POWELL — A man accused of murdering a former girlfriend in Cheyenne and then leaving her body in the foothills south of Cody is not competent to stand trial, according to a forensic psychologist retained by the man’s attorneys.
Prosecutors, however, are seeking a second opinion.
Joseph C. Underwood, 45, is alleged to have strangled and killed 40-year-old Angela Elizondo at his Cheyenne apartment last November. He then allegedly left her body along a ranch road south of Cody, where it was spotted by a hunter; Underwood was arrested hours later, when he reportedly returned to the scene and fled from authorities.
He’s facing felony charges of first-degree murder and two counts of strangulation of a household member, plus a misdemeanor count of stalking in Laramie County District Court.
Underwood pleaded not guilty at a February arraignment.
However, when Judge Peter Froelicher asked whether Underwood had a mental illness that kept him from understanding the proceedings, the defendant replied “yes, mental illness, yes, sir,” according to a transcript of the hearing.
Underwood’s court-appointed defense attorney, Brandon Booth, noted that his client suffered traumatic brain injuries (TBI) in a motorcycle crash decades ago and from shooting himself in the head during a 2014 standoff with Cody police; Underwood reportedly threatened to shoot himself before being taken into custody last November as well.
During February’s arraignment, Booth specifically reserved Underwood’s right to later plead not guilty by reason of mental illness or deficiency and requested an evaluation of his competency.
The public defender specifically asked that the assessment be conducted by Dr. Max Wachtel, a forensic psychologist in Denver, “because we are dealing with a forensic interview type of aspect as well as a neurology component to the TBI.”
Laramie County District Attorney Leigh Anne Manlove had objected to the request, noting that the standard practice is for personnel at the Wyoming State Hospital to conduct the first evaluation of a defendant.
Manlove also noted that the state hospital has evaluated Underwood multiple times in connection with past criminal charges and “in those cases, he was determined to be competent.”
“Because there’s already a history of his medical records at the state hospital, it would be more appropriate for him to be evaluated there. That’s the logical starting point,” she argued.
However, Booth cited concern that “if we get to a standard state hospital evaluation with someone that is not experienced in TBI, neurological disorders and the like, then the evaluation will be competent, and then we’ll be right where we are right now — which is where I would be asking for a second examination.”
Judge Froelicher ultimately agreed to appoint Dr. Wachtel, offering that, “I’m not sure that it matters who goes first.”
In a confidential report submitted to the court in May, Wachtel concluded that Underwood “lacks the capacity to proceed,” according to a later order from Froelicher.
However, the Laramie County District Attorney’s Office is contesting the opinion, the order says, and has requested a second evaluation from the Wyoming State Hospital.
In an interview with Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation agents after his arrest, Underwood reportedly said that he had argued with Elizondo and then “blacked out, as he has done in the past,” waking to find himself on top of her dead body. He then allegedly had sexual contact with her body.
In the DCI’s investigation of the murder, agents reviewed Cheyenne police reports that documented four incidents involving Elizondo and Underwood in the two months leading up to her death. In one incident in early October, Underwood was alleged to have tried running Elizondo and her boyfriend off the road.
In all four incidents, it appeared “Elizondo and Underwood both reported that the other was engaging in unwanted contact with the other,” DCI Agent Tina Trimble wrote in an affidavit.
Elizondo had reportedly told others that, if anything happened to her, police should talk to Underwood — and that if she disappeared, they should look for her body in the mountains outside of Cody.
The court case has been suspended while Underwood’s competency is being evaluated.
Earlier this month, Froelicher gave the Wyoming State Hospital until Aug. 15 to complete their report, after hospital staff requested more time.
“Unforeseen circumstances relative to the COVID-19 pandemic has halted or restricted travel, which has delayed our ability to send forensic evaluators out,” admissions coordinator Lisa Finkle explained in a July 1 letter. “Our evaluators are working hard to get visits completed and evaluations done as soon as possible.”
No trial date has been set.
Follow managing editor Brandon Foster on Twitter @BFoster91
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