Nov 4, 2013 - By Eric Blom, Staff WriterBodies at bottom of lake; murders 'over in 10 seconds'; ex-husband's life sentence ends 33-year mystery
Gerald Uden was sentenced to life in prison after he pleaded guilty Friday to murdering his ex-wife and their two children Sept. 12, 1980.
Uden told the court he shot all three in the back of their heads, first hid their bodies in an old mine shaft, and eventually sank their bodies more than 450 feet at the bottom of Fremont Lake in neighboring Sublette County.
The guilty pleas and life sentence followed a plea agreement that Uden, 71, signed with prosecutors Oct. 24.
In one of the most-notorious crimes in Fremont County history, Uden's victims were Virginia Uden, 32, of Riverton and her sons, Reagan, 10, and Richard, 11, who vanished Sept. 12, 1980. Gerald Uden was their adoptive father.
Their disappearances sparked a decades-long investigation that for years was considered "cold." Uden's arrest Sept. 27 indicated the case finally might see closure, and his guilty pleas ensured it did.
Uden had to describe his crimes before the judge, Norman E. Young of the District Court for Fremont County, could accept his pleas.
In a chillingly clear and confident voice in a packed Lander courtroom, the defendant gave his statement. For the first time, Uden would describe why he murdered his victims, how he did so, and where he hid the bodies.
Behind him at least 50 people filled the gallery, eager to see Uden answer for his crimes and to have all their decades-old questions answered. Among them were investigators from the Fremont County Sheriff's Office who had worked the case for years, along with several friends of the victims.
Showing he understood his audience, in one of his first statements Uden told the court where the bodies are.
He paused, and the court was silent.
"Virginia is buried at the bottom of Fremont Lake," he said. "I could not go to the lake and say where, but that's where they are."
Young asked if all three bodies were in the lake.
Uden said they were.
Young paused, appeared to consider what he had just heard, and asked if Uden meant the Fremont Lake in Sublette County.
He did, Uden said.
"The Fremont Lake near Pinedale."
For years, investigators had suspected Uden of the murders, but they never could find enough evidence to bring a case against him. They scoured the Dickinson Park area near where Virginia's vehicle was found and searched caves and mine shafts across Fremont County for the remains or any other clues.
The resting place of the victims revealed, Young asked Uden to tell what happened, and Uden launched into his story.
Uden said he agreed to meet Virginia and the children on Sept. 12, 1980.
She met him at the corner of a road near his home east of Pavillion. Virginia brought along a .22-caliber rifle, though Uden denied asking her to bring it, contrary to what has been reported for many years.
They drove five or six miles north on a road, the name of which Uden could not remember, in a 1973 Ford Country Squire station wagon. Near where a canal comes close to the road, all four got out of the car.
"The boys wanted to shoot the rifle," Uden said. "I said I wanted to test it. I tested it; it worked just fine."
As he fire the test shots, Virginia was to his left and the boys were on his right.
"When she wasn't looking, I walked up behind her and shot her in the back of the head," Uden said.
He pivoted to the right and took aim at Richard, who was standing behind the tailgate of the station wagon. Uden shot his elder son behind the ear.
"Reagan saw what was happening. He ran, tripped, and fell in the ditch," Uden said. "When he did, I walked up and shot him behind the ear."
It was all over "in about 10 seconds," the defendant said.
First the mine
He loaded the three bodies in the station wagon and drove them back to his 20-acre farm near Pavillion.
He moved them to his pickup truck, then drove the bodies to an old gold mine in Lewiston, a tiny ghost town 12 miles east of Atlantic City about 75 miles from the murder scene.
The three bodies stayed in the mine shaft for eight weeks.
"At last I decided that was not a proper place for them," Uden said.
Then the lake
On Nov. 5, 1980, he brought his 16-foot Starcraft boat to work with him at the U.S. Steel iron ore mine near Atlantic City. After his shift, he went back to the abandoned gold mine.
Uden put Virginia's body in a 55-gallon steel drum and sealed it tight. He put both the boys' bodies in a 30-gallon drum and sealed it as well.
With the barrels loaded up, he drove more than 100 miles north and west to launch his boat in Fremont Lake, four miles north of Pinedale.
In the dark, Uden steered as near to the center of the lake as he could make out.
With a weighted line, he sounded the depths and stopped when his 450-foot rope could no longer hit the bottom.
"That's where they went over the side," he said.
The drums' weight was enough to sink the bodies rapidly, Uden said. He had drilled holes in them so no air was in the containers to buoy them and they could fill with water.
The defendant decided to kill all three some days before he went through with it.
Son Richard had gone into the old Bishop Randall Hospital in Lander with an abscess, and Gerald Uden went to visit. Virginia needed to borrow a trailer to move some belongings from New Jersey, where she had been living, and she asked Gerald Uden for help finding one to borrow.
"I told her 'yes,'" Uden said. "At that point, that's when I decided (to kill them)."
Murderous thoughts had been brewing for some time.
'Looking for a husband'
Virginia and Gerald Uden married in 1974, but Gerald Uden came to believe her feelings were insincere.
Her ex-husband, from her marriage before Uden, was not paying child support, and she wanted to get away from the man, Uden said.
"She came to me in false pretenses," Uden said. "She came to me looking for a husband, and through circumstances, I fell in love with this woman, and we married."
Virginia then asked Gerald to adopt her children. He did, but six weeks later, she filed for divorce, Uden said.
After Uden married again, to his current wife, Alice --who now is in custody elsewhere in Wyoming, charged with killing her first husband (see timeline) --they had problems with Virginia, Uden said. She did abide by terms of the divorce and let him visit his adopted children.
Some investigators thought trouble with child support was his motive, but Uden said paying child support was not a problem for him.
Uden thought his ex-wife's actions had a larger aim but did not give many details.
"Virginia did her very best to split Alice and me apart," he said. "She used the boys to do that."
Though he felt driven to commit the murders, Uden said he does not believe his actions were justified.
"I finally would up having to make a choice, because Alice was giving me a hard time about it," Uden said. "I decided I loved Alice, and Virginia was intolerable, (but) I do not wish to make that an excuse."
He could not figure out a way to make Virginia's death seem like an accident or to kill her without the boys finding out.
"I knew if I killed one, I'd have to kill all of them," he said.
Both sides agree
After Uden's statement, attorneys for both sides asked for a sentence for life in prison.
Uden also had a chance to speak and took responsibility for his crimes.
"Once upon a time I was in the Navy," Uden said. "In the Navy there were three responses -- 'yes, sir,' 'no, sir' and 'no excuse, sir.' I will accept the third response. There is no excuse."
"I agree," replied Young.
Life behind bars
With the death penalty off the table under Uden's plea agreement, it was time for the sentence.
The judge had to consider probation, he said.
"But it is as obvious as it ever will be that's not appropriate," Young said.
He sentenced Uden to life in prison.
Earlier, the judge explained that the sentence followed the statutes for murder as they existed in 1980.
The law then did not include life with the possibility of parole or without it.
As such, before Uden could be paroled, the governor would have to commute his sentence to a term of years. Then he could enter the parole system.
There was no indication that would happen.
Young also imposed several, small obligatory fines and, in line with the prosecutor's request, decided against restitution.
The judge, who often comments on a case or speaks directly to the defendant after sentencing, had nothing more to say.
Young simply announced the court was in recess. With the bang of a gavel, the case that haunted Fremont County for 33 years was closed.
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