Morro Bay police believe they have the culprit in custody in a five-year-old murder case after the arrest Tuesday afternoon of a Nipomo man suspected of strangling and drowning his wife in a bathtub.
In 2009, James Lypps, 64, was the main suspect in the suspicious death of his wife, Sherre Ann Neal-Lypps, 62, but the case went cold because of a lack of physical evidence, said Detective Dale Cullum of the Morro Bay Police Department.
On Tuesday, detectives arrested Lypps without incident after DNA evidence allegedly linking him to a physical struggle with his wife returned from a Department of Justice forensics lab.
Emergency responders had found Neal-Lypps submerged in a bathtub at the home she shared with her husband, after Lypps called 911 to report finding her there after returning from grocery shopping. Despite contrary information provided by Lypps — including two allegedly forged suicide notes — a coroner’s investigation ruled the death a homicide.
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On Tuesday evening, Lypps was being held without bail at San Luis Obispo County Jail on suspicion of first-degree murder.
The case dates to June 23, 2009, when police went to the couple’s home in the 2400 block of Greenwood Avenue at about noon, in response to Lypps’ call about his wife.
Details of that morning were described in Cullum’s sworn affidavit obtained by The Tribune; it only represents one side of the story. Here is what it described:
When officers and medical personnel arrived, they found Neal-Lypps half-clothed and unconscious in the bathtub. She was taken to Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center in San Luis Obispo, where she was pronounced dead at 1:37 p.m.
An officer on scene documented bruising around Neal-Lypps’ neck and noted that water covered the bathroom floor and only about 5 to 6 inches of water remained in the bathtub.
Another officer interviewed Lypps, who told the officer that he was his wife’s full-time caretaker as a result of her medical condition and that at about 11 a.m., she “allowed” him to get coffee and groceries because she did not like him leaving the house.
Lypps said he locked the front door and went to the since-shuttered Blue Bean coffee shop on Main Street and later the nearby Spencer’s Market. Upon returning home, he said, he found his wife in the tub and called 911.
When police interviewed neighbors, none reported hearing anything suspicious inside the home that morning, but some said they had witnessed several verbal and physical altercations between the couple over the years in which Neal-Lypps was always the aggressor.
One neighbor told police he had taken photos of Neal-Lypps throwing a rock through the windshield of Lypps’ car and even said that Neal-Lypps would purposefully hurt herself in order to frame Lypps.
Officers interviewed a coffee shop employee, who recognized Lypps and recalled him being at the shop between 9 and 10 a.m. Describing his behavior as "odd," she said he parked his bike outside, stood and shook his head a few times, then got on his bike and rode off only to return 10 minutes later.
At Sierra Vista hospital that same day, San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Office then-Senior Deputy Coroner Jeff Nichols examined Neal-Lypps’ body and found horizontal bruise marks low on her neck that were inconsistent with a suicide.
Lypps viewed his wife's body under Nichols’ supervision at the hospital and said he had never seen the marks.
During the autopsy, Nichols noted hemorrhaging to the inside of Neal-Lypps’ eyeballs, a bite mark on the inside of her mouth and bruises on her back, elbows, legs and shins. A CT scan revealed a fracture of the thyroid cartilage consistent with strangulation.
Nichols concluded the cause of death was asphyxiation due to strangulation and drowning and ruled the death a homicide.
Detectives searched the home for evidence but found no suicide note or signs of forced entry.
Lypps later told detectives that Neal-Lypps was battling severe depression and sciatic pain and was going to physical therapy. When asked if Neal-Lypps had ever shared thoughts of suicide, Lypps said no.
The next day, however, Lypps returned to the Police Department with two handwritten notes he said he found in Neal-Lypps’ purse. The notes read that Neal-Lypps was tired of being in pain and had been contemplating suicide for a long time. Nichols found the notes to be disorganized and repetitive, unlike most suicide notes, which he said are typically left at the scene and concise.
According to Cullum’s affidavit, investigators concluded that Neal-Lypps was strangled by her husband and drowned in the bathtub — basing their conclusion on Lypps’ behavior during interviews, the conflict between his timeline of events compared to neighbor accounts, and their belief that the visit to the coffee shop was an attempt to establish an alibi.
But no arrest was made.
In the days following Neal-Lypps’ death, the Police Department appealed to the public for information but no one came forward. The case fell by the wayside.
Cullum was hired by the department as a detective in 2010. One of his first orders of business was to re-examine the department’s two cold homicide cases.
Cullum reviewed the case and soon found that evidence taken at the scene and from Neal-Lypps’ body was never processed for DNA evidence, including her fingernail clippings.
After sending evidence to a Department of Justice forensic lab in Goleta, Cullum requested a search warrant to take DNA samples from Lypps for comparison.
Cullum again interviewed Lypps, who spent the last five years living quietly following a move to a ranch in Nipomo, and took the samples.
“I thought that day when I interviewed him, I thought that’s when I would get the whole story,” Cullum said. “He seemed right on the edge.”
In October, DNA found on Neal-Lypps’ fingernail clippings matched Lypps’ DNA. Following weeks of coordination between the Police Department and the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office, a judge issued a warrant for Lypps’ arrest Tuesday morning.
Cullum said he did not know why DNA evidence was not examined in 2009.
“I’m not sure which direction (the former investigator) was going, but this was one of those things that wasn’t realized at the time,” he said. “Sometimes investigations need a fresh pair of eyes.”
A spokesman for the District Attorney’s Office was not available for comment on the case Tuesday.
As of Tuesday evening, Lypps had not yet been scheduled for an arraignment.