POWELL — Law enforcement officials say evidence indicates that a former local resident murdered a woman in Cheyenne over the weekend, then attempted to hide her body in a remote area south of Cody Saturday afternoon.
The Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation has identified the victim as 40-year-old Angela Elizondo; agents believe Elizondo was killed in Cheyenne, where she lived, the division told media outlets on Tuesday.
The suspect charged in connection with the case is 45-year-old Joseph C. Underwood of Cheyenne, a former Cody resident with a lengthy criminal record.
Underwood was arrested just hours after a hunter found Elizondo’s body along a two-track road west of Wyo. Highway 120, roughly halfway between Cody and Meeteetse. According to charging documents, Underwood returned to the area where he'd allegedly left the woman’s body late on Saturday night and was spotted by a Park County Sheriff’s deputy who’d been posted at the crime scene. A pursuit and then a roughly 2 1/2 hour standoff with officers ensued, in which Underwood reportedly threatened to shoot himself.
Underwood was ultimately taken into custody when a ranger with the Bureau of Land Management knocked a loaded gun out of his hand and, with the help of a deputy, subdued him, authorities say. After his arrest, Underwood “admitted to transporting the dead body and depositing it in a peaceful location between Meeteetse and Cody,” according to an affidavit filed in court records.
Authorities have not released any information about the events that led up to Elizondo’s killing or what connection she had to Underwood.
The Park County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office has charged Underwood with four criminal counts in connection with the incident: disposing of a human body in order to conceal a felony crime and possessing a firearm despite a prior conviction for a violent felony, plus misdemeanor counts of fleeing or eluding police and interference with a peace officer.
Although Underwood has not been formally accused of killing Elizondo, Deputy Park County Prosecuting Attorney Jack Hatfield said at a Tuesday morning court hearing that Underwood “is likely going to be charged with murder in the coming weeks, once the autopsy is completed and the investigation’s complete in another county.”
Hatfield added that Underwood “is likely going to be facing a life sentence,” implying that prosecutors in Laramie County will consider charges of either first- or second-degree murder. Laramie County District Attorney Leigh Anne Manlove declined to comment on Underwood’s case on Monday.
At Hatfield’s request, Park County Circuit Court Judge Bruce Waters set Underwood’s bail at $1 million during a Tuesday morning hearing; Underwood, who appeared by video from the Park County Detention Center, did not object to that amount.
For reasons not laid out in charging documents, Underwood had been identified as a person of interest in the case shortly after Elizondo’s body was discovered Saturday afternoon.
He became a wanted man around 10:45 p.m., when he allegedly drove to the spot where the body had been abandoned. Park County Sheriff’s Deputy Rob Cooke had been stationed at the scene and attempted to stop Underwood’s white truck, but Underwood fled, racing away at speeds of up to 80 miles an hour, charging documents say.
Underwood pulled over about 2 miles away from the crime scene and a standoff began. The Wyoming Highway Patrol and the Hot Springs County Sheriff’s Office helped shut down the highway while the Cody Police Department’s Special Response team was summoned. Meanwhile, Deputy Cooke, Sheriff Scott Steward and BLM Ranger Robert Lind all tried to convince Underwood to get out of the vehicle and give himself up, without success.
“... Underwood had a handgun pointed at his head and was threatening suicide and stated on several occasion[s] he would not go back to jail [and] that he had nothing to live for,” Cooke wrote.
Over the course of two hours, Lind and Cooke were able to approach Underwood’s truck and speak with him, the affidavit says. The conversation eventually turned to a 2014 standoff with Cody police that culminated in Underwood shooting himself in the head with a pistol.
At that point, Ranger Lind asked if he could touch the scar — then used the opportunity to lunge through the window and knock the gun from Underwood’s hand, using enough force to eject the round from the chamber, Cooke wrote. After a struggle that involved the officers tasering Underwood, he finally gave up, the affidavit says.
“[Without] the bravery of BLM ranger Robert Lind, it’s unlikely that we would even be here today, based on the threat that he [Underwood] had made to his own safety,” prosecutor Hatfield said in court on Tuesday.
In arguing for the high, $1 million bond for Underwood, Hatfield also remarked that “this is almost an anniversary of sorts for this defendant: He now has 25 years of committing violent crimes.”
Court records show Underwood has a history of mental health problems, domestic violence and standoffs with police.
In August 2014, Underwood threatened his then-wife and a cousin-in-law with a gun when they stopped by to pick up her belongings. The cousin told police “he was convinced Joe Underwood had everything planned and his intention was to kill his wife,” a Cody police officer later wrote in an affidavit.
A several-hours-long standoff ended when Underwood shot himself in the head.
He later recovered and was taken into custody. However, concerns about Underwood’s competency lingered, with a defense attorney saying in October 2014 that he had “reasonable cause” to believe that Underwood “has a mental illness or deficiency making him unfit to proceed.”
According to statements made in court, Underwood suffered a traumatic head injury in 1992 that was severe enough it forced him to re-learn how to read and write; he also was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder after the 2014 altercation.
However, Underwood was ultimately found competent to stand trial in that case. At an August 2015 sentencing hearing, Underwood’s teenage son — whom he had battered the month before the standoff — wrote a letter saying that his father “should be in prison as long as possible.”
A Park County prosecutor argued then that Underwood’s criminal record showed “nothing but escalating violence.”
For his part, Underwood apologized — saying he didn’t remember the altercation — and asked to be released on probation to pursue substance abuse and mental health treatment; a risk assessment prepared by the state found he was a low risk for violent recidivism, his then-attorney said.
In pronouncing a four- to six-year prison sentence — the length requested by prosecutors — District Court Judge Steven Cranfill said there was no question that Underwood needed treatment. However, “the safety of this community is the paramount responsibility of this court,” Cranfill said.
Underwood served about three years and eight months in jail and prison before being paroled in May 2018. Thanks to good behavior while he was locked up and on parole, Underwood completed his sentence and was discharged from the Wyoming Department of Corrections’ supervision on Jan. 25 of this year, according to a department spokesman.