It’s a damn shame prosecutors couldn’t come up with enough evidence to convict Jeffrey Sauerbry in the 2004 murder of Summer Shipp.
This was a case that frustrated law enforcement and the public alike because while it appeared that detectives had “solved” the case, physical evidence was nonexistent, and it all came down to the testimony of a convicted felon, Darrel Wilson, who testified that Sauerbry admitted to him in 2007 or 2008 that he had killed Shipp, then cut up her body and put it in trash bags.
It was a damn shame years before charges and trial occurred, too, because Shipp was an innocent victim. She was going door to door doing market research work in Independence when she disappeared, just vanished. It was pure luck that fisherman found her skull several years later in a body of water. Without that discovery, it is unlikely the state would have been able to charge Sauerbry.
By that time, Sauerbry had already established himself as a craftier-than-usual criminal, having killed someone in 1998 and managing to avoid prosecution until 2012. It was after that conviction (for which, thankfully, he is serving life without parole) that the Jackson County prosecutor’s office charged him with Shipp’s murder.
I had a little history with this case because I was bureau chief in Independence in 2005 and 2006 — my last stand at The Star — when the crime was still fresh in everyone’s mind but little progress was being made on building a case. I remember there was a prime suspect — Sauerbry, the last known person to see her — but nothing solid tying him to the murder.
…It’s difficult to convict a defendant on the testimony of someone — anyone — who says the offender confessed to him or her. An added problem for prosecutors was that Wilson didn’t come forward after his conversation with Sauerbry. Apparently he just wanted the whole thing to go away. His incriminating story didn’t surface until detectives contacted him.
Still, I thought there was a good chance of gaining a conviction because of the forcefulness of Wilson’s testimony, as well as the details of his conversation with Sauerbry as the two of them were looking for dates online. At trial, when the defense attorney pressured Wilson about inconsistencies in his statements, he picked up a deposition transcript in front of him, threw it down and declared: “By God, he killed that woman. He chopped her up and put her in garbage bags.”
That reminded me of a story a former assistant prosecutor told me in the 1970s about a case he had back then, when I was covering the Jackson County Courthouse. The prosecutor, Jim Speck, said his key witness, when pressed about his eyewitness identification of the defendant, sat in the witness box and said: “It was him then, it was him today, and it will be him 20 years from now.”
That’s the kind of statement — like Wilson’s — that gets a jury’s attention.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to hold Sauerbry accountable for Summer Shipp’s senseless killing.
The only solace, as a said, is he’s in prison for life.
Finally, congratulations to Summer Shipp’s daughter Brandy for pushing relentlessly for justice for her mother. If it weren’t for her efforts, the case might have drifted into the ether.