Police on Friday arrested 31-year-old William “Billy” Tipton Jr. and issued an arrest warrant for his wife, 37-year-old Frayba Tipton, on suspicion of arson, forgery and insurance fraud. Billy Tipton faces additional charges of grand theft and two more counts of defrauding an insurance company.
The Tiptons, who lost their upscale home to a suspected arson fire in July 2008, told the Press the day after that they had taken their five children to Lake Tahoe for a Fourth of July vacation and that the loss of their home devastated them.
Not only did the fire destroy many of the family’s possessions, it also nearly killed several firefighters when it weakened the beams supporting a heavy slate roof that collapsed just 30 seconds after a fire chief ordered his crew out of the burning house.
Investigators immediately suspected arson, said Germane Friends, the Tracy Fire Department Division Chief who pulled his crew out of the Fagin Drive fire with seconds to spare.
“It was obvious at the time that it was an incendiary fire because it was started in so many different places,” he said today. “I know they started investigating that immediately.”
For the past year since the blaze, insurance companies, the San Joaquin County District Attorney’s Office, Tracy police and the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office have investigated the incident and treated the gutted property as a crime scene.
The investigation culminated in an arrest late last week.
Billy Tipton — who used to own a branch of West Coast Realty and Mortgage in Tracy without a real estate or broker’s license — was taken into custody Friday night. The West High School Graduate and lifelong Tracy resident appeared in court on Monday — nervous and shackled — when his private attorney Timothy Rein asked a judge to postpone arraignment until Thursday.
Billy Tipton was released from custody on Tuesday without having to pay a dime of his $300,000 bail because overcrowding at the San Joaquin County Jail squeezed him out. Frayba Tipton — owner of A+ Realty and Mortgage — is free of her own recognizance, but was ordered to appear in court with her husband on Thursday.
The charges filed against the pair come as no surprise to several people who knew them. For the past few years, an architect, a graphic designer, several banks and at least two insurance companies were looking for the Tracy family for either money or an explanation.
Public record paints a picture of a couple so dependent on the housing market that they lost virtually all of their property wealth when the economy tanked. They let several properties lapse into foreclosure as their income as real estate agents and brokers suffered from a dearth of buyers. Lawsuits demanding payment from Frayba and Billy Tipton show that the couple has had trouble keeping up with the bills for the past year or so.
“I just want what they owed me,” said Ross Jetté, a Turlock architect who says the Tiptons owe him $12,000 for $17,000 blueprints they ordered two years ago but never finished paying for.
Jetté said the family hired him to draw up plans for a 25,000-square-foot house they intended to build on their 40-acre property on East Lehman Road in Tracy, which has since lapsed into foreclosure, like the family’s other properties.
The 25-year architect said he was paid only a portion of what was owed. But he said the Tiptons have proven difficult to find since the fire, so Jetté and other plaintiffs couldn’t collect.
Dogged by lawsuits and angry clients from the couple’s real estate dealings, the Tiptons eventually disconnected their business, home and cell phones last fall. They moved into a two-story rental in Hidden Lakes, an upscale subdivision very close to their ruined home.
Attempts to reach the Tiptons for this story were unsuccessful. The divorce attorney Frayba Tipton hired to help with a years-long custody battle over a few children from her previous marriage declined to talk about his client.
A KRON4 news story from 2003 quotes Frayba Tipton in a story about how several women from a tight-knit Afghan community in Fremont were duped into shelling out thousands of dollars in an illegal pyramid scheme.
“They told us if we pay $5,000 we could get $40,000 back,” she told the TV news station. “But that was a lie. They just fooled us.”
Only one person showed up in court Monday to see Billy Tipton: Bob Crivello, whose son used to be good friends with the now-suspected arsonist.
“I haven’t seen him in years and years,” Crivello said outside the courtroom on Monday. “I can’t believe it’s come to this.”
The Tiptons are scheduled to be arraigned at 1:30 p.m. Thursday in Dept. 35 at the San Joaquin County Superior Court in Stockton.
•Contact Tracy Press reporter Jennifer Wadsworth at 830-4225 or email@example.com.