Local girl remembered 23 years after one of Idaho’s most horrific crimes
POCATELLO – It was one of the most horrific crimes ever committed in east Idaho.
An 11-year-old collecting money on her newspaper route was abducted, sexually assaulted, murdered and thrown into the Snake River.
Jeralee Underwood is a name and face many will never forget.
It’s been 23 years since her murder made national headlines, and now her parents are talking about lessons they’ve learned since their daughter’s shocking death.
An average summer day
Jeff and Joyce Underwood say their daughter, Jeralee, was the perfect child. She was kind, loving, smart and a friend to everyone she met.
“She was a lot of fun,” Jeff recalls. “She was always fairly outgoing, and she always liked to include everybody on things.
Jeralee was also a hard worker. She was only 11 when she started her first job delivering Idaho State Journal newspapers with her older brother.
“She got tips quite often,” Joyce remembers. “People really liked her. After only a few months on her route, she won a trip to Yellowstone from the Journal for enrolling the most subscribers.”
It was along that very newspaper route when the unimaginable happened around 5:45 p.m. on June 29, 1993.
“Joyce and I were out in the garden when a lady in our (LDS) ward tried to call us,” Jeff says. “She then came over and asked if someone was helping Jeralee because a woman had just seen her get in a car with somebody.”
The Underwoods immediately left their home on Kurtwood Place and drove to the woman’s house – less than a half of a mile away. She told them a man had forced Jeralee into a vehicle on the corner of Carter and Main Streets.
Jeff called police to report the abduction and went out to search for his little girl while Joyce waited anxiously at home.
“I remember looking out the window and just waiting for her to come around the corner and say, ‘Hey Mom, guess how much tip I got,’” Joyce recalls.
The afternoon passed, and the sun set without a sign of Jeralee.
The next day, door-to-door searches began and that night, a special meeting was held at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Days Saints building Jeralee attended every Sunday.
“We had a stake fast for her, and everybody knelt in the stake center for a prayer,” Jeff says. “There was probably over 1,000 people there from all walks of life.”
After the prayer, Joyce says she had a feeling that her daughter was OK. She assumed that meant she would return home safe, but later learned Jeralee had already been killed.
“She was OK. She was with Heavenly Father, so she was in good hands,” Joyce says.
Several days passed with no new information about where Jeralee could be. Police from agencies across east Idaho set up traffic checkpoints and national media began covering the story.
A break and arrest
A week after Jeralee vanished, investigators announced they had a break in the case.
James Edward Wood was taken into custody and charged with kidnapping.
The 45-year-old had recently moved to Pocatello and had been eating dinner with his cousin when Jeralee came to the door collecting money for the newspaper.
Minutes later, he told family members he was going to buy alcohol. After leaving the home, Wood approached Jeralee.
“They had written her a check, and he told her that the check was no good. He told her to give him the check and he would give her cash instead,” Jeff says. “As she was looking in her money bag, he grabbed her and pushed her in the car.”
The Underwoods later learned that Wood drove their daughter to the Preston area and then north back to Pocatello. He was able to avoid police checkpoints before ending up in Idaho Falls.
During the drive, Wood later said Jeralee asked him why he had kidnapped her. She spoke about her clogging class and Mormon faith.
Wood eventually stopped along the Snake River north of Idaho Falls to let Jeralee use the bathroom. She got out of his vehicle and he followed her into some bushes, where he shot her in the head.
Wood then dismembered her body and threw it in the river.
“The mortician stayed up all night trying to figure out what to do after they recovered as much as they could of her body,” Jeff recalls.
The Underwoods never got to see Jeralee before she was buried.
Wood was charged with first-degree murder and Bannock County prosecutors sought the death penalty.
Wood was found guilty of the crime, and as he was being sentenced to death, Judge Lynn Winmill called him “a cold blooded, pitiless slayer.”
Investigators had learned Wood had a 30-year trail of crime covering at least six states with murder, attempted murders and rapes.
“They figured they could have probably pinned 30 murders on him across the country that have never been solved,” Jeff says.
Detectives were able to tie him to a rape that had been reported months earlier outside Pizza Hut in Pocatello.
A young lady was abducted and after the sexual assault, she told officers Wood pointed a gun at her but it misfired. He told the woman it was her “lucky day” and let her go.
The Underwood’s tried to move forward following Jeralee’s death. They never spoke to Wood, and he never reached out to them. They had nothing they wanted to say to him, and both Joyce and Jeff began attending professional counseling sessions.
“There was one session that was especially therapeutic for me,” Jeff says. “We made a scarecrow replica of James Wood to get my anger out. Then I actually did exactly what he did to Jeralee. I went through the whole process, and it was really helpful to get rid of the anger and not continue to harbor it.”
As Wood sat on death row, the Underwoods learned some alarming news.
His case was one of more than a dozen in Idaho affected by an Arizona case in which the U.S. Supreme Court decided capital defendants must be sentenced to die by a jury rather than a judge.
That meant Wood’s case would now go back to trial for re-sentencing.
“It was too much to take in,” Jeff says. “So I said a prayer to Heavenly Father and asked if he would please just take Wood’s life so it could be over and done with.”
Two weeks later, on January 30, 2004, Wood, then 56, died in prison of natural causes.
“It just brought total closure to me. It was done. It was over. No more,” Jeff says.
Even though Wood was gone, Jeff still had questions about the man who killed his daughter.
A few years ago, he walked into the Bannock County Prosecutor’s Office and asked to see a profile that had been done on the killer. It was a comprehensive report detailing Wood’s life from his childhood until death.
“It was really, really interesting and it kind of shed some light that I maybe could have a little bit of compassion on him,” Jeff says. “To see his situation with his life as a child and teenager, I can maybe begin to see why he made the choices he did.”
The Underwoods say it’s hard to believe that Jeralee would be 34 years old today. They wonder what type of mother she would be, how many children she’d have and what she would have accomplished.
But her short life, and tragic death have taught them a lot over the years.
“I’ve learned there are a lot worse things than death,” Joyce reflects. “If we didn’t think we’d see her again, it’d be very difficult, but I know we will be together one day.”
Jeff adds that their faith has helped them get through the most difficult time of their lives, and their beliefs are even stronger today.
“The day will come when we will be with her again,” Jeff says. “I know there is really a loving God, even in tragedies like this, and that is a great strength to me that gives us the ability to continue on.”