Archived Story

Sheriff shares memorable cases

Published 11:30pm Thursday, February 16, 2012

After 32 years with the Cass County Sheriff’s Office, there have been cases that thrust Sheriff Joe Underwood’s department into the national limelight, such as Rainbow Farm and Lindsey Ryan.

Cass County Sheriff Joe Underwood

“When you wake up in the morning — or in the middle of the night — you may have one thing planned, but something else happens,” said Underwood, whose career started with two years at Dowagiac Police Department.
He is seeking re-election this year to his sixth four-year term.

A $6.5M budget
As sheriff, Underwood is responsible for a multifaceted organization of 80 people and a $6.5 million budget to operate the jail, staff the 911 dispatch center and patrol roads.
There was the manslaughter case where a man sped through Cassopolis and hit a car, killing a mother inside. Her son didn’t think prison was punishment enough, so he took the village hostage, strapping gasoline cans on his car “to blow up downtown” at the intersection by the 1899 courthouse.
“The FBI was involved in that case with us and negotiators were able to bring that to a successful conclusion,” Underwood said.
Not  Rainbow Farm, the Vandalia campground where two men died Labor Day weekend before 9/11.
“Senseless,” the sheriff said. “He took things into his own hands to be a martyr for his cause. We had all kinds of agencies involved,” including Michigan State Police and FBI. “We felt we had the pieces in place to bring that to a successful conclusion, but if you don’t have a willing participant on the other side, that’s not going to happen.”
Ryan, 14, was reported missing in 2003 just as war in Iraq was about to start.
After determining she left Jones voluntarily with Terry Drake, 56, a convicted killer she met at church and conversed with through internet instant messages, law enforcement began tracking their movement west.
It took 24 days, but she finally returned safely.
“We utilized the media and the Center for Missing Children,” Underwood said. “We were able to arrest him up in the woods in California. We found things we felt he was going to use to take her life. We were getting hundreds of tips and not much sleep. The back of our building became a call center. As a result of that investigation, the department received national recognition. My biggest responsibility is to coordinate and communicate for us to be effective and to keep Cass County safe by leaving no stones unturned.”
“I’m proud of my staff, which makes me look good most of the time,” he told Dowagiac Rotary Club noon Thursday at Elks Lodge 889 for program chair Dee Leversen.
Out of 83 Michigan counties, the Cassopolis jail leads the state with 14 consecutive years of 100 percent compliance.
“Anywhere from our medical program — we have a nurse 40 hours  a week, a doctor who comes in — food service, building inspections, fire codes, Health Department inspections, inmate interviews. The punishment to come to jail is done by the court. It’s our job to make sure they stay safe and secure in our facility and to take care of their basic needs, but it’s not the Ritz-Carlton.”
If something wrong was found, the Board of Commissioners would be notified so it could be remedied.
“The dispatch center has to get it right so cars can respond to calls. My job is to make sure we have all the proper tools to do the job,” the sheriff said. “Video cameras in the car help keep our officers safe as well as the public. With laptops, defibrillators, first aid kits, the trunk is full.”
Underwood is proud of the victim services unit, whose volunteer advocates and chaplains counsel family members, freeing officers to focus on investigating crimes.
“When a tragedy happens,” Underwood said, “we have to be able to help the survivors. Our chaplains have gone as far as Chicago to help a family with a funeral service because they did not have a church home.”
The 1997 Hilltop Laundry robbery in Union where a clerk was murdered and a young girl survived by hiding led to the Porter Township community policing program, including an annual safety fair with pancake breakfast.
The sheriff’s golf outing each summer at Hampshire Country Club funds eight to 12 $500 scholarships, including six to Southwestern Michigan College.

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