SERIAL CRIMINAL'S BLOODY LEGACY 11-YEAR-OLD IN IDAHO WAS HIS LAST VICTIM Series: FIRST OF TWO ARTICLES

By William C. Lhotka Of the Post-Dispatch | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), February 27, 1994 | Go to article overview

SERIAL CRIMINAL'S BLOODY LEGACY 11-YEAR-OLD IN IDAHO WAS HIS LAST VICTIM Series: FIRST OF TWO ARTICLES


William C. Lhotka Of the Post-Dispatch, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


James Edward Wood's Ford Ranger limped to a halt in front of his cousin's tan ranch house. Wood strode past a redwood planter and banged on the front door. He had dark secrets to tell, but not right now.

Down on his luck, Wood asked his cousin, David Haggard, whether he could live with him until he got back on his feet. With a spare room in his basement, Haggard agreed.

If Haggard had known the truth about Wood, he probably would have run for his life.

Unknown to Haggard, his long-lost cousin and unexpected guest on that October day in 1992 was a murderer and serial rapist. Four days earlier, Wood had raped and shot teen-ager Jamie Masengill of Hazelwood, leaving her for dead in weeds near Missouri Bottom Road.

He was about to unleash eight months of violence in this southeast Idaho town of 45,000, which lies in a valley of the Bannock Mountains. His rampage ended with the rape and murder of Jeralee Underwood, an 11-year-old newspaper carrier.

Wood, 46, was sentenced last month to die by lethal injection for Jeralee's murder. One of between 35 and 50 serial criminals the FBI says are roaming the country, Wood admitted committing crimes in at least six states, possibly 10.

Even Wood isn't sure how many people he harmed during a trail of crime and torture that stretched through the mountains, the high plains and Deep South. It took him to St. Louis, where he once lived and married. It ended in Idaho 33 years after it had begun.

Wood now occupies a death-row cell at the Idaho Maximum Security prison in Boise. He refused to talk to a reporter.

What follows is a portrait of a killer who his lawyer admits is the most hated man in Idaho.

Jeralee was the second oldest of the six children of Jeff and Joyce Underwood. Above the stairwell to the Underwood family room hangs an oil portrait of Jeralee. On the piano near the front door is Jeralee's fifth-grade class photograph. Above the piano is a framed poem, "The Touch of the Master's Hands."

Jeralee had taken lessens on that piano, then switched to dance. She was the leader of the Underwood household, spending long hours with her younger sisters and brother. She read a lot and loved to ride her bike.

A straight-A student at Indian Hills Elementary School, Jeralee was the class vice president.

She earned extra money delivering newspapers for the Idaho State Journal - a job that took her to Elizabeth Smith's blue clapboard home at 6 p.m. on June 29, 1993. Flowers bloomed in a blue enamel bathtub on the front yard.

Auburn-haired Jeralee wore a Utah Jazz cap and shorts with a purple band around the legs. She carried a canvas Journal bag.

Smith wrote Jeralee a $9 check.

Wood, a friend of Smith's family, was a guest for supper at her home. He left moments after Jeralee, saying he wanted to buy some beer.

Two doors away, under an elm tree, he forced Jeralee into a late-model car. A witness called Jeralee's parents, who called police.

Wood drove south on Interstate 15 to Preston, 65 miles away, where he raped the girl and kept her in his car overnight. At dawn, Wood drove back through Pocatello, then drove 50 miles north to Idaho Falls.

He parked his Buick along the banks of the Snake River near a railroad trestle. There, beneath a cottonwood, he shot Jeralee in the head and covered her body with brush.

Police immediately suspected they faced the most difficult of all criminals to catch - a stranger in their midst. They encouraged the media to banner the story of Jeralee's disappearance.

"We knew from the FBI profile that these kind of persons think of their victims as toys; they don't think of them as human beings," said Scott Shaw, a police sergeant. "By showing her parents and family and her pictures, we were trying to reach him, to tell him that Jeralee was a real, live person."

The scenario of the next eight days is reminiscent of the searches here in November and December for 9-year-old Angie Housman of St. …

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