Jackson County's chief medical examiner says she is not be able to determine the cause of death of Summer Shipp following her analysis of Shipp's remains.
Testifying on the first day of the Jeffrey Sauerbry trial, Diane Peterson said the remains, while enough to identify as Shipp's, were not extensive enough to conclude whether her death was caused by homicidal violence, as she originally determined. A scarf found with Shipp's remains that Peterson might otherwise have used to help reach that conclusion could not be directly connected to Shipp. Her examination of the remains would have taken place since she became chief examiner in 2015.
Peterson's testimony, given in part with the jury out of the courtroom, capped the trial's first day before Circuit Judge Jack Grate at the Eastern Jackson County Courthouse in Independence.
Sauerbry, 43, is accused of first-degree murder in the death of the 55-year-old Shipp, who disappeared in December 2004 from a northwest Independence neighborhood where Sauerbry lived at the time. She was going door to door doing market research. Fishermen found the remains three years later in October 2007 in the Little Blue River near Missouri 78 and Missouri 7.
Sauerbry, who was present in court, already is in prison for an unrelated case. He was convicted of first-degree murder 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.
After that conviction, prosecutors unsealed the murder charge in the Shipp case.
Summer Shipp's daughter Brandi was the first to testify. She recalled learning of her mother's disappearance, going to her house and starting the initial search. She knew something was wrong because her mother's answering machine was full and her dog had relieved itself around the house.
“My mother would never, ever not let her dog out, and it had no food and water,” she testified.
At Brandi's urging, the company her mother worked for faxed a map of her scheduled canvass area. The area included the neighborhood where her car was found – purses and snacks still inside – and where she was last seen.
Later, while fighting back tears, Brandi said, “That's my mother” when shown a collage of photos. The $100,000 reward for information in her mother's case was never given to anyone, she said.
During opening statements, the prosecutor Traci Stancell said a yet-to-testify witness told investigators Sauerbry had confessed to him he had killed and dismembered Summer Shipp. Peterson said the remains did not show if a chainsaw, ax or knife had been used to dismember Shipp's body, though the bones were not extensive enough to rule out that scenario, either.
The acquaintance of Sauerbry's had seen him looking at a website about Shipp.
“The tale he told was chilling,” Stancell told the jury.
Sauerbry’s attorney, John Picerno, said in his opening statement that “99 percent of what the prosecutor told you, we have no disagreement with.”
His chief contentions are that the scheduled witness, Darrell Wilson, lacks credibility, as he himself is a convicted multi-felon who was looking to cut a deal to help a nephew in prison, and that the purely circumstantial evidence does not directly tie Sauerbry to Summer Shipp or a crime.
Wilson's accounts of Sauerbry's confession to him vary in relation to the day of Wilson's mother's funeral, something Picerno said is telling.
Wilson, Picerno said, is “Wrong about the facts about the case and wrong about the alleged confession.”
Earlier Wednesday, forensic anthropologist Michael Finnegan also testified that he could not determine a cause of death from the remains. Finnegan did say a fracture in a rib bone would have been caused near the time of her death as opposed to postmortem, an assessment Peterson also made.
The prosecution also called several law enforcement officers involved in the investigation and recovery of Shipp's remains. One officer said three different visits to Sauerbry's house showed no evidence Summer Shipp had been inside.