A Nipomo man accused of murdering his wife had hoped to pay off his mortgage with his deceased spouse’s Social Security money, according to a letter partially read in court Thursday.
But a defense attorney suggested the woman, who had attempted suicide before, had succeeded in killing herself.
James Victor Lypps, 54, appeared in San Luis Obispo Superior Court for a preliminary hearing, which continues Friday. He faces one charge of murder for the death of his longtime wife, Sherre Ann Neal-Lypps. On June 23, 2009, rescue personnel found Neal-Lypps, 54, mostly submerged in a bathtub at the couple’s home with bruising around her neck. She could not be revived.
Lypps later provided two suicide notes he said were written by his wife, but investigators believe those notes were forged.
The couple had been married since the early 1980s, testified Susan Gomes, a sergeant with the Morro Bay Police Department. But, according to court records, the couple had a stormy relationship. During fights, neighbors allegedly said Neal-Lypps was often the aggressor — something Lypps’ attorney, Matthew Guerrero, echoed in court.
“She was abusive,” Guerrero said. “Mr. Lypps didn’t do anything without her permission.”
In the past, he added, Neal-Lypps had belittled, harassed and even stabbed her husband with a knife.
On the morning of Neal-Lypps’ death, Lypps told police he had locked the door before leaving the home for coffee and groceries, according to court records. When he returned, he said, he found his wife unconscious in the bathtub.
When police arrived at the home, according to a police report, Lypps was hysterical. While Neal-Lypps was found in the tub, rope and a step ladder were found in a garage.
Detectives searched the home for a suicide note but found none. However, the next day, Lypps produced two handwritten suicide notes, allegedly written by Neal-Lypps, saying she was tired of suffering from chronic back pain.
A coroner’s investigation ruled the death a homicide, saying the neck bruising was inconsistent with suicide. The official cause of death was determined to be asphyxiation due to strangulation and drowning.
During the preliminary hearing, Deputy District Attorney Greg Devitt presented a possible motive for murder: money. According to Chuck Denchfield, a now-retired investigator with the District Attorney’s Office, Lypps told him he was three months behind on his mortgage payments.
Meanwhile, Gomes testified that Lypps’ brother-in-law gave her a letter that Lypps had written to Lypps’ sister that read, in part, “I thought I was to get Sherre’s Social Security, which would have made the mortgage payment. I was wrong.”
According to the letter, written in the spring of 2010, Gomes said, banks had foreclosed on the home.
In the letter, Lypps wrote, “Something is very wrong with my brain,” Gomes testified.
While the prosecution believes Lypps tried to stage his wife’s suicide, Guerrero said Neal-Lypps suffered from depression. She had recently attempted suicide, he said, and had recently been put on a 5150 hold receiving mental health treatment. While she was abusive to her husband, Guerrero said, there were no signs that he had killed her.
“If he had done these things, there would have been signs of struggle,” he said.
Gomes said the bathroom shower curtain was still hanging from a tension cord. And while there was lots of water on the floor outside the tub, Gomes said that could have resulted from paramedics pulling Neal-Lypps out of the water.
According to the police report, there were numerous prescription medication bottles in the house. But when Gomes spoke to Lypps at the scene, he did not mention any suicidal feelings his wife might have had.
“He said he was not aware of her being suicidal on that day or previously,” Gomes said.
While the rope and step ladder found in the garage might have suggested a separate suicide attempt, Gomes said she inspected a truss in the garage that Neal-Lypps might have used to attempt to hang herself, but dust on the truss was undisturbed.