A daughter's nightmare repeats

Kansas City Star
21 January 2005

Bridget McKeown watches the local TV news more intently than most people.

She was tuned in on a Saturday evening in December when the station reported that Summer Shipp, a 54-year-old woman, had been missing for four days. Shipp's daughter, Brandy Shipp, pleaded for her return.

McKeown almost stopped breathing. This was her nightmare, happening to someone else.

McKeown's mother, Shirley McKeown, was 71 when she disappeared on an August day in 2002. It was Bridget who faced the news cameras then, emboldened by anxiety and disbelief.

Police have no reason to think the disappearances of Summer Shipp and Shirley McKeown are related, but Bridget McKeown can't help but be struck by the similarities.

Both women's cars have been found. Shipp's car was parked on the street of an Independence neighborhood where she'd been conducting a door-to-door survey. McKeown's Cadillac was concealed by a tarp and tree branches near 33rd Street and Highland Avenue in Kansas City.

Police looked closely at a suspect in each case. An 18-year-old Kansas City man had been driving McKeown's Cadillac, and possessions of hers were found in his home. But he was never charged in the case.

In Shipp's case, police questioned a man who lives near where she was last seen. But no charges have been filed in connection with Shipp's disappearance.

Neither McKeown nor Shipp has been found.

So Bridget McKeown knows what it's like to cling to hope, until even that becomes a burden. She remembers spending months in a bizarre limbo. How do you make plans when your mother has dropped off the face of the earth?

Shirley McKeown, a lively widow who enjoyed browsing at yard sales and flea markets, left her house on a Saturday morning and never came home. Police found her car 10 days later, with traces of blood inside.

“I knew then my mother was dead,” McKeown said. “But as long as people were around me I didn't want to believe it. When I was by myself, I had to say the word, murder.”

She and a sister, Patty, who lives in California, took all the logical steps. They attended vigils, hired a private investigator, raised reward money.

Time passed and they dealt with the reality that her mother had been killed. Eventually Bridget packed up her mother's belongings. She plans to put her house on the market.

Bridget, 45, goes to work, socializes and even took a recent vacation to Mexico. But her mother's disappearance controls her life.

“I think about this 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” she said. “And I don't know what to do.”

Her last conversation with a Kansas City police detective, around the two-year anniversary of her mother's disappearance, was testy. McKeown had resorted to consulting a psychic. The detective showed no interest in the psychic's tip. McKeown accused him of not caring.

“I am the voice for my mother,” she said. “There is a woman that has been thrown away somewhere, and nobody will help me.”

Police would love to solve the case, said homicide Sgt. David Bernard, who has supervised work on the case. Right now, though, they have no leads to work on.

Detectives always doubted the story of the teenager who was found in possession of Shirley McKeown's belongings and car, Bernard said. But they could never prove he was involved in her kidnapping and murder.

“I never give up on these cases,” Bernard said. “The leads might run out, but sometimes somebody wants to talk to get out of a jam. Or we could find her body.”

That, of course, sounds passive and indefinite to Bridget McKeown, who feels haunted unless she's taking some kind of action.

McKeown phoned Summer Shipp's family when she learned of her disappearance. It was something she could do.

“I don't mean to bother you,” McKeown said, when she called Shipp's family. “But I've been in this situation.”

Later she met Brandy Shipp and Summer's ex-husband, John Shipp, at a vigil for Summer.

They embraced — their own tiny support group. And now they wait.

Anyone with information about the disappearance of Shirley McKeown or Summer Shipp should call the TIPS Hotline at (816) 474-TIPS (474-8477). Rewards are available for useful information in both cases.

Barbara Shelly is a member of the Editorial Board. To reach her, call (816) 234-4594 or send e-mail to bshelly@kcstar.com.