Volunteers search for rare plants in hopes of solving Baby Kate mystery

Sean Phillips was sentenced to 10 to 15 years in prison last year for an unlawful imprisonment of Katherine Phillips.

Volunteers, with specialized knowledge of plants, gathered Friday morning in hopes of retracing the steps of Sean Phillips on the day his daughter, Katherine Phillips disappeared.

Katherine, also known as Baby Kate, was 4 1/2 months old when she was last seen in June 2011. She lived with her mother, Ariel Courtland, in Ludington. Courtland testified that Sean Phillips drove off with Baby Kate and that was the last time she saw her.

Sean Phillips was sentenced to 10 to 15 years in prison last year for an unlawful imprisonment conviction in the case, which police have said they're treating as a homicide.

A letter, apparently written by Sean Phillips in prison, details what happened the day Baby Kate disappeared.
Mason County Prosecuting Attorney Paul Spaniola told 7&4 News that the letter was given to investigative officers by a family member of Baby Kate.

In the letter, Phillips said he had put his daughter in a peaceful place.

At a press conference in April, Ludington Police Chief Mark Barnett announced details about evidence found on Sean Phillips' shoes, sparking the plan to search specific areas in the same time frame of when Baby Kate disappeared.

Soil scientists from Michigan State University found a seed of sedge, a form of grass, which was identified to be an extremely rare sedge only found in a few locations in the surrounding area.

Police believe if they locate the area where the rare sedge, and other rare types of plant material that were found on Phillip's shoes, are located, they could find the body of Baby Kate.

"A couple of trees, and there's a few species of moss, a few species of sedge which are just small grass as they grow in wetlands," said Jonathan Spoelhof, a volunteer and plant biology specialist from Michigan State University.

"The location that would support all of these elements is so rare and specific to the surrounding area, that it is only a matter of time before the exact location is found," Barnett said at the

April press conference


Authorities paired nearly 80 volunteers and botanists, with search and rescue volunteers to create 5 search teams. The teams tackled the different researched locations, searching for the 12 different types of rare plant life.

"We're going to all be in a line going throughout a grid of area that is set up on a GPS and as we see species that we think might be it, we call it out and then when we call them out we have a designated specialist in the team who will come and actually identify the plant," said Spoelhof.

Authorities say they are hopeful that the weekend's search efforts could bring them closer to finding Baby Kate, but that they are also hoping for closure.

"The bottom line on this whole two days of searching is to find some closure for the community and the family in the missing baby case that's been open for two years," said Chief Deputy Bob Brown from Mason County Sheriff's Department.

Authorities from the Ludington Police Department and Mason County Sheriff's Department released a statement Saturday afternoon saying that the two day search has concluded.

"After two days of intensive searching, this phase of our investigation into the Baby Kate case has concluded," officials said in a press release. "The search teams are all out of the field. The search went smoothly and according to plan. The next phase of this process is for the evidence to be examined by laboratory technicuians. It is unknown how long this examination will take."

Authorities say that the search has allowed them to reduce the target area by eliminating the larger part of the initial search area.