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Anna Maria Island is an idyllic beach community on Florida’s Gulf Coast, featuring turquoise waters, bursting sunsets, and at one point, a seaside mystery that ended with bones found buried in the sand.
In 2002, Tom and Sabine Buehler were the proud new owners of Haley’s, a popular mom-and-pop motel with beach bungalows catering to the island’s locals and tourists. A passionate environmentalist and ardent animal advocate, Sabine, 49, was a well-liked fixture in the coastal town.
“She had strong opinions,” Island resident Barbara Hines told “Buried In The Backyard,” airing Thursdays at 8/7c on Oxygen. Hines explained that long before smoking bans were enforced, Sabine lost business after refusing to let guests smoke at the motel, citing Sabine’s detest for the habit and its effects on the environment.
In October 2008, Sabine focused her passion on the presidential campaign for Barack Obama. She looked forward to Nov. 4 and hoped to celebrate the presidential candidate’s election at a party that evening.
But she never arrived.
“The day after the election, I walked over to Haley’s and said, ‘Where’s Sabine?’ And they said, ‘We don’t know where she is,’” Hines explained. “I started to worry.”
Meanwhile, across the bay in Bradenton, Florida, what appeared to be a run-of-the-mill traffic stop only added to the mystery. In the early morning hours of Nov. 6, 2008, deputies pulled a man over for a simple infraction, but the driver raced off before exiting the car and trying to flee on foot. When authorities captured Robert Corona, 38, a short time later, they learned the car he was driving belonged to Sabine Buehler.
Corona, a man with a long history of auto theft, told authorities he’d traded the vehicle with a couple in exchange for crack cocaine.
“Nobody had filed a missing person report until Corona got caught in the stolen car,” said retired Manatee County Detective John Kenney. “So we had no idea that anybody was missing up until that point.”
Friends and family, including Sabine’s husband, couldn’t understand why Sabine or her car would have been in such a rough area of Bradenton or why she would have let anyone borrow her car.
“Mr. Buehler was extremely cooperative,” said Assistant State Attorney Art Brown. “He was willing to give information and allow police to search anywhere on his premises that they thought might yield evidence.”
While Tom Buehler assisted with the investigation, he also disclosed that his and Sabine’s marriage was anything but picture-perfect. After a decade together, they were resigned to mere business partners and remained married for the sake of the motel. Though they were no longer romantic, the pair remained friends.
Tom also told authorities that Sabine was openly seeing another man named Bill Cumber, 30, a handyman who started working on the motel grounds three years earlier.
Sabine was immediately attracted to the new groundskeeper.
“Bill Cumber was an extremely attractive man,” said Hines. “And [he] knew how to flaunt it.”
But it wasn’t just good attention that Cumber received. Only weeks into his employment at Haley’s Motel, locals were surprised when police came to arrest him. A warrant had been issued on charges of arson stemming from a house fire two months prior.
According to Assistant State Attorney Brown, Cumber confessed to becoming involved with a married woman. But when the woman tried to break things off, Cumber retaliated by setting fire to the home, with the woman and her husband inside.
The occupants were unharmed.
After serving three years in prison, Cumber returned to work at Haley’s Motel in October 2008. It became evident to friends that Sabine’s attraction to Cumber continued.
“Suddenly, you could tell, she would dress differently,” said Sabine’s friend, Tina Rudek-Stark. “And she was made up more.”
Tom Buehler suspected his wife was having an affair, and that was confirmed when he caught Sabine and Cumber being intimate in one of the motel bungalows.
“I never saw him angry,” said Barbara Hines. “But one thing he did say to me was, ‘I never knew she was that unhappy.’”
A few days later, Sabine left Tom. She rented an apartment and let Cumber move in.
Weeks later, she disappeared.
Investigators believed Tom’s story when he said he meant no ill will toward Sabine. Next, they went to Sabine’s new apartment to interview Cumber. Cumber claimed that the two of them cooked dinner before watching the presidential election results on TV on the night of her disappearance. But a small argument ensued when Cumber went to have a cigarette, a habit that Sabine strongly detested.
That was the last known sighting of Sabine. Officials and friends scoured the island for days and weeks but to no avail. Meanwhile, officials processed Sabine’s car and found someone had dug a hole in the padding of the backseat.
“Whoever did it used a knife and cut it around, and then took out the padding and the leather,” said Detective Kenney. “We surmised that they tried to clean up the car the best they could and cut that part out.”
Forensic testing also showed blood around the hole in the backseat.
