Crime

Investigators misrepresented evidence in suspected murder case, judge says

James Victor Lypps, accused of killing his wife in 2009, pleaded not guilty to murder Thursday, Dec. 4, 2014, in San Luis Obispo Superior Court.
James Victor Lypps, accused of killing his wife in 2009, pleaded not guilty to murder Thursday, Dec. 4, 2014, in San Luis Obispo Superior Court. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Investigators in a suspected murder case made it appear that the defendant forged suicide notes in his wife’s name, even though a handwriting expert concluded the wife had likely written them, a judge said Tuesday.

As a result, a defense attorney requested the judge review personnel records of the investigators to look for any other examples of misrepresentation from the past five years, though none were found.

The San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office has charged James Lypps, 64, with murder in the death of his wife, Sherre Neal-Lypps, 62. Lypps, who has pleaded not guilty, is being held at San Luis Obispo County Jail.

Lypps said he left their Morro Bay home on June 23, 2009, for coffee and groceries. When he returned, he found his wife in the bathtub, unresponsive.

While investigators found no suicide note at the time, Lypps arrived at the Morro Bay Police Station the following day with two pieces of paper, purported to be suicide notes he found in his wife’s purse.

Investigators sent the notes to handwriting expert Sandra Homewood. In a report written July 7, 2009, Morro Bay police Detective Leslie Daily wrote that Homewood did a preliminary investigation that showed the handwriting on the notes did not match other writings from Neal-Lypps, though Homewood had requested more samples.

But in a follow-up report written July 23, Daily wrote that Homewood had reached a different conclusion.

According to Homewood’s report, cited by Daily: “James Lypps shows very strong evidence of not having the handwriting skill shown in the questioned writings, which would tend to eliminate him as the writer of these questioned notes.” Homewood added that Neal-Lypps “can be positively identified as having written the signatures of ‘Sherre Neal Lypps’ ” and “shows very strong indications of having written the rest of the text notes.”

According to motions filed by Lypps’ attorney, Matt Guerrero, defense investigator Sandra Sullivan spoke to Homewood, who told her it would be unusual for her to provide an opinion on handwriting until her examination was complete. The defense did not present evidence, however, saying Homewood denied giving Daily a preliminary opinion.

A report written by Senior Deputy Coroner Jeff Nichols referenced Daily’s July 7 report and not the final conclusion from July 23.

According to Nichols’ report, dated December 2014, “The preliminary examination of the notes by the specialist revealed they were likely not written by the decedent. Final results of the analysis were inconclusive as to who may have actually written them.”

In a probable-cause statement used to re-arrest Lypps in February, Guerrero argued, the facts were again misrepresented, this time by the Morro Bay police.

“The notes were provided to handwriting expert Sandra Homewood, who later determined the suicide notes had not been written by Sherre Ann Neal-Lypps,” read the statement, prepared by Officer Dale Cullum of the Morro Bay Police Department.

The misrepresentations, Guerrero wrote, “show an intent to mislead and even deceive the court that was perpetuated by law enforcement in spite of having in their possession the actual report of the handwriting expert, which … elicited a markedly different tenor and message from the evidence.”

In his motions, Guerrero sought personnel records from Nichols, Daily, Cullum and Terrence O’Farrell, an investigator from the District Attorney’s Office who authorized the probable-cause statement written by Cullum. That statement was attached to Lypps’ arrest warrant.

Morro Bay city attorneys and the county counsel fought disclosing personnel records, but Superior Court Judge Donald Umhofer ruled in favor of the defense.

“There were apparently untrue statements made,” he said in court during a hearing on the matter. “They weren’t just misquotes.”

According to Guerrero’s motions, “A history of conduct of engaging in writing false reports and dishonesty would be relevant to impeach the officer and establish that the officer acted in this case in conformity with a habit and custom to act outside the law.”

Umhofer did not find any signs of past dishonesty or false reporting in his review, according to court records. Yet, Guerrero can still refer to the suicide note misrepresentation at trial in an attempt to discredit the witnesses.

Following his initial arrest on suspicion of murder, Lypps was released from jail in February after Umhofer said the prosecution did not present enough evidence to pursue the case during a preliminary hearing.

Lypps, who has since moved to Nipomo, was free for a day before the District Attorney’s Office filed charges again.

The probable-cause statement used to re-arrest him wasn’t just based on the suicide notes.

According to court records and previous court testimony, the pathologist who performed the autopsy on Neal-Lypps concluded that she died of both ligature strangulation and drowning, which was inconsistent with suicide.

While Lypps called 911 to report finding his wife in the bathtub, the probable-cause statement notes, he never attempted to assist his wife.

Investigators learned that Lypps and his wife slept in separate bedrooms and were not intimate with each other. Meanwhile, according to the probable-cause statement, Neal-Lypps had multiple extramarital affairs, including one four months before her death.

During the preliminary hearing, the prosecution noted that Lypps had suffered financial hardships because of his wife’s medical issues, which included depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Investigators repeatedly pushed to have Lypps take a polygraph test, the probable-cause statement notes, but he declined, saying he needed time to think about it.

While Neal-Lypps claimed her husband was an abusive alcoholic, according to the Nichols report, the probable-cause statement notes that Lypps was submissive to his wife, always obtaining permission to do everyday tasks.

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