Oct 31, 2013 - By Eric Blom, Staff WriterThirty-three years ago, divers donned scuba gear and attached safety ropes to themselves before plunging into the "sinks" of the Popo Agie River. They searched the mysterious depths but came up with nothing in the short space before the channel narrowed too much for a human body to pass through.
When the divers resurfaced, Capt. Larry Mathews of the Fremont County Sheriff's Office could check one more lead off his list, however farfetched the idea had been.
As captain in the 1980s, Mathews led the investigation into the Sept. 12, 1980, disappearance of Virginia Uden, 32, of Riverton, and her sons Reagan, 10, and Richard, 11.
Mathews kept up the search when he served a term as sheriff from 1995-98.
"As years go by and leads get checked out, the case kind of gets colder and colder, but we'd still get comments or different recommendations," Mathews said in an interview.
One of those suggestions was that the bodies might be down in the sinks at the well-known state park where the river disappears underground before resurfacing downstream.
At other times, the sheriff's office would hear a tip to investigate a gravel pit or talk to a certain person, Mathews said. Often it was Virginia Uden's mother, Claire Martin, who would have a new idea and would push authorities to check it out.
Authorities could never find enough hard evidence to make a case.
The big break did not come until this year, when Gerald Uden, Virginia Uden's ex-husband, confessed to murdering the woman and her children. Law enforcement arrested him that same day, Sept. 27. He faces three counts of first-degree murder.
Gerald Uden had been a suspect since the beginning of the investigation. On the day the trio disappeared, the three victims were supposed to meet Gerald Uden to go dove hunting.
The man said they never arrived at his home near Pavillion.
Mathews never thought Gerald Uden was giving the whole story.
"There were lots of little red flags and inconsistencies that made us suspect he knew something more than he was telling," the former sheriff said.
The first tipoff, Mathews said, was that Uden asked his ex-wife to bring a .22-caliber rifle for the dove hunt.
"I'm a hunter," Mathews said. "I know you do not hunt doves with a rifle. Besides, it's illegal."
In his confession, Uden admitted he shot all three people with a .22-caliber rifle, according to an affidavit in his case.
Mathews said an interview with Gerald Uden only raised his suspicions further in 1980.
"When I did get him into the Sheriff's Office for a formal interview, and read him his rights, and started talking to him about, you know, we thought he knew more about it, he became very shaken," Mathews remembered. "It was even hard for him to hold onto a coffee cup with one hand. He shook so bad, he needed two hands to control it."
Gerald Uden also did not have an alibi for the afternoon when Virginia Uden and her boys disappeared, Mathews said, and the Sheriff's Office was able quickly to rule out other suspects that came up.
The former sheriff also recalled an incident seeming to implicate Gerald Uden that happened soon after the disappearances.
One night, the Riverton Police Department arrested Gerald Uden lurking around the laundromat where Claire Martin worked, Mathews said. When he was picked up, officers confiscated a homemade lead club Gerald Uden was carrying.
"With Claire being there after dark, and her pushing the case very diligently, he could have been lurking there to do her some harm," Mathews said.
Claire Martin died recently and did not live to see Uden's confession.
Another statement Gerald Uden made in an interview made Mathews suspicious.
"He had mentioned right about the time he left the interview that we had no bodies, and we had no case," Mathews said. "It was just a kind of a smart-aleck comment on his part"Ĥa defensive statement, I guess you'd call it."
Despite all of the hints, authorities for 33 years could not build a strong enough case against Uden to charge him in the disappearances.
On Friday, though, Uden is likely to prove Mathews's suspicions correct. The defendant Oct. 24 signed a plea agreement under which he would plead guilty to all three murder counts in exchange for prosecutors not seeking the death penalty.
As part of the agreement, Uden must give a factual basis for his plea, telling how he committed the crimes. He is expected to enter the guilty pleas and provide the background for them an afternoon hearing Friday.
Get your copy of The Ranger online, every day! If you are a current print subscriber and want to also access dailyranger.com online (there is nothing more to purchase) including being able to download The Mining and Energy Edition, click here. Looking to start a new online subscription to dailyranger.com (even if it is for just one day)? Access our secure SSL encrypted server and start your subscription now by clicking here.