The trial for James Victor Lypps — who is accused of strangling and then drowning his wife at their Morro Bay home in 2009 — opened Monday with a recording of the defendant’s 911 call, in which an apparently distraught and panic-stricken Lypps reported that his wife “seems to have slipped in the bathroom.”
“But she didn’t slip — she was murdered,” Deputy District Attorney Greg Devitt told the jury.
Whether the death of Sherre Neal-Lypps — who was found by paramedics in her bathtub — was a suicide motivated by depression or a calculated murder at the hands of her long-abused husband is the question posed to jurors in the long-awaited trial in San Luis Obispo Superior Court.
Lypps, 66, is facing a single charge of murder in the death of Neal-Lypps, 62, who was found lying in about 6 inches of water after Lypps allegedly discovered her upon his return from shopping.
Despite the county Coroner’s Office ruling the cause of Neal-Lypps’ death as strangulation and drowning, based in part on bruises on her neck, the case against Lypps languished, initially because of lack of evidence, and later because of discrepancies in court documents submitted by police and approved by the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office.
On Monday morning, Lypps listened attentively as jurors heard opening arguments from Devitt and defense attorney Matthew Guerrero.
Devitt described how Lypps left the home in the afternoon on June 23, 2009, for coffee and groceries. Devitt told jurors that when Lypps returned and discovered his wife, both of the home’s doors were locked, there was no sign of forced entry, and only Lypps and his wife had keys.
In the audio of the 911 call, Lypps is heard whimpering loudly for minutes as dispatchers try to calm him and he waits for paramedics.
When they arrived to perform lifesaving measures on Neal-Lypps, the prosecutor said, she was lying on her back in about 6 inches of bathwater with her face sticking out of the water.
Devitt presented jurors with an autopsy photograph of Neal-Lypps that showed dark marks around her neck — ligature marks, Devitt argued, that showed Neal-Lypps was strangled with a rope or cord from behind.
Devitt said he expected to call to the stand Gary Walter, a forensic pathologist who contracts with the Sheriff’s Office and frequently testifies as an expert witness for the prosecution. Walter is expected to testify that the angles of the bruises and fractures to Neal-Lypps’ thyroid cartilage ruled out an attempted hanging.
“This case is either a homicide or a suicide,” Devitt said. “We’ll show you that it’s a homicide.”
Devitt, who conceded that the investigation “took some time,” told jurors that Lypps tried to strangle his wife, was unsuccessful, and drowned her in the tub.
The defense’s side
Guerrero, however, told jurors of a long-strained relationship between Lypps and his wife. He said she was controlling over Lypps, who had to ask permission to leave the house and was taking medication for depression. She had been placed on a 5150 mental health hold by county officials roughly two months before her death.
Guerrero told jurors that employees from the coffee shop and grocery store Lypps visited on June 23, 2009, would testify that Lypps was acting normally. Showing the jury photographs of inside Lypps’ house in 2009, Guerrero noted rooms of the house showed stacks of VHS tapes, books and lamps standing upright, which he argued isn’t consistent with the scene of an attempted strangling.
“There’s no sign of a struggle,” Guerrero said. “Nothing’s knocked over.”
Guerrero then described inconsistencies with two alleged suicide notes produced by Lypps, saying that even though a handwriting expert asked for more writing samples, investigators never provided her any more following her initial opinion. Yet a report written by a DA investigator in the case used to secure search and arrest warrants misstated that evidence, claiming the expert ruled out Neal-Lypps as the author of the notes.
“(Investigators) misrepresented the information over and over again,” Guerrero stated.
Furthermore, the couple’s 20-year relationship was marred by Neal-Lypps’ infidelity and erratic behavior; at least seven neighbors had made complaints to Morro Bay police about Neal-Lypps’ behavior over several years, Guerrero said.
A troublesome case
The case against Lypps was stalled for years following his wife’s death. He remained free and moved to a Nipomo ranch.
The criminal investigation took a turn in 2013 when a new investigator, Morro Bay Police Department Detective Dale Cullum, took over the case. After about a year, Cullum discovered what he called the potential “crux” of the case — Lypps’ DNA found on a trimming of his wife’s fingernail. That amount of DNA would later be called “insignificant” by investigators’ own expert.
Lypps was arrested in 2014 partially based on that evidence, as well as two “suicide notes” Lypps produced but which investigators believed he forged. Investigators’ own handwriting expert ruled out Lypps as the author, but that fact was misstated in other court documents submitted to a judge.
In February 2015, Judge Donald Umhofer dismissed the case, citing a lack of evidence. Lypps was free for three days before prosecutors refiled the charge and he was rearrested. In March, Judge John Trice ruled there was then enough evidence to proceed to trial.
Earlier this month, the case against Lypps survived a legal challenge by Lypps’ attorney, Guerrero, who alleged that the Morro Bay Police Department and the DA’s Office knowingly misrepresented the evidence and violated Lypps’ due process.
Testimony is expected to continue through next week.