By Leo Wolfson, Cowboy State Daily
A Cheyenne man accused of strangling a woman to death and transporting her corpse across the state to Cody is facing new charges after a judge recently found him not mentally fit to stand trial on a charge of first-degree murder.
Park County filed the charges against Joseph Underwood on July 5 after Laramie County District Court Judge Peter Froelicher dismissed the first-degree murder case against him on June 23.
Froelicher said the Wyoming State Hospital staff failed to process the case quickly enough.
Underwood was charged with murder in the 2019 death of Angela Elizondo, 40. He was accused of strangling her to death in Cheyenne and then moving her body to an area south of Cody.
The Park County charges only address his alleged moving of Elizondo’s body to the Hoodoo Ranch area outside of Cody.
The new charges filed earlier this month in Park County are identical to those filed by the county in November 2019 when Elizondo’s body was found. However, the charges carry a much lighter sentence than if Underwood had been found guilty of first-degree murder charges.
Park County was the first entity to file charges against Underwood in the case, however, it dismissed those charges to let Laramie County follow through with its prosecution of the first-degree murder case.
The new charges against Underwood include concealing a felony by transporting a dead human body, unlawful possession of a firearm as a felon, interference with a peace officer and fleeing or attempting to elude police officers.
The maximum sentence Underwood could now receive is 14.5 years in prison and $16,750 in fines. If convicted of the first-degree murder charge he had been facing in Laramie County, he could have been sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of the death penalty.
While charges were still in place in Laramie County, Underwood received a mental evaluation in May 2020 that found him unfit to proceed to trial.
Forensic psychologist Dr. Max Wachtel said Underwood had received a head injury and expressed worry that his evaluation took place too quickly after that incident.
At that time, Wachtel believed Underwood’s impairments could be reversed, so prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed to send him to the Wyoming State Hospital in December 2020.
However, separate evaluations presented to the court in Laramie County during hearings June and August of 2021 concluded Underwood was not competent to proceed with the trial.
At the second hearing, the court determined “there was a substantial probability” Underwood could become fit to stand trial at some point in the future and directed the State Hospital to report to the court every 90 days on his mental progress.
In June, Froelicher reversed course and said there was no viable reason to believe Underwood could be prepared to stand trial.
Froelicher also said in separate ruling that WSH failed to fully comply with the reporting requirements mandated for the case and as a result unnecessarily extended its duration.
“There is no dispute that the length of the delay in bringing defendant to trial in this matter is presumptively prejudicial,” he wrote.
A Violent Act
Underwood originally told agents he “blacked out” during Elizondo’s murder. Agents determined Elizondo was hit in the head and then strangled until she died.
After the alleged crime, Underwood made a trip to Walmart where he picked up rope and a red hand cart.
He then traveled to Cody in his white 2007 Chevrolet Silverado, where he placed Elizondo, still wrapped in a bed sheet and tied to the hand cart, in a creek bed at the base of a ravine.
Underwood was accused of returning to the scene of the crime and then fleeing from authorities, leading them on a short high speed chase.
After being pulled over, Underwood threatened to commit suicide and a struggle ensued to wrestle a firearm from him.
Eventually, a U.S. Bureau of Land Management ranger wrestled the gun away from Underwood and took him into custody.
Prior to this incident, Underwood had recently been released from prison, where he was sentenced to spend four to six years after being convicted on a charge of aggravated assault and battery in an incident involving his ex-wife and then-15-year-old son.
A former Cody resident, Underwood suffered a serious head injury from a motorcycle accident in the early 1990s and in 2014 attempted to commit suicide by shooting himself in the head.
Reschedules And Rejections
Froelicher’s change of mind came after the delivery of a sixth neurological assessment conducted by the Wyoming State Hospital on Feb. 28. This report was filed on April 19.
The report filed by Dr. Dan Martell supported the argument of defense attorneys that Underwood could not be restored to a mental capacity where he would be fit to stand trial.
Laramie County District Attorney Leigh Anne Manlove objected to these findings and requested an evidentiary hearing. According to court documents, the state submitted reports from Martell and Dr. Alex Yufik that it planned to use as part of its argument as to why Underwood still could be brought to trial. The reports were to be submitted during the evidentiary hearing scheduled for June 22.
But Froelicher, in a June order denying a request a rescheduling of a hearing in the case, said the State Hospital concluded that Underwood would never be competent to face trial.
“In WSH’s restoration evaluation report concluded defendant had not been restored to competency and there was not a substantial probability that he could be restored to competency in the foreseeable future or ever,” Froelicher said in his ruling dismissing the charges against Underwood.
Prosecutors also planned to call Richard Kaumo, who was housed at the State Hospital with Underwood, to testify, a move objected to by Wyoming Public Defender Diane Lozano, Underwood’s attorney.
Lozano said among other things, prosecutors failed to submit additional information on Kaumo, including his background and planned testimony, by a court-set May 25 deadline.
“Mr. Kaumo’s testimony must be relevant to the issue of competency,” Lozano wrote. “Even if this court were to find that Mr. Kaumo’s testimony has some probative value, the probative value must substantially outweigh the prejudicial effect. Evidence is prejudicial if it distracts from the issue at hand. This hearing could devolve into a mini-trial on Mr. Kaumo’s testimony and his credibility.”
Prosecutors submitted the information in a notice on June 1, which included details from the State Hospital the state planned to submit for its argument. Kaumo and Martell were subpoenaed to appear at the hearing by the state on June 13.
After his release from the State Hospital, Kaumo was sent to the Wyoming Medium Security Correctional Institution in Torrington, where he is serving a sentence of four to six years on felony forgery and other charges.
Kaumo requested a sentence reduction about one month after his sentencing and in his letter of request, he mentioned he had been approached by state Division of Criminal Investigation officers to talk about Underwood.
“With nothing being offered to me I made the right choice and gave them everything I knew, knowing it was the right thing to do,” he wrote.
On June 1, Manlove requested that the evidentiary hearing be rescheduled a second time so she could take a personal trip to Savannah, Georgia.
Although Manlove’s office had earlier specifically suggested the June 22 date, she asked that the date be moved so she could run the case for the district attorney’s office.
“It would not be possible for another prosecutor, given the current workload and staffing constraints of the DA’s office, to sufficiently familiarize himself with the evidence and the legal issues (of the case) without compromising justice,” the request said.
Froelicher rejected the rescheduling request and the argument, noting that at a November 2020 hearing for the case, the prosecution had been primarily represented by an assistant district attorney. He also noted that at least one deputy attorney general had been present for several hearings and had been monitoring the case since WSH became involved.
“(Underwood) should not be required to wait for a hearing to determine whether he can be restored to competency for another two to three months so that the attorney for the state can take a personal trip out of state,” the judge wrote in his order rejecting the motion.
On June 22, the day the state hoped to bring Kaumo before the court, Froelicher rejected Manlove’s request to have him testify.
One day after that decision, Manlove requested the Underwood case be dismissed, a motion Froelicher approved that same day, dismissing the case with prejudice, which means the murder charge against Underwood cannot be refiled.
“Based on the evaluation, Mr. Underwood cannot be brought to trial for the pending charges,” Manlove wrote.
Underwood has racked up nearly $27,000 in public defender fees since the case has started. He is still in custody at the Laramie County Detention Center with no bond. No date has been set for an initial hearing in Park County yet.