Authorities re-interviewed Robert Corona, the man arrested with Sabine’s vehicle. Upon learning that the car’s owner was a missing person and that foul play was suspected, Corona copped to auto theft. He claimed he found the car unlocked near the Gator Lounge pub in Bradenton and saw an opportunity to steal it, but he denied ever seeing Sabine.
Corona provided detectives with two witnesses who were passengers in the car earlier in the night. Both supported his account of events. Corona was subsequently convicted for stealing the vehicle but was no longer suspected in Sabine’s disappearance.
Then, nearly two weeks later, the community was shocked when a fire ravished through Haley’s motel. Was it related to Sabine vanishing?
“It was highly suspicious to law enforcement,” said Assistant State Attorney Brown. “It was determined that the origin [of the fire] had been intentionally set through the use of accelerant.”
After their investigation, authorities didn’t believe Tom Buehler started the fire. Though there was nothing physical to tie the fire to Bill Cumber, they followed Cumber closely. Soon after, Cumber moved out of the new apartment.
“Sabine was footing the entire bill, and really, was paying for his life,” said Brown. “So when Sabine went missing, she was no longer there to provide for his needs; he had to leave town.”
In Cumber’s absence, investigators seized the opportunity to search the apartment he shared with Sabine. A forensics team found the presence of Sabine’s blood on the couch and the wall.
The blood matched the DNA found in Sabine’s car. Furthermore, they also found Cumber’s fingerprints inside the vehicle.
“Law enforcement came to look at Mr. Cumber as the most likely suspect,” said Brown. “But we didn’t have enough evidence for a conviction. And at that point, without a body, we couldn’t definitively say that Sabine was murdered.”
A few weeks later, police arrested Cumber for driving without a license and leaving the county without notifying his parole officer. He was sent back to prison for seven years.
There were no new leads as to what happened to Sabine Buehler for the next three years.
In 2011, a local man was clearing out the brush of his shorefront property when he made a shocking discovery: He found Sabine’s purse with her belongings still inside. The property was only a couple of blocks away from the apartment Sabine shared with Cumber. For authorities, it proved that Sabine probably never left the island.
An extensive search ensued, including ground-penetrating radar and cadaver dogs, but there was still no sign of Sabine.
Though there was still no physical evidence to prove Sabine was murdered, the state found that all of the circumstantial evidence combined was enough to charge Bill Cumber with second-degree murder. With his lawyers, Cumber created delay after delay, but finally, on Oct. 15, 2015, Bill Cumber pleaded guilty to the charges. As part of the plea deal, he agreed to lead authorities to Sabine’s final resting place.
In a taped confession provided to "Buried in The Backyard," Cumber explained what happened on the night of the murder.
“She encountered me and smelled the [cigarette] smoke, and we got in a little dispute about it,” said Cumber. “She said that she couldn’t do this relationship anymore.”
Authorities surmised that at the threat of Sabine leaving, Cumber realized his meal ticket was going out the door.
When asked what happened next, Cumber said, “I lose control.”
Cumber confessed that he struck Sabine in the head two times with his fist, causing her to shed blood.
“She gets scared, and she covers her face with her hands,” Cumber continued. “And I reached and grabbed her throat and started choking her ‘til she wasn’t moving.”
Cumber explained what he did with Sabine’s body.
“I couldn’t believe what I did. I stared down at her, and I couldn’t believe what I had done,” Cumber continued. “I decided I didn’t want to go back to prison. So I thought of a way to dispose of her.”
Cumber admitted that he rolled Sabine’s body in a sheet before putting her in the backseat of the car. He then drove to a spot on the beach where the couple used to watch the sunset and buried her under a rain pavilion in the sand.
He chose a beach access path near Haley’s Motel, hoping it would make Tom Buehler look like the prime suspect. Finally, he drove Sabine’s car to a pub in Bradenton and left it there.
“Cumber was an extremely vicious, talented con man,” said Barbara Hines. “I have no doubt that she was in love with the person he pretended to be. And unfortunately for her, he wasn’t the person he actually was.”
In a police video obtained by "Buried in The Backyard,” a handcuffed Cumber led authorities to Sabine’s body.
The long search for Sabine was finally over.
“I often thought, as I sat watching the sunset with our neighbors and friends, that she was buried in the sand, underneath us,” said Hines. “And we didn’t know it.”
Bill Cumber is currently incarcerated in Indiantown, Florida. He is scheduled to be released in 2031.
The arson at Haley’s Motel remains unsolved.
For more on this case and others like it, watch “Buried In The Backyard,” airing Thursdays at 8/7c on Oxygen.
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