News of Riverton, Lander and Fremont County, Wyoming, from the Ranger's award winning journalists.
With Uden case cracked, past sheriffs recall years of worry
Oct 6, 2013 - By Eric Blom, Staff Writer
It was a Friday night, and Fremont County Sheriff Tim McKinney was watching the Lander Valley High School football team play in an early-season game.
Football was a chance for the sheriff to get away from work. Policing a large Wyoming county is a tough job, and a particularly difficult case had arisen a few weeks earlier in September 1980 when county resident Virginia Uden and her two young sons disappeared.
But as McKinney watched his alma mater do battle on the gridiron, a local rancher told him something that transformed the missing-persons case and led to more than three decades of worry for McKinney.
Benny O'Neal approached the sheriff and told him he had seen light reflecting off something in the Wind River Mountains from his ranch house, which struck him as odd. O'Neal went up to see out what it was, and he found a vehicle.
'We were looking for bodies'
When McKinney's deputies investigated, they found a 1973 Ford Country Squire station wagon matching the description of the vehicle Virginia Uden was driving. The car was down a slope and wedged into some trees off the road above Trout Creek Canyon.
"It appeared whoever had done that had the mind to run it off the edge of the canyon," McKinney said.
The car had been covered in tree limbs and a rag and paper were stuck into the gas tank, as if someone were going to set it on fire. More significantly, blood covered the rear floorboards of the vehicle.
That blood transformed the case into a homicide investigation.
Sheriff's deputies started searching through the Trout Creek, Moccasin Lake, Mosquito Park and Dickinson Park areas.
"We were looking for bodies at that point in time," McKinney said.
Larry Mathews, then Riverton's captain for the sheriff's office and later the sheriff himself, headed up the investigation.
His suspicions quickly turned to Virginia's ex-husband, Gerald Uden, and his new wife, Alice.
"He had the opportunity and the motive, but we didn't have any hard evidence," Mathews said.
Gerald Uden had the opportunity because he created a situation where he could have been alone with his intended victims with a firearm. He invited his ex-wife and her sons to come to his house to go dove hunting Sept. 12, 1980, they day the three vanished.
Virginia Uden was staying with her mother, Claire Martin, in Riverton, and Martin told law enforcement the trio had left her house that day. Gerald Uden said they never arrived at his place east of Pavillion.
Gerald Uden had also asked his ex-wife to bring a .22-caliber rifle for the hunt. "That raised a red flag," Mathews said. "You don't hunt birds in Wyoming with a .22. That's shotgun stuff."
After Virginia Uden and the boys left Martin's house, there were no witnesses to say where they went and only Gerald Uden's word that they never arrived.
Investigators thought Gerald Uden's motive was related to child-support payments. He had adopted Virginia Uden's two sons when he was married to her.
"Virginia had just gone to her attorney (before she vanished) to get the child support payments raised, and she was planning on confronting Gerald about that," McKinney said.
Further raising suspicions, Gerald and Alice Uden's demeanor and body language indicated guilt, Mathews said.
When he interviewed Gerald Uden about the disappearances, the suspect "became so emotional his body shook," Mathews said
McKinney remembered a similar incident. A few weeks after the trio went missing, Gerald came to the sheriff.
The suspect was complaining that people were following and harassing him, even vandalizing his mailbox. He said the sheriff's office needed to protect him.
"I listened to him and then I looked at him and said, 'Gerald, you're in a lot of trouble,'" McKinney said.
"He just dropped his head and looked down and said, 'I know.'"
From an officer's perspective, the abandoned vehicle suggested Alice Uden was involved as well. The way McKinney saw it, leaving the car there was a two-person job.
"Somebody had to drive it, and somebody had to pick him up," he said.
Dickinson Park continued to be the center of the sheriff's office's search, and McKinney learned that Gerald Uden liked to go up into that area for recreation.
The sheriff also thought a person driving with bodies in a vehicle likely would not pass through populated areas for fear of someone spotting them. So McKinney thought Gerald Uden would not have traveled far between disposing of the remains and dumping the car.
Still, nothing turned up. McKinney and his office would search other areas and pursue more leads.
"We felt we exhausted everything legally we could do to solve it," McKinney said.
Authorities were never able to find the bodies, however, or collect enough evidence to arrest Gerald or Alice Uden, a fact that haunted McKinney during his remaining time in office and through and after his later years at the sheriff's office.
"It was constantly on your mind," McKinney said. "You wanted to solve this case; it just eats at you."
The former sheriff is 66 years old and mostly retired now, but he keeps busy running cattle at his family's place.
Alice and Gerald Uden, now 74 and 71, respectively, were arrested last week. Gerald Uden reportedly has confessed to police.
In a new development, Alice Uden now is accused of murdering her ex-husband in 1974 or 1975 in Laramie County. Law enforcement found the man's body in August, roughly 40 feet down an abandoned gold mine shaft on a ranch outside Cheyenne.
The Fremont County Sheriff's Office has charged Gerald Uden with three counts of first-degree murder.
"I think maybe what triggered (Gerald Uden's confession) was that they arrested his wife," McKinney said. "To do something like this and carry it, one would have to not have a conscience at all."