was taken to Manatee Memorial Hospital where she died. Her baby, Lariah Faith Funsch, was delivered via emergency C-section and taken to All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg where she died eight hours later.
On Nov. 25, after 10 hours of deliberations Monday and Tuesday, Circuit Judge John Lakin ruled a mistrial in the case against Houston after the jury were unable to reach a unanimous vote.
Houston's case is set for a case management hearing Feb. 5 before the new presiding judge Economou. He remains in custody at the Manatee County jail with no bond.
Another court case to follow closely with Andres Avalos charged in the triple homicide that sparked a massive manhunt after investigators said he killed his wife, a neighbor and a church pastor.
On Dec. 16, Avalos was indicted by a grand jury on three counts of first-degree murder, which carries a sentence of life in prison or the death penalty. When arrested, he was first charged with second-degree murder.
Prosecutors now have until 45 days after Avalos' arraignment, scheduled Jan. 16, to decide whether to pursue the death penalty.
Investigators said Avalos hanged his wife from a cord in the laundry room of their northwest Bradenton home, then beat and shot her. He also reportedly gunned down his neighbor, Denise Potter, 46, who apparently was visiting at his home, investigators said.
After the attacks on the women, investigators said Avalos dropped his 4-year-old son off at day care and went to the Walmart on State Road 64, where he left his vehicle, took a taxi to Bayshore Baptist Church, 6502 14th St. W., where investigators and witnesses said he shot and killed the Rev. James "Tripp" Battle, 31.
Avalos was arrested Dec. 6 after a 51-hour manhunt led by the Manatee County Sheriff's Office and a public plea from his father to turn himself in for the sake of his six children, who were being held in a safe house until his capture. He was arrested in a mobile home park less than two blocks from Bayshore Baptist Church.
After his arrest, Avalos admitted to the slayings, Assistant State Attorney Art Brown said at the first court hearing Dec. 7.
Jessica De Leon, Herald law enforcement reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7049. You can follow her on Twitter@JDeLeon1012.