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“He liked to wear jewelry—gold chains and stuff—to look important and dress the way a law professor would dress,” Jean says. “He had a lot of intelligence when he was young. I’d tell him, ‘Tom, you can do any kind of work. You have good education and a good brain. Pick something you think you might like to do and do it.’ ”
Jean says that when she first met Lippert, “We would go out for pizza and he would order a glass of wine and leave half of it.” But later, she says, it seemed he grew meaner by the day, and his drinking also became more habitual.
She feels that disappointments in his life—such as losing his law license and not being accepted to medical school—contributed to his increased drinking.
And in Salt Lake City, he went from being oddly bizarre to frighteningly aggressive as his conflicts with neighbors escalated.
When their next-door-neighbor Nielson “parked close to the property line, Tom went and slashed his tires,” Jean says.
“I felt bad for the innocent victims,” she says. “They’d say some little thing and it would set him off. They might have had thoughts that I was like him or part of all his evil deeds, but I couldn’t control him or make him stop what he was doing. If I tried, he said, ‘Mind your own business. No one is going to tell me what to do.’ ”
Except when she was going to work, Lippert wouldn’t let Jean leave the house unless he went with her. And he slapped her in the face all the time, she says.
Standing at the top of their stairs after arriving home from work one night, she “had this feeling, almost like a voice in my head, that he was about to push me down the stairs. I asked, ‘Are you going to push me down the stairs?’ After I took the surprise out of it, he didn’t do it.”
In 20 years of marriage, much of it spent in quiet misery, Jean never left Lippert, for one simple reason: “I would have lived in hell, always in fear of him being right around the corner,” she says. “I wouldn’t sleep at night worrying about him breaking into the house. Or following me after work. I wouldn’t have peace.”
She did think about suicide. “I felt so trapped. I couldn’t leave him and I couldn’t stand to stay.”
But although she thought about killing herself, she knew it wouldn’t be an easy way out. She says she remembers thinking, “If I take pills and he finds me before I die, he will torment me and make life hell for me.’”
And, she adds, “I didn’t have guts to shoot myself. I’d seen people at the hospital who shot part of their face off and I didn’t want to go around looking like Frankenstein.”
She felt that he also wanted her to die. “Once he told me to take him to the airport and go back home and kill myself. Then he said, ‘You’re not going to do it.’ He argued with me for a while and then didn’t go to the airport.”
She says she knew that the only peace she could ever have was if he died. “He did me a favor because he really did kill himself, drinking a gallon of wine a day.” She laughs wryly. “Maybe I should have encouraged him to drink more and maybe got rid of him sooner.”
Though things were tense at home, Lippert liked his work at the fertility clinic, which lasted nine years, and got along with his boss, Jean says. He donated sperm several times over the years, but she doesn’t know how many of times he officially donated sperm and how many times he substituted his own sperm for that of the intended father.
“He didn’t like having children around,” Jean says. “He said they annoyed him. But he was proud of the kids he fathered as a sperm donor.”
She says he was like a grandfather who was proud of his grandkids—from a distance. “He didn’t have to take care of those kids or hear them fight and scream,” she says. “They were like little trophies. If he had to have them here and take care of them, that would be a different story.”
But then in 1996, the fertility clinic cut back his hours, and Lippert was free to drink more on weekdays. And when the fertility clinic closed in 1998, it ended Lippert’s final period of lengthy employment.
Never one to set low expectations, after the clinic closed, Lippert “was going to be a stockbroker,” Jean says. He “got all this information, but he never followed through. He’d get jobs for a month or so and then quit.”
Without a job, he had even more time to drink, and she soon had to drive him everywhere, to work and to look for work. One job was a split shift, all the way across town. “Every single day, I took him to work in the morning, then picked him up around noon. I took him back to work at 2, then had to go back around 6,” Jean says. “He finally quit that job because he was too drunk to drive and probably drank at work, too.”
