GAINESVILLE (AP) — At first, it appeared retired University of Florida professor Thomas Oakland died in a tragic house fire. Now, police think the 75-year-old man who friends say was “generous to a fault” was done in by his own kindness.
An autopsy found that Oakland, a child education expert and volunteer, was beaten to death prior to the blaze at his Gainesville home Wednesday. Authorities say the professor had given at least $37,000 to an ex-convict in recent years and “just wanted to be a good Christian and help a poor man get back on his feet.”
Late Thursday, 38-year-old Stephen Underwood was arrested on charges including murder, arson and burglary. Underwood had been released from prison Dec. 22 after serving time for fraud and trafficking in stolen property, according to state records. Police said in recent weeks he had been asking Oakland for more money, and when he didn't get it, they believe he bludgeoned Oakland to death, took cash and set fire to the home to hide the crime.
“Apparently, Underwood knew Oakland kept cash in the house,” Gainesville Police spokesman Officer Ben Tobias said.
Underwood, a day laborer who is currently unemployed, is being held without bail.
Things started to go wrong last month, police said. The professor contacted police 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 he wanted to help the man.
At the time, Oakland told officers he wasn't concerned about Underwood stalking or harassing him, police said, he just wanted him off of his property. Oakland said he'd figured out he was being taken advantage of because Underwood just kept coming back for more money, and wanted it to stop.
Court records show Underwood has a long rap sheet: In 2014, he was convicted of swindling, fraud and dealing stolen property. He's also been convicted of drug charges, forgery and grand theft.
Police said Underwood's wife, Sherry Underwood, 58, told police that her husband had a bag with a large amount of cash she believed he had taken from Oakland.
“She knew he was unemployed and had no funds of his own, and all of a sudden he had a bag of cash,” Tobias said.
Sherry told police that her husband had left home for a few hours on the day of the fire, then came back, changed clothes and said they were splitting town.
The two bought a new cellphone and rented a hotel room.
The U.S. Marshals Florida Regional Fugitive Task Force and local police in Jacksonville found Underwood, and after a chase, caught him.
Friends of Oakland praised his keen intellect, tireless work ethic and generous spirit.
He was a prominent professor of education psychology until his retirement in 2010, who'd authored or edited 12 book and hundreds of articles.
Still, friends said he was “generous to a fault” at times.
“He was always trying to help people who needed it, and without any regard for his own safety,” said Tina Smith-Bonahue, a professor of school psychology who worked with Oakland.
“He just always assumed the best of everybody and could not imagine they would wish him ill.”
Glenn Good, dean of the school's College of Education, said Oakland was an exemplary world-class scholar in the field of school psychology.
“We will continue to be inspired by his extraordinary commitment to the college and his profession, his caring and love for his family, compassion for his students and graduates, and his grace and humor.”