Originally published Oct. 10, 2007
For nearly three years, Summer Shipp’s family and friends feared the worst.
The Jackson County sheriff’s office confirmed those fears Tuesday night, announcing that a skull found along the banks of the Little Blue River in Independence and other remains found nearby were Shipp’s.
"Late this afternoon, the medical examiner’s office did come back to us, positively identifying the remains as Summer Shipp, " said sheriff’s spokeswoman Ronda Montgomery.
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That confirmation was a bitter conclusion for those who had struggled mightily to keep Shipp’s name in the news in the months after the Kansas City woman vanished in late 2004 while conducting a door-to-door survey in Independence. Ultimately, they raised $100,000 in reward money and developed a Web site dedicated to solving the mystery of her disappearance.
Within minutes of the news conference, that Web site bore the following message:
"There are no words to express the feelings and emotions the Shipp family is experiencing after the recent news of the positively identified remains of our wonderful Summer. The family needs some time to absorb this. We dearly appreciate all the emails and phone calls received, and please keep them coming! They are so very comforting."
Kris Wade, one of the legion of people who billed themselves as Friends of Summer, said the news was difficult to bear.
"Our hearts are broken; everybody’s hearts are broken, " Wade said. "At least we know this part is over."
Shipp, who was 54 when she disappeared, will be missed by many, Wade said.
"Summer was a beautiful, special little pixie, " she said. "She will be in everybody’s heart forever."
Shipp vanished Dec. 8, 2004. She was last seen conducting a marketing survey in an Independence neighborhood. Her car, a bronze 1986 BMW, was found three days later in the 1500 block of West College Terrace. Witnesses reported seeing her walking toward a house on that street.
Three years of investigative dead ends began to open up Sunday afternoon, when two fishermen found a human skull along the banks of the Little Blue River in Independence. That area, less than a mile from a park shelter near Missouri 78 and Missouri 7, is within Independence, but on land managed by Jackson County Parks and Recreation.
A team from Lee’s Summit Underwater Recovery searched the area Sunday night and Monday and found more bones, along with clothing that was wrapped in fishing line.
Montgomery indicated that the clothing was helpful with the investigation, but said dental records confirmed the find.
A search continues at the site for additional evidence, and authorities are still requesting that anyone with information in the case contact them.
Other officials refused to address the cause of death or whether there was a suspect.
"We are not discussing any aspect of the investigation, " said Tom Gentry of the Independence Police Department.
Initial reports indicated that the skull came from an older child or a small adult -- chilling news for those who knew the diminutive Kansas City woman. Shipp was just about 5 feet tall and weighed 105 pounds.
Late Tuesday afternoon, a family friend said some of Shipp’s relatives had been told that the remains might be Shipp’s. Summer’s daughter, Brandy Shipp, was overseas and wasn’t prepared to speak Tuesday night. Shipp’s ex-husband, John Shipp of Kansas City, declined to comment.
"We are thankful that she is at peace now, so that her family and daughter and all of us can have closure, " said Shipp’s friend Dodie Murphy.
Murphy recalled how Shipp had started a Ladies’ Night group five or six years ago and that because of Shipp their close-knit circle continued to get together every month. Shipp brought them all together, she said.
"She was just a fun person. I never saw her say an ugly thing about anyone, " she said. "She was a wonderful friend of all of us."
Shipp was widely known because she once owned a Westport movie house and was involved in various social circles. Friends and family members described her as a positive, caring, loving person.
Police and volunteers had searched Independence streets and neighborhoods repeatedly since she vanished. Her disappearance was highlighted on billboards, on several national television shows -- and on more than 25,000 fliers handed out by those who held out hope for so long that Shipp might one day return.
Sara Shepherd and Joyce Tsai contributed to this report.