An Independence jury returned a not guilty verdict Thursday in the case of a man accused of murdering a door-to-door market researcher in 2004.
Prosecutors had accused Jeffrey S. Sauerbry of killing 54-year-old Summer Shipp, dismembering her and dumping her body over a bridge.
After the verdict Thursday, Sauerbry cried and hugged his attorney. Sauerbry is already serving a life sentence for another murder.
Brandy Shipp, the victim’s daughter, looked straight ahead and showed no emotion. She left the courtroom immediately.
The jury had deliberated about 90 minutes Thursday, hours after hearing about an alleged confession critical to the prosecution.
Earlier on Thursday, jurors heard from a witness how Sauerbry revealed a secret — that he had killed Shipp years earlier — to a friend as they surfed chat rooms and online dating sites in the friend’s home.
The defense, however, attacked the credibility of that friend and stressed the lack of any physical evidence linking Sauerbry to Shipp.
At the end of the two-day trial at the Jackson County Courthouse Annex in Independence, lawyers on the two sides used their closing arguments to paint vastly different pictures for jurors.
Prosecutors called Sauerbry a cold, calculated and premeditated murderer.
“Years had passed, and he thought he was free and clear,” said Jeremy Baldwin, an assistant Jackson County prosecutor. “Now she’s crying out for justice.”
Sauerbry clearly was the last person Shipp was seen with that day, the prosecution said.
After choking Shipp and dismembering her body, Sauerbry drove 13 minutes from the house he shared with his mother and dumped the body over a bridge, Baldwin said.
It was a miracle that Shipp’s remains were recovered years later, he said. Prosecutors charged Sauerbry in 2012, shortly after his conviction in a 1998 murder case. Testimony in the Shipp case began Wednesday.
By all accounts, Summer Shipp was a loving friend and mother.
“She was her family’s strength for all these years, and it was only matched by Summer’s fight in death,” Baldwin told jurors.
“It’s time to stand up for Summer Shipp. It’s time for justice to be served.”
Brandy Shipp watched the trial and held the hand of one of her supporters. She lowered her head when Baldwin showed jurors a photo of her mother’s skull.
The verdict was disappointing but not a complete surprise, she said.
“We all knew going into this case that it would be highly circumstantial, so we all had our doubts about it,” Shipp said.
“We would have liked to see justice for my mother. But fortunately he is already doing life without parole in prison for another murder, so he will never be able to do this to another person, and for that we are thankful.”
Defense attorney John Picerno had told the jury that prosecutors didn’t have enough evidence, their key witness was not believable and his testimony could not be trusted.
There was no physical evidence — no hair, blood or clothing fibers — to support prosecutors’ claim that Sauerbry choked Summer Shipp and dismembered her body before discarding it, he said.
“We don’t know if it was a homicide. We don’t know how she was killed,” Picerno said.
It was left to jurors to decide whether they believed what a witness told them happened one winter night in late 2007 or early 2008 in the basement of Darrel Wilson’s Independence house.
Sauerbry and Wilson, longtime friends, were looking at the Internet, hoping to find women, Wilson testified Thursday.
At one point, Wilson went upstairs for a diet soda. When he came back about 10 minutes later, he saw Sauerbry looking at a website featuring a picture of Shipp, the Kansas City woman who had vanished in December 2004 while conducting door-to-door market research in Sauerbry’s Independence neighborhood. Police soon launched a massive search for her, but results had eluded them and Shipp’s friends until fishermen found her skull in the Little Blue River nearly three years later.
Wilson testified that when he saw Sauerbry staring at Shipp’s photo, he asked, “What are you looking at?”
Sauerbry answered that he had a little story to tell, Wilson testified. The woman had come to his house, Sauerbry said, and knocked on the front door. He lured her to another entrance, strangled her, cut her up and put her body in trash bags because he thought she was a CIA operative.
Asked by an assistant prosecutor his reaction to this news, Wilson said he told Sauerbry he didn’t want to hear any more and changed the subject.
He later told his sister about the conversation, Wilson testified, but did not tell anyone else until police detectives came to him about the case.
Picerno attacked Wilson by talking about his criminal history and by pointing out discrepancies between what he told investigators and what he said in two depositions.
When Picerno pressured Wilson about the inconsistencies in his statements, Wilson picked up a deposition transcript that had been sitting in front of him and threw it down.
“By God, he killed that woman,” Wilson exclaimed. “He chopped her up and put her in garbage bags.”
During questioning by assistant Jackson County prosecutor Traci Stansell, Wilson said he gained nothing by agreeing to testify.
The prosecution never presented physical evidence linking Sauerbry to Shipp’s death.
Picerno did not call any witnesses for the defense. After the verdict, he said there was never enough evidence against Sauerbry and that was why he was found not guilty.
“The alleged confession to Darrel Wilson was factually incorrect, and that’s their problem,” he said. “At the end of the day, he (Wilson) was factually incorrect on when and how it may have taken place, and in my mind that’s what happened.”