Eleven years after her mother vanished, Brandy Shipp walked into an Independence courtroom Wednesday to watch prosecutors try to convict the man who they believe choked and dismembered her.
The family is happy this day finally has arrived, Shipp said.
The suspect, Jeffrey S. Sauerbry, 43, already stands convicted of murdering a man in Independence in 1998.
But a lack of physical evidence in the Dec. 8, 2004, killing of Summer Shipp — a Westport resident last seen conducting door-to-door market research in Independence — means this murder case against Sauerbry is circumstantial, his lawyer, John Picerno, told jurors.
The case was further complicated Wednesday when the Jackson County chief medical examiner reversed her own opinion that Shipp died from homicidal violence, instead calling Shipp’s cause of death undetermined.
Evidence that Shipp had been dismembered with a chainsaw or an ax was lacking, according to the medical examiner’s testimony.
According to prosecutors, Sauerbry heard that a woman was in his neighborhood conducting door-to-door surveys. He beckoned her to a side door of the house he shared with his mother, grabbed her, choked her and slit her throat.
A person to whom Sauerbry confessed retold a chilling tale of what happened, assistant Jackson County prosecutor Traci Stansell told jurors. Sauerbry tried to dismember Shipp with a chainsaw but when it quit working, he used an ax.
Police worked tirelessly to bring the case to jurors “so finally Summer Shipp could have justice,” Stansell said.
Picerno countered that investigators found no blood, hair or clothing fibers from Shipp in Sauerbry’s house or vehicles despite multiple searches. A chainsaw would have sprayed blood everywhere, he said.
“They couldn’t find anything,” Picerno said.
Back in 2004, the search for Summer Shipp began after her employers called her family to report they could not reach her.
Brandy Shipp testified about going to the Westport house looking for her mother but finding only her mother’s dog without food or water. He had relieved himself in the house. Her mother never would have left him long enough for that to happen, Brandy Shipp testified.
Clutching a tissue to wipe away tears, Brandy Shipp recounted the frantic and fruitless search that followed.
After her mother’s abandoned 1986 BMW was located in Sauerbry’s Independence neighborhood, police searched with dogs and a helicopter. Brandy Shipp distributed thousands of fliers. Volunteers fanned out in Independence and at other places Shipp was known to frequent.
Though police arrested and interviewed Sauerbry that December, he denied that she ever had been in his house, and investigators found nothing linking him to Shipp.
The case eventually went cold.
Nearly three years later, fishermen discovered Summer Shipp’s skull in the Little Blue River about seven miles to the east. Investigators recovered other bones there as well.
The murder investigation still lingered — until a friend of Sauerbry’s finally went to police to report the confession Sauerbry allegedly made to him.
Immediately after Sauerbry’s 2012 murder conviction in the 1998 case, Jackson County prosecutors charged him in the murder of Shipp.
Jackson County chief medical examiner Diane Peterson had initially ruled Shipp’s death a homicide, as had her predecessor, Mary Dudley, who retired last fall.
But Peterson reversed that opinion Wednesday, instead saying that the cause and manner of Shipp’s death were undetermined.
Peterson testified that she could no longer connect with certainty some of the items found in the Little Blue River to Shipp.
Although a skull and jawbone were identified through dental records as belonging to Shipp, another set of bones, including a rib and a vertebra, could not be identified.
Investigators had believed those bones, as well as a scarf, bra, a pair of jeans and a car key, had all belonged to Shipp. But Peterson said she did not have the evidence to conclude that.
Peterson also testified that there was no evidence that the bones found had been dismembered with an ax or other cutting tool as prosecutors described. The bones lacked cut marks that would be expected, she said.
The majority of Peterson’s testimony was heard without the jury present. The jury had been removed at the request of Picerno.
Testimony is expected to continue Thursday.