Another time, booze intervened during a job at the airport. “They were cleaning out a plane and found some liquor,” Jean says. “They got drunk and he lost the job.”
Angry at his boss for firing him, Lippert tried to have the last word. “He went to the airport and walked in front of a girl who was driving an airport cart,” Jean says. “He fell, making it look like she hit him. He went to an attorney to sue the airlines and they wouldn’t even take the case. Too many people saw that he walked in front of the cart. There was that poor girl, sitting there crying.”
One time, Jean remembers, a friend took Lippert to an alcohol-treatment center. “I was thinking it would be so heavenly to have him gone,” she says. “I had planned a nice night at home with peace and quiet. I was going to watch a movie and get popcorn.”
But two hours later, he was back.
Lippert’s drinking “got to the point where people wouldn’t hire him,” Jean says. “He would go in drunk and they could tell by looking at him.”
After Lippert stopped working, she supported them both on her nurse’s salary. Tom asked her to write checks for him even after he knew the account was empty. “He would say, ‘You are going to write that check.’ I would get overdraft fees.”
He was easily spending $300 a month on wine—$10 a day bought him a gallon of the cheap stuff. He liked to cook, Jean says, but was always too drunk to do it. “He would start making something and pass out in the middle of dinner,” she says. “He’d boil up some noodles, then fall asleep and never finish it.”
Eventually, Lippert’s liver enzymes were sky-high and he couldn’t deny his alcoholism any longer. His skin began to turn yellow as liver disease gradually overtook him.
“One day, he asked what I was staring at,” Jean remembers. “I told him, ‘Your eyes are getting yellow. You really are turning yellow.’”
At age 49, he went to a hospital, then a nursing home, before he died July 6, 1999, of cirrhosis of the liver.
That night was the best sleep Jean ever had.
Jean says that Lippert’s death brought her peace and freedom. “I can do what I want and go where I want,” she says. “I can sleep without someone waking me up and telling me I have to drive them someplace.”
She says that if she met “someone who was really nice,” she would consider marrying again. “Although at my age, it’s hard to meet anybody,” she adds. “The older you get, the fewer men there are. By the time you reach your 70s, the ones that are around have health problems.”
The current sperm-switching scandal, she says, “was kind of shocking, but it didn’t really surprise me, knowing the kind of person that he was. I was watching TV and all of a sudden his picture shows up. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this man just doesn’t die. He keeps coming back.’ ”
I clearly remember the last time I saw Tom Lippert. It was May 14, 1997—my son’s 13th birthday. We went to the Salt Lake County Government Building on 2100 South and State to hear a lecture from author Dave Wolverton about his latest Star Wars book.
On the way in, we saw Lippert, trying to wrench himself away from two police officers who held him by the arms. We recognized him instantly despite the fact that he’d dyed his dishwater hair the color of Dijon mustard and now wore a large diamond stud in his right ear.
But he wasn’t arrested that night, either. And when I asked Jean what he was doing there that night, she wasn’t sure.
Even though I moved away from the Lipperts’ neighborhood, I didn’t go far. That community will always be home to me. My kids made friends there whom they’re still very close with. And I feel that the babysitters from the neighborhood who safeguarded my kids are candidates for sainthood.
One of them, Tara, once tried a sort of passive-aggressive revenge against Lippert’s “no kids allowed” policy. At the time, the Lipperts had two garbage cans—one with the word “his” painted in blue and another with the word “hers” painted in pink. Tara changed my daughter’s dirty diaper and dropped it in the “his” garbage can.
When I called my oldest son, who lives out of state, to tell him about the Lippert story, he laughed in surprise and asked the question that still haunts all of us: “Mom, what didn’t Tom Lippert do?”
Three years ago, my second son moved back into our old subdivision, where he lives with his wife and two sons. Even though he lives there, I don’t know the stories of my former neighborhood now as well as I did when I lived there. When I drive through—which I do often—it looks peaceful. The street is quiet and the houses look calm.
But you never know what goes on behind closed doors.