Crime

Nipomo man can be tried in wife's 2009 death, judge rules

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

Less than three weeks after an alleged killer was freed from jail because of a lack of evidence, a judge ruled Wednesday that the prosecution now has a strong enough case to pursue a trial against him.

James Lypps, 64, said his wife had committed suicide in their bathtub on June 23, 2009. But the prosecution argues that Lypps killed her.

The Morro Bay couple had a troubled marriage, witnesses said, characterized by many fights. According to a search warrant prepared by the Morro Bay Police Department, Sherre Neal-Lypps, 62, was often the aggressor, who, neighbors said, was “full of hate” and “had the reputation for harassing neighbors.” One neighbor even said Lypps was “better off without Neal-Lypps,” according to the warrant.

But the prosecution contends Lypps killed her not out of self-defense or revenge but over money.

Neal-Lypps had many unpaid medical bills, testified Chuck Denchfield, a retired investigator for the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office. And the couple was three months behind on their mortgage.

Still, during Lypps’ initial preliminary hearing last month, Superior Court Judge Donald Umhofer said there wasn’t enough evidence to rule out suicide. So Lypps was ordered released from jail.

Lypps, who now lives in Nipomo, was free one day before the District Attorney’s Office re-filed charges. During his second preliminary hearing, deputy district attorney Greg Devitt honed in on whether Neal-Lypps could have committed suicide.

According to health records, testified Jeff Nichols, a sergeant with the coroner unit of the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office, Neal-Lypps had a history of depression and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder related to being abused by a relative as a child. Yet, while she was committed to a psychiatric hospital two months before her death, Nichols said, she did not tell her primary care physician she had been suicidal.

After the death, Lypps initially said his wife had not been suicidal, Denchfield testified. But a day after the body was discovered, he provided police two handwritten notes he said his wife had written. According to the search warrant, one of the notes stated that Neal-Lypps was “tired of the pain she was in,” referring to nerve pain that had afflicted her.

Handwriting analysis of the notes was inconclusive, according to the warrant. But defense attorney Matthew Guerrero said in court the analysis was not favorable to the prosecution’s case.

The prosecution thinks Lypps forged the letters.

Nichols echoed what forensic pathologist Gary Walter had previously said — that the ligature marks on Neal-Lypps’ neck was not consistent with suicide.

Walter, who performed the autopsy, testified that Neal-Lypps died of both strangulation and drowning.

Nichols, who said he has examined two to three dozen suicides by hanging, said the ligature marks on Neal-Lypps’ neck didn’t travel upward — from under the chin and along the jaw — as they would in a hanging. Instead, the ligature marks, he said, showed she was manually strangled with a “great deal of force.”

“It’d be extremely difficult for anybody to apply enough pressure backward by themselves to provide a pronounced ligature mark around the neck,” Nichols testified.

If someone were to attempt a self-strangulation, he said, they would lose consciousness, and the pressure on their neck would be relieved before they died.

Lypps told investigators he locked the doors to his home around 10 a.m. on the day of his wife’s death then went to a coffee shop and a grocery store. When he returned, he said, his wife was dead. Under cross-examination, multiple witnesses said there were no signs of struggle in the house. Nor did Lypps show any signs of struggle on his body.

Superior Court Judge John Trice ruled there is enough evidence to suggest a homicide was committed and remanded Lypps back to jail.

Lypps will appear in court again March 26 for an arraignment.

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