Suspicious Minds  

When you’re desperate to find a missing person, you’ll take help from anyone.
BY KENDRICK BLACKWOOD | originally published: May 12, 2005

The first psychic approached Brandy Shipp at the candlelight prayer vigil the night after she learned that her mother, Summer Shipp, had disappeared.

Brandy can't recall with certainty what the woman looked like or what she was wearing. She claimed to have lived near Summer in Kansas City's Valentine neighborhood and said they'd met a couple of times before.

"I have powers," the woman said to Brandy. That's as much as Brandy says she can remember -- the entire first month of searching for her mother was a swirl of emotion and confusion, she says.

"We had to go find a house with white chipped paint on the door. Time was running short," Brandy says, recalling the advice the psychic gave her.

Brandy was so desperate for any progress on the search for her mother that she briefly considered pursuing the lead. But there was so little to go on, she ultimately decided to ignore the advice.

Other psychics -- dozens, in fact -- have offered their help. And so have friends. Brandy's house was filled with people eager to help find her mother, who had vanished without a trace on December 8. And when you're in a situation like that, it's hard to turn down offers of aid, no matter where they come from.

A few days after the search began, Brandy was approached by a 45-year-old private investigator named John Underhill. He wasn't the only private eye who asked to get involved, but something about him, Brandy says, put her at ease. She gives him credit for keeping her composed and focused through the hardest five months of her life.

Underhill is a former cop who says the investigating business gets slow around the holidays, which is why he had time on his hands.

"He showed us all his credentials and said he'd like to help," Brandy says. "I had good vibes, or we wouldn't have used him."

Underhill and Brandy's friends have helped her keep Summer's disappearance in the news. They hope the publicity will bring a break in the case. Brandy has appeared on The Montel Williams Show and on Nancy Grace's CNN program. And, according to a company that offered to sell Brandy video clips, her mother has been featured on television more than 600 times.

The Independence police, meanwhile, seem snakebit. They admit that they've been frustrated by the case, and the department is already under pressure to solve another high-profile disappearance, the mystery of what Dan Porter may have done with his missing children, Sam and Lindsay. Porter awaits sentencing for custodial interference after taking the children away from his estranged wife, Tina, and he continues to refuse to tell police the fate of his children. Like Brandy, Tina Porter has also sought publicity, making appearances on Dr. Phil, for example, hoping that enough attention will bring in useful leads to police.

When a disappearance is as baffling as Summer Shipp's, any help can seem promising.

Even when it produces questionable results.

Underhill's investigation, for instance, is increasingly galvanizing Brandy's cadre of friends and supporters with the claim that the most likely suspect in Summer Shipp's disappearance has been identified. They've followed the man they suspect, monitored his activities and dug up details of his past -- and they're frustrated that the Independence police aren't doing more with their suggestions.

Some of their actions haven't amused Independence police, who say they, too, are interested in the man but aren't as convinced of his involvement. But they are sure that some of Brandy's posse are going about things the wrong way.

One of Brandy's friends was arrested recently for allegedly harassing four people, including a suspect's mother, over the phone. Underhill, meanwhile, has filed a complaint of his own; he says he was called a liar by a police major.

Still, despite the friction over the case, Independence police Capt. Travis Forbes says the department isn't opposed to outside help from private investigators.

"We'd be stupid to sit here and say we can solve this case without any community help," Forbes says.

Brandy Shipp first realized that something was wrong at lunchtime on Friday, December 10, when her father called.

For the second day, Summer Shipp had failed to show up at a grocery store where she did surveys of customers, one of several market-research jobs that kept her busy. When her boss found that her home answering machine was full, he called Summer's ex-husband, John Shipp, Brandy's father. Summer and John Shipp divorced more than a decade ago, but they have remained on good terms. John then called his daughter.

Brandy went to her mother's house in midtown. She could see that Summer's car wasn't parked out back and that her aged terrier mix, Alex, had not been let out in days. That neglect was a troubling sign.

"I knew something was wrong," Brandy says. "Her dog is her world."

Brandy had last talked to her mother on Monday, four days earlier. The two were very close, friends say, but Brandy had worked two double shifts since that Monday, supplementing her administrative job with bartending shifts at the downtown Marriott.

Summer's cellular phone had been stolen from her car about a month before, so Brandy started calling her mother's friends.

She found a couple of people who had talked to Summer on Tuesday evening, but none who had spoken to her since.

