Sheriff reflects on long careerPublished 9:38pm Wednesday, February 22, 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.
“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, to Dowagiac Rotary Club Feb. 16 at Elks Lodge 889.
He is seeking re-election this year to his sixth four-year term.
As sheriff, Underwood is responsible for a multi-faceted 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.”