A Gainesville man was convicted Monday for killing a retired UF professor and lighting his house on fire in 2015.
Circuit Judge Mark W. Moseley sentenced Stephen Underwood Jr., 40, to 50 years in prison for the murder of Thomas Oakland, a then-75-year-old retired UF education professor, according to online court records.
Attorney Stephen Bernstein, who represented Underwood, said both families wanted to avoid a trial. Underwood pled no contest, a plea that accepts the charges without admitting guilt, and the charge was reduced from first-degree homicide to second-degree homicide so he could avoid a life sentence.
“He has remorse on what happened,” Bernstein said. “He took responsibility for what he did, and he has some hope of surviving.”
Underwood will serve 40 years for the homicide charge and 10 for the burglary charge, Bernstein said. His charges of grand theft, arson and tampering with evidence will be served at the same time.
Underwood will be transported to the Florida Department of Corrections, where he’ll serve his sentence, excluding 1,068 days of served jail credit, Bernstein said.
The murder, which occured March 4, 2015, stemmed from Underwood swindling more than $37,000 from Oakland since 2013, according to a sworn complaint presented to the court. In May 2014, Underwood was incarcerated for fraud after Oakland filed a complaint against him.
When Underwood was released from prison in December 2014, he continued to harass Oakland for more money, the report said. Two months later, Oakland had authorities issued a trespass warning to prohibit Underwood from coming to his home.
Oakland told police 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 Alligator archives.
On the day of the murder, Gainesville Fire Rescue officials found Oakland’s body after they responded to a fire in his home, where he lived alone, at 1921 SW Eighth Drive.
Underwood had hit Oakland on the head with an unknown object, knocking the elderly man unconscious and killing him, the report said. A medical examiner determined he died before the fire.
Underwood, then 38, was arrested two days later in Jacksonville after attempting to flee.
Underwood has previously been incarcerated in Florida on five different occasions for charges such as drug possession, grand theft of a motor vehicle and organized fraud, according to the Florida Department of Corrections.
In 2015, Jean Crockett, the former director in UF’s College of Education, who worked with Oakland for a year before his retirement, said he was an “educator at heart,” according to Alligator archives.
“Talking to him, you knew you were to talking to a very brilliant man,” Crockett said. “But you also knew you were talking to a very kind man.”
Thomas Oakland, a retired UF professor, poses for a family photo. He was killed March 4, 2015.