She called the Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department and filed a missing-person report. At the suggestion of the police, she went through her mother's mail and checked her bathroom cabinet for medicines that might have caused her to be disoriented.

She also listened to the phone messages, which offered little insight about where Summer went but did support the suspicion that her mother had been home Tuesday night. The messages had all been left since Wednesday morning.

Summer's calendar showed that on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, she was scheduled to work for a company called N.O.P. World doing door-to-door surveys. Summer had made a 20-year career of market research, contracting with several firms. She put together focus groups to watch commercials for advertising companies. She stood in malls, cajoling shoppers to fill out questionnaires. And occasionally, she went door-to-door.

Summer loved it.

"She just liked meeting people," Brandy says. "She loved telling me about the people she would meet."

And she continually blew off Brandy's voice of caution when it came to the door-to-door work.

Summer was a small woman, 5 feet 1 inch tall and 105 pounds. But she was not one to worry much about her safety. Despite her daughter's pleading, most nights she refused even to turn on the front porch light of her Valentine-neighborhood house. "It's too bright," she complained.

"We all worried about her, but she just laughed it off," Brandy says.

On the day she disappeared, N.O.P. World assigned her to a section of northwest Independence and asked her to pay cash to residents willing to spend an hour talking to her about their lifestyles. The company faxed Brandy a map of the area that Summer was supposed to canvas.

With her father's help, she got airtime on all four local news networks that first night. Each interviewed her and broadcast pictures of Summer. Brandy heard from a University of Missouri-Kansas City foreign exchange student who was staying in a room on the third floor of Summer's house. He told Brandy that it wasn't unusual for them not to see each other for days at a time because of their varied schedules. But he did remember seeing Summer on Wednesday morning. He said she was wearing jeans and a gray-and-pink sweater.

The news was celebrated in a small way, Brandy says. "We thought, great, that's another day."

Late Friday night, Brandy was at Kinko's on State Line Road copying thousands of fliers with Summer's picture and announcing a $10,000 reward for information leading to her return.

By early Saturday morning, Summer's house had became a command center. Friends of Summer's and Brandy's arrived to offer support and help.

Summer's eclectic interests had drawn a diverse group of friends, recruited during years as a social catalyst and in several careers. Long ago, she and John had owned and operated the Bijou Theater in Westport, which, after they sold it, became the Tivoli. She loved antiquing and had recently opened a consignment booth at an antique mall in Parkville. No moneymaker, the booth seemed like just another way to meet interesting people and maybe clean out some of the odd items that decorated her house.

The hordes that arrived early on Saturday left with batches of fliers. They blanketed much of the Kansas City area, hitting Summer's neighborhood, Parkville and the Independence neighborhood where she was supposed to have worked on Wednesday.

That's where they found Summer's 20-year-old bronze BMW. An Independence police officer was about to ticket it as abandoned.

A coffee cup was on the dashboard, and Summer's purse was in the trunk. The back seat was filled with clothes, toys and books that she'd been moving to and from the antique mall. Brandy says friends of hers had actually seen the car the night before but didn't know it was Summer's because they had an old license plate number that they'd gotten from an oil-change receipt.

"By the time we got there, it was all police-taped off," Brandy says. She says the day was such a blur that she struggles to remember the time she spent at the scene, much of it sitting numb in an Independence Police Department cruiser.

Like Brandy's allies, Independence police investigators quickly focused on one particular Independence citizen.

Sgt. Dennis Green, who has supervised the investigation since the beginning, says officers were canvassing the neighborhood where Summer's car was found. But a man named Jeff Sauerbry wouldn't answer their questions. "He refused to cooperate with the police department," Green says.

That prompted the department to search Sauerbry's home and collect forensic evidence, some of which is still being tested by the Kansas City Crime Lab and the lab of the Missouri Highway Patrol.

Green says investigators have found nothing to suggest that Sauerbry had anything to do with Summer's disappearance. But Green says he can't talk much more about it.

"As long as it is an open investigation or there is still a case pending or a court trial pending, we have to be very careful in what we say to the press," he says. "We can't talk about persons of interest, because that's all they are."

But supplemental police reports obtained by the Pitch and verified by Green indicate that Sauerbry was more than just a person of interest.

They confirm, for instance, that Sauerbry was already a murder suspect. One of the reports documents a call from another Independence officer, who said that the street where the car was found had an interesting resident.

"He advised that Mr. Sauerbry was a possible suspect in a death investigation," the report reads. The document includes a case number that relates to the death of a man named William Kellett, who was shot and stabbed in July 1998. His body was found in the trailer where he lived on the site of the now-defunct E&L Motors, where he worked, just east of William Chrisman High School on U.S. Highway 24. The homicide remains unsolved.

