Nov 20, 2015

Cody man who threatened wife and shot self sentenced to prison

“I apologize, you know, for trying to shoot myself and all the people that it hurt in the process," Joseph Underwood told the judge. "I just would like to get to treatment to get the help I need."

Underwood, 41, fired a gunshot into his head at the end of a nearly four-hour standoff with Cody police last year. But it was what he did before that — threatening his then-wife and another family member with the gun — that brought Underwood before District Court Judge Steven Cranfill for sentencing last week.

“This is a tragic circumstance, no question about it, but the conduct cannot be ignored,” Deputy Park County Prosecuting Attorney Sam Krone said at the Nov. 13 sentencing. “And the conduct against the family cannot be ignored.”

Cranfill agreed it was a tragic case. He also agreed with Krone that Underwood should receive four to six years in prison for felony aggravated assault and battery (for threatening his now ex-wife with the gun) and misdemeanor battery (for choking his teenage son about a month before the shooting).

Joseph Underwood
“This court believes that you do need treatment, there's no question about that,” Cranfill told Underwood before imposing the sentence. “But the safety of this community is the paramount responsibility of this court.”

Charging documents say Underwood's then-wife went to his E Avenue residence on the morning of Aug. 23, 2014, to gather some of her belongings.

With the help of relative Gary Robson, the woman began getting her stuff out of a trailer on the property that served as a storage unit. Robson later told police that, with the help of his father-in-law and his 14-year-old son, the four began loading the stuff into a truck.

Underwood then approached them and — despite a protection order prohibiting contact with his wife — began pleading with her to talk to him, Robson told Cody Police Sgt. Beau Egger.

Underwood eventually pulled out a revolver and pointed it at his wife, Robson told police. Robson said he moved between the two and and pleaded with Underwood to stop, with Robson's son and father-in-law nearby.

By Robson's recounting, Underwood replied by saying something to the effect of, “If I can’t have her, nobody is.” He later turned the gun on himself and said he was “gonna burn all this (stuff) down,” Robson recounted to police.

Underwood shot himself hours later and had to spend nearly a month in a Billings hospital, receiving substantial medical treatment. When he was released, Underwood was taken into custody. He says he has no recollection of the Aug. 23 stand-off.

Underwood says he has no recollection of the stand-off and his actions that day.

A warrant had been issued for Underwood’s arrest the day before the standoff, on a felony charge of child abuse.

One of Underwood's children, a 15-year-old boy from a previous marriage, had reported to police that Underwood choked him and lifted him up by his shirt on July 27, 2014.

Underwood and his wife initially denied those allegations to Cody police on July 27, but the following day, the wife told police Underwood actually had grabbed and choked the boy.

The woman said she’d initially lied “because Joe (Underwood) is physically and mentally abusive to her and she was scared,” wrote Cody Police Officer Josh Van Auken.

Robson later told police that in the days before the standoff, Underwood repeatedly expressed concern that his wife was going to divorce him.

“He (Underwood) has always told me that he would never let her leave him — that there would be a death in the family before that would happen, and that no woman would ever take his girls from him,” Robson testified in court last week. “I really believe he was going to make good on those statements.”

Robson said Underwood is a hard worker who can be compassionate. But he also described Underwood as having a darker side and posing a danger to himself and to people he feels have wronged him.

Underwood’s son also submitted a statement to the court, saying Underwood’s choking “terrified” him and that his father “should be in prison as long as possible.”

“I think it's telling that his own family members are in support of the state's recommendation (for prison time). The violence has escalated,” Krone said. He noted several altercations with family members that led to misdemeanor charges between 1997 and 2005; that included a 2004 incident where he sprayed bear spray into the car carrying his then-girlfriend, her son and her mother, according to Associated Press reporting.

Underwood's court-appointed attorney, Scott Kath of Powell, argued his client was better off receiving a suspended prison sentence and being put on probation. That, Kath said, would allow Underwood to receive specialized treatment for his mental health and substance abuse problems.

“It’s not going to do any good for the community in the future if Mr. Underwood is just going to do four to six years in the penitentiary,” Kath said. “They (prison staff) may be able to address the substance abuse needs, but frankly, I don't think they can address the whole package.”

“It’s not going to do any good for the community in the future if Mr. Underwood is just going to do four to six years in the penitentiary,” argued defense attorney Scott Kath.

While this case was pending, Kath said Underwood actively researched treatment programs that would match his needs and received counseling.

“He wants to be a better person for himself, his family, for the community,” Kath said. “He recognizes the fact that he was out of control.”

The defense attorney said Underwood likely should have gotten help after a 1992 incident, when he suffered a traumatic head injury that required having to re-learn how to walk, talk and write.

In opting for prison time, Cranfill said he believed the state prison's intensive treatment program could provide the care Underwood is seeking.

As part of a deal with prosecutors, Underwood pleaded no contest to the battery (reduced from felony child abuse) and aggravated assault and battery charges. Misdemeanor counts of reckless endangering and violating a protection order were dismissed.

The 14 months Underwood has spent in jail will count toward his prison sentence.

~By CJ Baker

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