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Police: Retired UF professor had given ex-con $37,000 before killing

Stephen Underwood Jr., 37, has been charged with murder, arson, burglary and grand theft.
Stephen Underwood Jr., 37, has been charged with murder, arson, burglary and grand theft.
Published Mar. 7, 2015

GAINESVILLE — A retired University of Florida professor was killed by an ex-convict to whom he'd given $37,000 in recent years in what authorities described as a "good Samaritan" relationship, police said.

At first, authorities believed that the professor, Thomas Oakland, 75, had died in a house fire Wednesday. But an autopsy found that he'd been fatally struck in the head and body and was likely already dead when fire consumed his Gainesville home.

Police opened a homicide investigation and began searching for a man whom the professor had been helping financially for the past few years.

Late Thursday, the U.S. Marshals Florida Regional Fugitive Task Force apprehended 37-year-old Stephen Underwood Jr. in Jacksonville. Underwood had been released from prison Dec. 22 after convictions for fraud and trafficking in stolen property, according to state records.

For years before his death, Oakland had been a "good Samaritan" who was trying to help Underwood out, police said. Over the year before Underwood went to prison, investigators believe Oakland gave him more than $37,000 in cash, Gainesville police spokesman Officer Ben Tobias said.

"Apparently, Underwood knew Oakland kept cash in the house," Tobias said.

When Underwood got out of prison, the relationship became a problem for Oakland, police said.

The professor contacted police last month to file reports that he'd been defrauded by Underwood. Oakland told officers at the time that he knew Underwood had taken advantage of him, but wanted to help.

Oakland said he "just wanted to be a good Christian and help a poor man get back on his feet," according to police documents.

It wasn't immediately clear how Oakland said he had been defrauded.

Underwood, a day laborer, is being held without bail on charges of murder, arson, burglary and grand theft.

Oakland was a prominent professor of education until his retirement in 2010, and a former Fulbright Scholar, according to the university. He'd also authored or edited 12 book and hundreds of articles.