Sauerbry has a criminal record. In 1992, he was convicted of selling drugs, and in 1998 he was convicted of theft. Both charges were brought in Jackson County. More recently, he was convicted in a New Mexico federal court of being a felon in possession of a firearm. He'd been caught with a .357 Magnum revolver and a .25 caliber Titan pistol.

Since his release from federal prison last June, Sauerbry has been serving out his parole while living with his mother in Independence. His New Mexico parole officer told Independence police that Sauerbry's parole was being transferred to Missouri and that he'd missed a couple of drug tests, police reports say.

A neighbor of Sauerbry's, William Summers, told police that he had seen Summer on that Wednesday at about 4:30 p.m. heading for Sauerbry's house.

Summers tells the Pitch that he and his wife had the day off. His wife was doing dishes, and they were about to play Yahtzee when their dogs started barking.

He says he answered a few of Summer's survey questions on his front porch, but he really wasn't paying much attention. "It was my day off," he says. "I'd had a few beers."

He says Sauerbry approached him as Summer was heading for the next house.

Sauerbry had a pitch of his own, offering Summers a deal on phone services. Summers put him off by saying that his wife makes those kinds of decisions. "Besides that, you're about ready to have someone knocking on your door."

The last Summers saw of Summer Shipp, she and Sauerbry were converging on Sauerbry's front porch.

Summers says he let police search his house with dogs, but they didn't seem to find much of interest.

When the police came knocking at Sauerbry's door the evening Summer's car was found, Sauerbry ducked out the back and was arrested, Independence police reports show.

Officially, he was taken in for unpaid tickets. But Sauerbry's initial bond was set at $70,000, indicating that police were concerned with more than his driving habits.

Sauerbry's mother, Sherry Sauerbry, allowed the officers to search the house. According to the police report, she told the officers that her son was a door-to-door salesman of phone services and that he'd been working all week from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Sherry Sauerbry told the officers that no one had visited the house that week, but she said her son had returned a puppy to a neighbor a couple of days before.

Police returned four days later with the crime-lab crew and searched the house and Sauerbry's truck.

Detective Joseph Christiansen recounted in a report that he talked to Sauerbry's mother again.

"I asked Ms. Sauerbry if she thought that her son could have kidnapped or killed Ms. Shipp," Christiansen wrote in his report. "She advised that he suffers from mental-health issues but did not think that he could have done anything like that."

Sherry Sauerbry said her son was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic.

She told Christiansen that, on the day Summer disappeared, she had arrived home from work at 5:30 p.m. "She advised that he was surprised to see her home so early because he thought she was going to be in class all night," the report says. "He asked her how long she had been home, and she told him that she had just brought in the groceries."

Sherry Sauerbry told police her son had been wearing gray sweat pants and a black shirt. And she gave them a notebook that she said was his activity log for the day. It had two addresses and two phone numbers on it. A man who answered one of the phone numbers told Christiansen that a salesman had been at his house on Kings Highway at 5:45 p.m. on December 8 trying to sell him phone service.

If Independence police are reluctant to describe Sauerbry as a suspect, Brandy Shipp's volunteer army has been zealous in its own investigation of him.

On December 12, one of Summer's cousins, Tracy Guenther, found her way into Sauerbry's backyard during her own search of the neighborhood.

She describes the small yard as overgrown around the edges. But in the middle, a dirt pit had been dug about the size of a small pool or pond. Near it was a rectangle of turned earth, maybe the size of a standard desk top. The place had a strange ambience, Guenther says. "I did feel like something wasn't right there," she says. "That day I got this feeling I would never see Summer again."

Guenther came from her home in Illinois to help with the search for Summer. She has been back several times since December to stay with Brandy and offer what support she can.

Chad Patterson, 38, says he has also been in the Sauerbry backyard.

Patterson, a former Marine, left the corps in 1998 and has bounced around a little since then. He collected gambling debts in Hawaii and worked some in Latin America. More recently, he's been helping a local bail bondsman, translating and bounty hunting. "I'm kind of a rental soldier," he says. With his shaved head, meaty and tattooed arms and SWAT regalia, Patterson fits the label.

Patterson has known Brandy and Summer since he was in high school. Brandy and his first wife were friends, and he rented a room from Summer for a while. "Summer always has been good to everybody," he says.

