Gainesville Police charged a local man Friday who they believe set a retired UF professor’s house on fire after killing and stealing money from him.
Officers arrested Stephen Underwood, Jr., 38, late Thursday in Jacksonville in connection with the murder of Thomas Oakland, 75, a retired UF education professor. Authorities said he fled to the city after reportedly beating Oakland to death and setting Oakland’s house on fire.
Oakland had been giving large amounts of money to Underwood, who is unemployed and does day labor, since the two met in 2013, said GPD spokesman Officer Ben Tobias in a press release.
After being swindled out of more than $37,000, Oakland realized he was a victim of fraud and contacted Gainesville Police. He told police that he knew Underwood was stealing money from him, but he “just wanted to be a good Christian and help a poor man get back on his feet,” according to the release.
Oakland told police he was not concerned about Underwood stalking or harassing him but requested in last month that Underwood be trespassed from his property, according to the release.
On Wednesday afternoon, Gainesville Fire Rescue officials found Oakland’s body after they responded to a fire in Oakland’s home, located at 1921 SW Eighth Drive.
The morning of the fire, a neighbor saw a man matching Underwood’s description drive to Oakland’s home in a beige or silver sedan and enter the house. Authorities suspect Underwood, who knew Oakland kept cash in his home, entered the house, hit Oakland with an unknown object until the professor was unconscious, then set fire to the house. Flames were contained in Oakland’s home office, but there was heavy smoke damage throughout the rest of the house.
Authorities declared the investigation a homicide investigation Thursday afternoon when an autopsy revealed that Oakland died from blunt force trauma to his head and body and was likely dead before the fire started. Underwood and his wife, Sherry Chris Sidell Underwood, 48, were initially named as suspects in the investigation.
Sherry Underwood, who is disabled, told police her husband left their home in a beige or silver sedan before the time of the fire and returned hours later. He then changed his clothes and told her they were leaving town.
Before leaving, the two paid for a new cellphone and a hotel room in cash. Sherry told authorities Stephen had a bag with a large amount of cash at the time but generally did not have access to large amounts of money.
Tobias said Sherry will most likely not be charged with any crimes because it appears she was not involved in the murder or fire.
About 10 p.m. Thursday, authorities, including GPD investigators and the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, found Underwood on Duval Road, near Interstate 95 in Jacksonville. He initially ran away from officers but was arrested on charges of murder, burglary of occupied, dwelling, grand theft and arson of structure or dwelling, Tobias said.
“I don’t think Underwood would be in those handcuffs we promised him without the hard work from each investigator assigned to this case,” he said.
Officers took him to the Duval County Jail where as of press time, he remained with no bond.
Oakland lived alone in the house, police said. Before his retirement from UF in May 2010, he taught classes in law and ethics in psychology and psychoeducational assessment during his time at UF, according to the UF faculty website.
A 1988 Fullbright Scholar, Oakland was a visiting professor in four countries and consulted with multiple schools and law firms across the country.
Larry Lansford, the director of news and communications for the College of Education, said Oakland was one of the most polite and genuine people he worked with in the college.
“He was a world-class scholar,” Lansford said. “This is such a shock for everyone here.”
Emily Cochrane is a 19-year-old journalism sophomore and the cops beat staff writer at the Alligator. She likes holding pandas, taking pictures and eating frozen yogurt.