Eleven years have passed since Summer Shipp, a petite Kansas City mother and former owner of a Westport movie house, vanished in northwest Independence.
Four years later, fishermen discovered her skeletal remains in a plastic bag along the banks of the Little Blue River about 7 miles to the east.
This coming week, the criminal trial finally is to begin for Jeffrey S. Sauerbry, the man Jackson County prosecutors charged in 2012 with Shipp’s murder.
Attorneys will select from about 100 potential jurors to decide whether Sauerbry sliced Shipp’s throat and dismembered her body, as prosecutors have said.
Shipp, 54, vanished Dec. 8, 2004, while conducting door-to-door market research. Police and volunteers fanned out multiple days in massive search efforts but did not find her.
Her disappearance generated widespread media coverage and community support. Her daughter, Brandy Shipp, championed the effort. Along with family and friends, Brandy Shipp ensured that her mother’s case was featured on billboards, national television shows and thousands of fliers distributed in the area.
Sauerbry, 43, lived in the neighborhood where Summer Shipp last conducted her research. A witness told police he saw Sauerbry and Shipp walking together to a house in the 1500 block of West College Terrace where Sauerbry lived with his mother.
Shipp’s bronze 1986 BMW was found days after her disappearance in that neighborhood.
Police later arrested Sauerbry, who had a prior criminal history, on outstanding warrants.
He told investigators he had nothing to do with Shipp’s disappearance. Sauerbry said he had to work that day. He denied Shipp ever was inside his house.
According to court records, a witness told police that Sauerbry told him in 2005 that he had raped Shipp.
The following year, a federal judge sentenced Sauerbry to a year in prison for violating probation from a 2003 weapons conviction.
In June 2012, investigators interviewed a childhood acquaintance of Sauerbry. The witness said the two of them were together when Sauerbry said he had killed Shipp because he thought she was a government spy.
The witness said Sauerbry admitted that he choked Shipp and cut her throat. He dismembered her body, placing the pieces in a trash bag and loading it in his van, according to court records.
Prosecutors later said without that witness’s assistance, they had little evidence to charge Sauerbry.
His defense attorney, John Picerno, said this month that the state has hinged its hopes on a “highly circumstantial case without any physical evidence connecting Jeff with the commission of a crime or with Summer Ship.”
Her friends described Shipp as someone who had an “aura of goodness,” loved making others happy and enjoyed marketing work that enabled her to meet new people. Shipp once owned The Bijou movie theater in Westport.
In the three years following her mother’s disappearance, Brandy Shipp remained hopeful that she would be found. A group of supporters, called Friends of Summer, raised thousands in reward money.
Brandy Shipp was traveling in Europe when she learned that her mother’s body had been located. Through her attorney, she declined to comment about the murder trial.
Sauerbry once was hospitalized for mental health reasons. He had imagined that unidentified people in Independence were trying to kill him by injecting illicit drugs into his body, according to federal court records.
In August 2014, Sauerbry was convicted of first-degree murder in the unrelated shooting death of William Kellett, whose body was found in July 1998 in a shed at an Independence used car dealership. Kellett had worked there as a night security guard. Sauerbry also worked at the dealership.