Crime

Veteran SBI agent set to retire from his dream job

Tony Underwood has served as the special agent in charge of the nine-county SBI office that covers the Charlotte region. He’s retiring on August 31. “(Underwood) has built a reputation for being a straight shooter,” Mecklenburg County District Attorney Andrew Murray says. “… Because of that, he’s able to navigate land mines and build trust.”
Tony Underwood has served as the special agent in charge of the nine-county SBI office that covers the Charlotte region. He’s retiring on August 31. “(Underwood) has built a reputation for being a straight shooter,” Mecklenburg County District Attorney Andrew Murray says. “… Because of that, he’s able to navigate land mines and build trust.” jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

When State Bureau of Investigation agent Tony Underwood investigated Monroe police Officer Josh Griffin, who was suspected of killing a young waitress in 1997, some local officers thought he was on the wrong trail.

Bill Tucker, then a detective for the Union County Sheriff’s office, recalled talking to one officer who was convinced that Griffin could never have done such a thing.

“I said, ‘Let me stop you right there. If Tony Underwood believes he did it … not only did he do it, but somebody’s going to jail,’” said Tucker, now a retired captain.

Tucker was right. Today, Griffin is at Pamlico Correctional Institution, near the coast, serving a life sentence for Kim Medlin’s murder.

Underwood, whose investigative work has led to the convictions of dozens of murderers, will soon be taking a new path. He’s retiring on Monday, after 26 years with the SBI.

For more than six years, Underwood has led the nine-county SBI field office that covers the greater Charlotte region. It’s one of the busiest of the SBI’s eight field offices. The SBI investigates public corruption, shootings involving police officers and many serious cases with which local law enforcement agencies request assistance.

Underwood, 49, is looking forward to new adventures, but he knows he’ll miss the rewards of investigating violent crimes.

“You’re dealing with people in probably the lowest part of their life,” he said, speaking of the victims and family members he works with. “Hopefully, in weeks, months or even years, you’re able to provide some sense of hope and closure to help them rebuild their life.”

The whole thing was like a television show in real life.

Tony Underwood, the Charlotte region’s retiring SBI supervisor, speaking about what drew him to the bureau

Underwood grew up in Albemarle, where his father ran a service station that was a popular gathering spot for police officers. Working there as a teenager, Underwood became fascinated with what those officers did for a living.

When Underwood was a junior at Lenoir-Rhyne University, his dad introduced him to Bart Burpeau, the SBI agent who served Stanly County.

The job wasn’t easy, Burpeau explained. The hours were unpredictable, the pay was limited, and the work often kept agents away from home for long periods. But the career also offered endless variety, Burpeau said, and “there was never a dull day.”

“I just thought: ‘I want this job,’” Underwood remembers. “The whole thing was like a television show in real life.”

After attending a 20-week training academy, Underwood joined the SBI on Aug. 1, 1989. Soon he was investigating drug cases in Robeson County.

“Working undercover, there was a time or two when you were pressured to sample drugs and you had to avoid doing it at all costs,” Underwood said. “Things like that can get a little dicey.”

‘The smell of death’

He later made his mark by investigating some of the state’s highest-profile homicides. Among them:

▪ The 1993 slaying of James Jordan, the father of NBA star Michael Jordan. Weeks after Jordan’s shooting death in Lumberton, Underwood helped find the men who did it – Daniel Andre Green and Larry Martin Demery, who were later convicted of shooting James Jordan to death and stealing his red Lexus.

Underwood and other officers were able to break the case by interviewing people who were called from James Jordan’s cellphone around the time of his disappearance. Those people had a common bond: Green and Demery, who made calls from Jordan’s cellphone after killing him.

▪ The case of serial killer Scott Wilson Williams, who received a life sentence for shooting and dismembering three Charlotte-area women between 1997 and 2006. Officers began to target Williams after he failed a polygraph test during an investigation into an unrelated crime.

▪ The July 2000 murder of 12-year-old Billy Huddleston, whose body was found in a Union County cornfield. Underwood’s investigative work helped lead to a life sentence for Bobby Richard Taylor Jr., the Virginia fugitive who pleaded guilty to killing the boy.

Taylor, a neighbor and acquaintance of Huddleston’s, initially told police that on the night he disappeared, the boy asked him if he could leave his bike at his home before getting into a red sports car with two men.

Four days after the boy’s body was discovered, Underwood acted on a hunch. He drove to Taylor’s home and asked to have a look inside.

“Once I stepped into the house, I was overwhelmed with the smell of decomposition,” Underwood said. “… It was the smell of death.”

Underwood also made another key observation inside Taylor’s home: He saw a brown carpet, the same shade as carpet fibers that had been found on the sole of Huddleston’s shoe.

Underwood, who earned an annual salary of $84,000, has completed the 30 years of service required of state employees before they can retire.

He expects to continue teaching law enforcement classes at Stanly Community College, as he has done for the past 18 years. He’s also exploring the possibility of writing a book about some of the cases he’s investigated.

“I’m open for whatever may surface,” he said.

‘Good-hearted soul’

Mecklenburg County District Attorney Andrew Murray called Underwood “a consummate professional,” and said his exceptional people skills helped him handle sensitive cases.

He recalled how Underwood investigated a fatal shooting by Charlotte-Mecklenburg police, after an undercover drug operation in the Hidden Valley neighborhood turned violent. He was able to do a thorough investigation without antagonizing police, Murray said.

“He has built a reputation for being a straight shooter,” Murray said. “… Because of that, he’s able to navigate land mines and build trust.”

There, but for the grace of God, I go. If you believe that, as Tony does, it shows.

Bill Tucker, a retired captain for the Union County Sheriff’s Office who worked closely with Underwood on many cases

In a profession known for its hard-boiled personalities, co-workers say Underwood distinguished himself with a surprising trait: compassion.

He always showed respect and empathy for others, even suspects in the most brutal homicides, said Tucker, the retired Union County captain. When Underwood interviewed suspects, he usually asked about their children, their parents and their spouses. His concern was genuine, Tucker said, and it helped him excel at his job.

“Tony’s a good-hearted soul,” Tucker said.

Tucker recalled a lengthy interview in the 1990s, in which he and Underwood got a confession from a career criminal who was suspected of killing another man with a shotgun in Union County.

“He thanked us for not dogging him out and for treating him like a human being – not like other officers had treated him,” Tucker said.

Underwood was always fair, Tucker said, but not easily fooled.

“If I was wrongly accused of a crime, I’d hope Tony Underwood would be the person who’d investigate,” Tucker said. “That said, if I was guilty, Tony would be the last person in the state I’d want to investigate.”

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