Knowing that Sauerbry's yard was a point of interest, Patterson took his dog, Trooper, there in mid-March.

Had he been caught there, Patterson says, he planned to say that the dog had gotten loose. But he hoped that the Labrador-Australian-shepherd mix would find something. The dog frequently digs up bunnies on Patterson's Belton property. "He started thrashing, and he dug up this piece of blue tarp," Patterson says.

Patterson's detective work also included 40-50 hours of surveillance. He watched Sauerbry's house, and he spent a night near a salvage yard that rented an earth-moving Bobcat to Sauerbry the week of Summer's disappearance.

Patterson's municipal charges allege that in late February, Patterson called Sherry Sauerbry and three other people, asking about Sauerbry. According to the charges, Patterson used an Irish accent during the calls. He told a woman who lives a few blocks from Sauerbry that he was going to get to the bottom of Summer's disappearance and that he hoped no one else got hurt, the charge says. And he allegedly claimed to be a Kansas City police detective named O'Mally when he called an Independence man. The man told police that Patterson threatened to kill him and his family if he was hiding Sauerbry.

Patterson admits that he made some calls using a fake Irish accent around March 1. At the time, no one had seen Sauerbry in about a week. That was making Brandy and her friends nervous.

"I was trying to bluff him back to the house," Patterson says.

Patterson also called Sauerbry himself. "If you are as big and bad as you think you are, why don't you meet me in the park," Patterson recalls Sauerbry saying.

Underhill says he warned Patterson about getting too involved in the case. Without a private investigator's license, Underhill told Patterson, he could get in trouble.

Underhill, a former Colton, California, police officer, moved with his wife to Kansas City about nine years ago so she could work on a graduate degree at UMKC. Underhill peddled his law-enforcement skills to an outfit called Missouri Investigations.

He has the gravelly voice of a film-noir detective, but Underhill is quick to chuckle. Although Brandy Shipp has helped cover some of his expenses, he says he's making far less than he normally would.

Initially, Brandy introduced him to Independence police as a friend of the family and hoped authorities would share information with him. That hasn't been the case. The detectives let him know early on that they wouldn't be opening their files to him.

So Underhill has charted his own course.

Underhill also spoke to William Summers, who repeated his recollection that placed Summer Shipp and Sauerbry in the same place.

Underhill also obtained Sauerbry's cell-phone records, which were actually in his mother's name. The phone was used several times every day that month except December 8, the day Summer Shipp disappeared.

"That's the only day he didn't make any phone calls," Underhill says.

The next day, Underhill says, the phone was used to call the salvage yard four times in about an hour. Underhill says the company delivered a Bobcat to the house on December 10.

Underhill says he found other neighbors who reported strange interactions with Sauerbry. One reported a horrible smell emanating from his yard. Another said Sauerbry had invited her into his yard one night.

Underhill talked to law-enforcement officials in New Mexico about Sauerbry's weapons conviction there. He learned that while camping out, Sauerbry had burned himself, and then brought his gun to a hospital emergency room.

In February, Underhill put out a call for volunteers and organized a search of a wooded area near William Chrisman High School. The area borders the property where William Kellett was killed in 1998. Independence police already had searched the property, but Underhill didn't think they had had enough eyes. Underhill lined up about 100 volunteers shoulder to shoulder, and they marched through the grass and trees until one of the volunteers shouted out.

The woman found a Sutherlands discount card with Summer's name on it.

The officers who were called to the scene to collect the card as evidence implied at the time that it had been planted. But Independence Police Capt. Forbes acknowledges that it might have been overlooked during the initial sweep.

"We had searched that area several times prior to that search," Forbes says. "We're human. We may have missed it." Despite the suspicions of Brandy Shipp's allies, there's no solid proof that Jeff Sauerbry had anything to do with Summer Shipp's disappearance.

In fact, there's really no proof that any crime occurred at all. Besides a parked car, Summer Shipp left behind no trace of herself.

Despite three days of searching at Sauerbry's home, police have yet to find anything that proves Summer ever entered the house. Sgt. Green says some of the evidence hasn't been tested yet, but he acknowledges that the most promising evidence would have been tested first.

The circumstantial evidence that has so enthralled Underhill and others -- the phone records, the backyard excavation -- can be explained easily, says Sauerbry's sister, Lori Matthes.

Matthes says her mother has been after Sauerbry for months to clean up the backyard and help out more around the house. "They need to come up with something more concrete," Matthes says.

