Brandy Shipp Rogge said she and her family wanted to see justice for her mother after 12 years, but she also knew the state had a difficult case to prove Jeffrey Sauerbry's guilt in the death and dismemberment of her mother, Summer Shipp.
A Jackson County jury Thursday found Sauerbry, 43, not guilty of first-degree murder, after deliberating for 90 minutes. They apparently accepted the defense's claim that any evidence against him was entirely circumstantial and that the prosecution's key witness was highly questionable due to his own checkered past and the varied times he'd given as to when Sauerbry allegedly confessed to him.
Shipp, 55, disappeared in December 2004 from a northwest Independence neighborhood where she was conducting work as a door-to-door market researcher and where Sauerbry lived at the time. Shipp's car, with purses and snacks inside, was found on the street where she was last seen. Fishermen found her remains – about 10 percent of her, medical examiners testified – three years later in October 2007 in the Little Blue River near Missouri 78 and Missouri 7.
Sauerbry already is serving life without parole on a first-degree murder conviction. He was found guilty in 2012 for the stabbing death 14 years earlier of Independence man William Kellett, a security guard at a local car dealership where both men worked.
Sauerbry always denied involvement in Shipp's disappearance. He wept a little for joy while hugging his attorney John Picerno before being escorted out of the courtroom. The fact he was going back to prison provided a small measure of consolation, Rogge said.
“We all knew going in the case would be largely circumstantial,” she said. “In our hearts, we all know Sauerbry killed her. Fortunately, he already is doing life in prison without parole.
“It doesn't really matter to us what those 12 people think. For us, it's a good thing he won't be able to do anything like this to anybody else.”
Rogge, who was in the courtroom all day Thursday, said she was surprised how quickly the verdict came after closing arguments were presented following lunch Thursday, but her family learned after deliberations started that two of the alternate – and thus dismissed – jurors believed Sauerbry to be guilty.
“We thought it was a good sign, but we knew we were grasping at straws and hoping against hope,” she said.
Rogge said the prosecutors – Traci Stansell and Jeremy Baldwin – and Independence police did an incredible job in her mother's case and thanked the community and media for building awareness of her mother's case.
“(I will) continue to raise awareness for the plight of missing persons worldwide and keep my mother's spirit alive,” she said.
Picerno said the 90-minute deliberation was unprecedented in his murder defenses. Sauerbry was a person of interest when Shipp first disappeared and was arrested on outstanding warrants, but multiple police officers testified that searches of Sauerbry's house revealed no evidence Shipp had been there.
“There wasn't enough evidence to charge him forever,” Picerno said, “and the alleged confession to Darrel Wilson (the prosecution's key witness) was factually incorrect.
“She wasn't in the house. Those cops, they were all over it.”
Picerno added that Sauerbry's mother, who was present throughout the trial, said she feels bad for the Shipp family.
Picerno called no witnesses, though he had strong challenges to Wilson’s credibility. The prosecution's reason for bringing charges rested on Wilson's allegation that Sauerbry had confessed the murder to him several years ago.
Wilson testified that in winter of 2007-08, Sauerbry was at his house and he saw Sauerbry checking a website about Shipp. When asked why he was looking at such a site, Sauerbry then proceeded to tell Wilson how he thought Shipp was a CIA operative, and when she came to his house for a potential survey “he snatched her, strangled her, cut her throat, chopped her up and put her in trash bags.”
At one point, while Sauerbry's lawyer Picerno continually contrasted points of his testimony against a deposition he gave years ago (to Sauerbry's prior lawyer) and used Wilson's mother's funeral as a point of reference, Wilson became angry, slammed a copy of deposition down and said, 'I don't care what that says! By God, he killed that woman and chopped her up like a piece of trash!”
Picerno also pointed to Wilson's own criminal history (four felony convictions, most involving drugs) and his having served as a police informant against drug dealers.
“Not one person in here should take his word for what time the bus stops outside,” Picerno said during closing arguments.
Stansell and Baldwin argued that Sauerbry was a cold, calculated killer and while the 10 percent of Shipp's remains could not reveal a cause of death – as two medical examiners testified – the lack of remains and trace evidence pointed to Sauerbry's extensive actions.
Furthermore, Baldwin said, Wilson's past shouldn't discredit him because of the verbal beating he voluntarily subjected himself to on the witness stand, with no monetary reward.
“(Shipp) had the spirit to wash up on that shore,” Baldwin said during closing arguments. “To identify her with 10 percent is a miracle.
“Her family's strength through all these years is incredible, only matched by her strength in death.”
“He made sure that was all we would have … when he dismembered her and discarded her like trash,” Stansell added. “Don't reward him for covering his tracks.”