HOLMES BEACH – William Cumber, the last person who reported seeing missing Haley's Motel co-owner Sabine Musil-Buehler alive last November, was sentenced on Thursday to 13.5 years in jail for violating probation on a 2006 arson conviction.
Cumber, 39, had previously admitted violating probation by leaving Manatee County without his probation officer's consent. He was arrested for driving with a suspended license in Marion County on Dec. 22, 2008, three months after completing a 3.5-year prison sentence for setting fire to the home of a Manatee County woman whom he felt had scorned him, according to the arrest warrant.
"I was running because I had no future. Bradenton was dead to me," Cumber told Manatee Circuit Court Judge Gilbert Smith during his sentencing hearing, which was attended by several law enforcement officers. "I made better choices in my time. That wasn't one of them."
Cumber, who was shackled in chains, criticized police and the media for drawing attention to his arson conviction after a duplex at Haley's Motel, 8104 Gulf Drive, burned 12 days after Musil-Buehler's Nov. 4, 2008 disappearance.
The pressure caused him to be shunned, to lose his new woodcrafting business and apartment on Anna Maria Island, and to suffer stress-induced physical and emotional problems, he said.
Recounting the last time he saw Musil-Buehler last election day, Cumber said that she left the home they shared at 208 B Magnolia Ave. after they argued over him starting to smoke after giving it up for her birthday.
Tom Buehler, Musil-Buehler's husband and business partner, reported her missing two days later after another man, Robert Corona, 38, was arrested for stealing her car, in which blood matching Musil-Buehler's blood type was later discovered. Corona is awaiting a jury trial.
"Who do they want to decapitate over it? Me," said Cumber, who has not been charged in either the missing woman's disappearance or the motel fire. The cases are still under investigation.
Cumber has 10 prior criminal convictions, four of them felonies, including battery, Assistant State Attorney Tony Casoria told the court, adding that fleeing the jurisdiction is an aggravating factor in the probation violation.
"The defendant describes himself as a victim of the media and a victim of the system, but there are many victims," Casoria said, adding that the state originally was lenient when it recommended 3.5 years in jail for the arson, for which he said 15 years would have been a "just" sentence.
"The defendant does not deserve leniency any longer," he told the judge.
Cumber's attorney, Thomas Ostrander, asked the court to consider placing Cumber back on probation, considering his efforts to improve himself in prison and his attempt to start a business, and saying that the prosecutor's 15-year sentence recommendation did not fit driving with a suspended license and leaving the county.
"Giving 15 years for these types of violations would be wrong and counterproductive," Ostrander told the court.
"The court is not finding you were absconding, but that's what the evidence tends to show," Gilbert told Cumber just before announcing his 13.5-year sentence. Cumber showed little reaction.
The sentence will be reduced by the 3.5 years Cumber already spent in prison for the arson, resulting in a 10-year sentence, possibly less with gain time for good behavior, Ostrander said. The probation violation could have resulted in a 30-year sentence.
"I just don't think the violation supports the severity of the sentence that he gave him," Ostrander said later, adding that a public defender may appeal the sentence.
Friends of Musil-Buehler experienced a range of emotions on learning of Cumber's sentence.
"I'm ecstatic," friend Debbie Hall said. "But I'm still a little frustrated. I'm glad he's in jail. I just hope one day we find out what happened (to Musil-Buehler)."
"People that believed that he did it will feel like there is some justice," said friend Nancy House. "But I feel like proof is proof and they could never prove it."
House reported that she thought she saw the missing woman at the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport on Nov. 13, but investigators said she could not be identified on airport tapes.
"It's still so sad. It's a sadness in my heart," House said. "She was a great lady."
Buehler did not return telephone calls seeking comment.
To report information on Musil-Buehler's disappearance or the fire, call the Manatee County Sheriff's Office at 747-3011 or the West Manatee Fire Rescue District at 741-3900.Rewards have been established by the Sabine Buehler Benefit Fund at Whitney Bank, 5324 Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach and the Manatee County Gold Star Club.