"I would not protect him in any way of a crime," she says. "I feel horrible for the woman's family. That would be hell."

Matthes says she is not close to her brother. She adds that he wouldn't confide in her.

"There has been suspicion in my mind, too," Matthes says. "It's easy to suspect him because of his past.... From what my mother has told me, she doesn't believe he had anything to do with it."

After bonding out of jail on January 12, Sauerbry is living again with his mother. He apparently has a new job.

Neighbor Summers says Sauerbry asked him if he had any family buried at Mt. Washington Cemetery, and then offered to arrange for him to purchase more plots.

But Independence Police Chief Fred Mills acknowledges that Sauerbry has not been cleared. "We haven't ruled out anybody," he says. Underhill has proven particularly adept at keeping Summer's story in the public eye and Brandy in the news.

"You've got to keep them in the limelight," Underhill says. "You've got to keep them going."

Each break in the case has brought a new round of publicity.

A frequent-shopper card issued to Summer by a Hen House was mailed back to the grocery store.

In April, anonymous letters arrived at a special post office box set up by Underhill. The letters described an altercation that included a woman resembling Summer.

When news slowed, Brandy announced a higher reward. The fund has risen to $100,000. Brandy acknowledges that she doesn't have the cash in hand. She says she has secured pledges and will make up the difference if she has to.

Events and fund-raisers keep Brandy from thinking too much.

"I'm still numb to it," she says. "I'm in denial. I do have my crying spells, and when I do.... When I start crying, it's all night, and it's bad."

Before Summer disappeared, Brandy was a workaholic who spent her days managing the training-school office of Iron Workers Local 10 and her evenings tending bar at the downtown Marriott or filling quarter candy machines.

She initially quit all three jobs but has recently begun tending bar again.

Still, her mind is never far from the search for her mother, even while walking her dog. A passing cab prompted one brainstorm. "The next week, we had 30 taxis with her picture on them," Brandy says.

The Friends of Summer Shipp e-mail list has grown to hundreds. And Brandy continually updates the Web site established in Summer's name.

"The more people I can get involved in it, the closer we get to finding out what happened," Brandy says.

Underhill, meanwhile, will no longer be working the case full time.

"It's an emotional type of case," he says. "You just can't back out of it completely. I'll still be there for Brandy."

Underhill says he's been increasingly frustrated with the Independence Police Department. He has wanted to be more publicly critical of the department, but Brandy has discouraged it.

"I'm doing it to get out of the way," he says. "The Shipp family does not want to make the Independence Police Department mad at them. It's the only police department they have."

Five months after Summer Shipp vanished from an Independence street with an armful of surveys, 60 people gather in a mown grass lot near where her car was found. Among them are four television camera crews, two Independence city councilmen and the chief of police.

They cluster around a small black loudspeaker attached to a nearby house with a long orange extension cord.

They are offered Scripture and poetry and promises.

City Councilman Dan Reimal tells the assemblage that they need to hang on to hope -- hope that no one will ever disappear again, hope that Summer will be found, hope that we will all get to know our neighbors. "Take the time to meet your neighbors, walk the street," Reimal says. "A neighborhood is something that takes time to build. It just doesn't happen."

Chief Fred Mills begins his speech with an admission. "The fact of the matter is, we don't know where Summer is," he says. "We'll never stop looking. We'll never stop trying. The department will never stop caring.... We will not be deterred until we find Summer and bring her home."

Then Mills hands the microphone to Brandy.

Her voice quivers with emotion as she thanks the people here and the many others who have gotten involved. She restates her own belief that Summer will be found.

And then a change takes her. The grieving daughter is replaced with a woman desperate for answers and, perhaps, vengeance. In an instant, her normally friendly voice crescendos to a high-pitched screech.

"We need to find the perpetrators responsible for this heinous act and bring them to justice!"

Brandy doesn't look up the hill past the horseshoe pit and the corrugated shed, through the trees across the curbless blacktop street where Summer's car was found in December. She doesn't allow herself a glance toward Sauerbry's home.

But Jeff Sauerbry is there. He stands behind the glass of his storm door watching as a Pitch reporter approaches to ask how he's dealing with the scrutiny that he's under.

He steps out onto the front porch. His brown hair is cut short. His plaid shirt is tucked in. He has only one thing to say.

"Don't step on my property, guy," he says.

Sabrina Staires

Sabrina Staires

Months after her mother disappeared, Brandy Shipp is still waiting for information.
Sabrina Staires

Private investigator John Underhill is convinced that he’s found his man.