A Cody Circuit Court Judge was right to pause the prosecution of a Cheyenne man accused of murdering then raping his girlfriend at his home, then dumping her body in a ravine, the Wyoming Supreme Court has ruled.
The Cody Circuit Court paused the prosecution last year of Joseph Carl Underwood, 48, to have Wyoming State Hospital evaluators determine if Underwood is mentally competent to face trial for allegedly concealing a felony, possessing a firearm as a violent felon, and interfering with and eluding police officers.
The Park County Attorney’s office challenged the Circuit Court’s decision in Park County District Court, which volleyed the question up to the Wyoming Supreme Court. The high court has ruled that circuit courts can pause felony-level prosecutions to order mental health evaluations, even though circuit courts don’t adjudicate felonies.
A circuit court’s main duty with respect to felony cases is to determine if there’s probable cause to prosecute a defendant and to send felony cases to district court.
Former Laramie County District Attorney LeighAnne Manlove charged Underwood Nov. 13, 2019, with first-degree murder, rape, domestic strangulation and stalking his on-and-off girlfriend.
Court documents allege that Underwood picked up the woman, who was then 40, from her home and took her to his home Nov. 1, 2019.
He gave her a massage, she took a shower, she got dressed, and then they had a talk about their inability to trust one another, according to Underwood’s interviews conveyed in his case affidavit.
She gave him back a ring he’d given her.
He followed her into the bathroom, Underwood later told investigators, then he blacked out and came back to consciousness to find himself sitting on her chest while she lay on her back in the bathroom area.
Underwood realized she was dead, the affidavit alleges, and he pulled down her pants and had sex with her body.
At The Walmart
Underwood told investigators he went to Walmart and bought a rope and red handcart, which he then used to load the woman’s body into his white 2007 Chevy Silverado, then drive her to Highway 120 South between Cody and Meeteetse, the affidavit says.
He drove west off the highway onto a two-track road near a private ranch about a mile and a half, then drove another half mile down another two-track road to an area where a small creek runs through a ravine bed.
Underwood allegedly put the woman, still wrapped in a bedsheet and tied to the handcart, into the creek bed in the ravine.
A forensic pathologist later identified the woman during the autopsy via her tattoos.
Because It’s Hunting Season
Here the alleged facts fork into Park County jurisdiction.
A hunter found the woman’s body in the ravine the day after her death, and Park County Sheriff’s Deputy Robert R. Cooke responded to secure the scene that evening.
At about 10:43 p.m. Cooke watched a vehicle, which he later identified as a white truck, headed his direction. Headlights appeared in the dark as if someone had just switched them on, reads Cooke’s affidavit in Underwood’s Park County case.
Cooke radioed dispatch to ask if other law enforcement agents were coming out to help him. Dispatch said no: That vehicle wasn’t another agent.
The vehicle turned its headlights off again and loitered about 100 yards from Cooke’s vehicle.
Cooke switched on his spotlight and peered through binoculars at the truck.
The truck loitered for about 13 minutes, the affidavit says.
Then it approached Cooke again, and he turned on his police lights. The vehicle then stopped and backed up, turning around at about 10:57 p.m., headed back for the highway.
Don’t Do That
Cooke called for more agents, summoning Wyoming Highway Patrol troopers, sheriff’s deputies and Bureau of Land Management Ranger Robert Lind.
Cooke struggled to keep up as he followed the white truck on the two-track road, but he and the other agents were able to get behind the vehicle as it raced east on the highway then turned left toward Meeteetse.
A trooper executed a traffic stop. Cooke ran the truck’s registration and linked the truck to Joseph Underwood, whom Cooke knew from previous law-enforcement contacts, the affidavit says.
Underwood was also a “person of interest” regarding the crime scene Cooke had been trying to secure.
Others told Cooke that Underwood had a handgun trained on his head and was threatening repeatedly to kill himself.
The various agents tried talking Underwood down, but it did no good.
Lind visited with Underwood, who said he’d shot himself before with a .38-caliber pistol near his right temple, and still had the scar.
Lind asked if he could feel the scar, the affidavit says.
“And when Joe let him touch the scar, Robert lunged through the open window,” wrote Cooke later. Lind grabbed the pistol. A round ejected from the chamber as Lind grabbed it. The pistol flew from Underwood’s hand and landed on the truck’s passenger seat.
Lind kept wrestling with Underwood, but when Underwood broke away from Lind’s grasp, both Lind and Cooke pointed their guns at Underwood and commanded him not to move, says the affidavit.
Lind then holstered his weapon and wrestled some more as Underwood reached for his own 9 mm pistol.
Cooke tased Underwood.
Lind opened the truck door, and Underwood rolled onto the ground of the highway.
“All right, all right, I quit, I quit,” said Underwood as the taser cycled, the affidavit relates.
Agents took Underwood to the Park County Detention Center without further incident.
Fetus In Your Truck
DCI agents interviewed Underwood multiple times in the jail, says the Laramie County affidavit.
They asked him if they’d find anything concerning in his truck. Underwood reportedly said his girlfriend’s clothes were in the truck along with both their cellphones, a 9 mm handgun and a fetus in a butter container.
The fetus was from his girlfriend’s miscarriage from one or two months before her death, according to Underwood’s interview. He was the father of the fetus and had planned on burying it in Park County, he told DCI agents.
But First, Cheyenne
Underwood faced felony and misdemeanor charges in both the Laramie County and Park County jurisdictions.
The Cheyenne Circuit Court transferred his case to the Laramie County District Court on Jan. 29, 2020. After that, the case dragged on for more than two years.
District Court Judge Peter H. Froelicher ordered a psychological evaluation Feb. 19, 2020, to determine whether Underwood was fit to proceed.
On May 19, 2020, evaluators determined that Underwood was not mentally fit to proceed in the case against him.
Froelicher ordered a second evaluation that June. At first he gave the examiner 30 days to reach a decision, but the State Hospital applied for multiple time extensions. In December, the judge found that Underwood was not fit for prosecution, and he ordered the Wyoming State Hospital to determine whether Underwood could ever be made fit to face his case.
Froelicher ordered Underwood’s release on Aug. 19, 2022, saying that Underwood was not mentally well enough to be prosecuted and couldn’t be made well enough to be prosecuted.
Cody Still Has A Case
But the Park County Attorney’s Office launched its own case that summer, charging Underwood with concealing a felony, possessing a gun unlawfully, interference and eluding for his alleged activities in the Meeteetse area. Underwood is currently in custody.
Again, the court paused Underwood's case so evaluators could test his mental health.
An evaluator found Underwood competent to proceed.
When Underwood asked for another evaluation by the same two doctors who’d deemed him unfit to proceed in the Cheyenne case, Park County deputy attorney Jack Hatfield II objected, noting that the law calls for just one evaluator, not two.
The judge ordered a hearing in the matter for Jan. 18 of this year. Then on Jan. 23 the judge ordered the second evaluation for Underwood, to be done by just one of the two doctors.
Pushing to get the case to the felony-level court, Hatfield’s office challenged the circuit court’s authority to order mental health evaluations in felony cases.
The Wyoming Supreme Court ruled Thursday that circuit courts do have that authority.
Clair McFarland can be reached at Clair@CowboyStateDaily.com.