Citing the lack of a clear motive, a judge ruled Friday that the prosecution has not presented enough evidence to continue charging a Nipomo man with murdering his wife.
As a result, James Victor Lypps, 64, was ordered discharged from San Luis Obispo County Jail.
Unless the prosecution chooses to re-file charges, Superior Court Judge Donald Umhofer’s ruling lays to rest a case that had grown cold for five years before Lypps was arrested last December.
On June 23, 2009, Lypps told police his wife, Sherre Neal-Lypps, 62, was alive when he left their Morro Bay home in the morning to get coffee and groceries. When he returned, he said, he found her in a bath tub, mostly submerged in water and unresponsive.
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A day later, he produced two suicide notes he said he’d found in the house.
But investigators were skeptical of the suicide scenario. Gary Walter, the pathologist who performed the autopsy, ruled the death a homicide.
Terrence O’Farrell, an investigator with the District Attorney’s Office, testified at Friday’s preliminary hearing that Walter said the cause of death was both strangulation and drowning, which wasn’t consistent with suicide.
“Dr. Walter stated to me that he’d never seen anyone strangle and drown themselves at the same time,” O’Farrell testified.
Investigators found a rope and stepladder in the couple’s garage, which might have suggested Neal-Lypps had initially tried to hang herself. But according to O’Farrell, Walter said the bruising around Neal-Lypps’ neck was inconsistent with an attempted hanging.
In addition, Lypps’ DNA was found under his wife’s fingernails.
According to court records and testimony, the couple, married since the early 1980s, fought frequently, with Neal-Lypps usually being the aggressor. Defense attorney Matt Guerrero said Neal-Lypps once stabbed his client with a knife.
But the prosecution said the motive was money.
Previously, witnesses testified that Lypps had written a letter to his sister, saying he had expected to get his wife’s Social Security money after she died. That money, he wrote, would have helped pay their late mortgage.
“He had a motive to do it,” deputy district attorney Greg Devitt said in court. “He had the means to do it, and he had the access.”
Neal-Lypps had written daily affirmations and goals on her mirror, Devitt added, suggesting she had no intention to commit suicide. “It was all this future thinking,” Devitt said.
But Guerrero said Neal-Lypps had previously experienced depression and had recently been placed in a psychiatric hospital to protect herself or others under the state’s 5150 code.
Meanwhile, Guerrero said, Lypps showed no signs of a struggle even though his wife — who weighed 160 pounds — was bigger than him. The DNA under his wife’s nails was only a small amount, and it wouldn’t be uncommon for a person to have a small amount of their spouse’s DNA under their nails.
While the prosecution ruled out the possibility of an attempted suicide by hanging, Guerrero said Neal-Lypps might have simply tried to strangle herself.
“She tried with the rope, it didn’t work, and she went and drowned herself,” he said outside of court.
While rendering his ruling, Umhofer said he did not hear sufficient testimony regarding the autopsy to exclude suicide as a possibility.
But mostly Umhofer cited the prosecution’s motive — that Lypps killed his wife for financial gain — as problematic.
It wasn’t clear, he said, how Lypps would have benefited from his wife’s death.
“I just don’t think the people’s motive is very strong,” he said.
After the hearing, Guerrero said there was no life insurance policy for Neal-Lypps, and Lypps had access to his wife’s Social Security while she was alive.
Guerrero also said his client’s story has remained consistent. The fact that Lypps wasn’t charged with a crime for five years, Guerrero added, suggested the prosecution had a weak case.
“To me the delay was indicative that there wasn’t probable cause,” he said.
The District Attorney’s Office has not yet decided whether to re-file charges against Lypps, said assistant district attorney Lee Cunningham. “It’s under consideration,” Cunningham said.
According to Tony Cipolla, a spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Office, Lypps, who has relocated to Nipomo, walked out of the jail around 1 p.m. Friday.