APNewsBreak: Filing Says MT Victim Choked, Buried

Published February 18, 2012 2:36AM (EST)

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — An affidavit filed in the kidnapping of a Montana school teacher describes a crack-fueled, seemingly random abduction of 43-year-old Sherry Arnold, who was allegedly choked to death and then buried in a shallow grave on a North Dakota farmstead.

The affidavit filed Friday by Richland County prosecutor Mike Weber offers the first details of what authorities believe happened to Arnold after she went missing during a morning run on Jan. 7. It is based largely on the alleged confession of Michael Spell, a suspect in the case who told FBI investigators that he felt guilty when he saw "missing" posters for Arnold after helping bury her body on a farmstead outside of Williston, N.D., about 45 miles from where she was abducted.

Spell, 22, and Lester Waters, 47, both of Colorado, are scheduled to appear in Montana district court Feb. 28 on charges of aggravated kidnapping. They are being held on $2.5 million bail each.

The alleged kidnapping took place just blocks from Arnold's house in Sidney, at a spot where investigators later recovered one of her running shoes. Her body has not been found.

Authorities arrested the Spell and Waters a week after the crime based on a tip that led them to Spell's girlfriend, who said he had confided in her about the kidnapping, according to the affidavit.

Spell and Waters had left Colorado just days before Arnold disappeared, with the purported aim of picking up work in the bustling oil fields of eastern Montana and western North Dakota.

After smoking crack cocaine "during the entire trip," Waters allegedly told Spell that the drug "brought the devil out in him" and began talking about kidnapping and killing a female, the affidavit states.

After they spotted Arnold jogging along a roadway, Spell alleges that Waters told him to pull her into their Ford Explorer.

"Spell said Waters got into the back seat with the female and 'choked her out,'" the affidavit states. That night, after dropping Arnold's body in a rural area of North Dakota, the affidavit says, Waters bought a shovel at a Walmart in Williston and the pair later buried her in a two- to three-feet deep hole on an old farmstead.

Waters returned the shovel to Walmart three days later, the affidavit says.

When he was arrested a week later in Williston, Waters was carrying a receipt that showed he had purchased bread, bologna and a shovel the same night Arnold went missing, according to the affidavit.

Spell was arrested the same day in Rapid City, S.D.. He told investigators he had hitchhiked to the town after becoming afraid Waters would kill him.

Property owners in parts of rural eastern Montana and western North Dakota have been asked to look for disturbed soil or other indications of a makeshift gravesite in agricultural areas.

Williams County, N.D. Sheriff Scott Busching said Friday that multiple leads have come in as a result of that request, but so far none have panned out.

"We've checked a lot of spots but we haven't found anything yet," Busching said.

The kidnapping case has roiled Arnold's hometown of Sidney, an agricultural community of about 5,000 people that has been struggling to accommodate a huge influx of workers drawn to the booming Bakken oil fields.

Arnold grew up on a ranch outside town and taught math for the past 18 years at Sidney High School, where Arnold was known for being a caring and competent teacher. Her husband, Gary, still works at the school. Both had prior marriages, and together raised five children.

The FBI has been heavily involved in the investigation but no federal charges have been filed. For that to happen, authorities would have to prove Spell and Waters crossed state lines during the alleged crime — a difficult task given that Arnold's body has not been found.

Aggravated kidnapping carries a potential death penalty in Montana unless the victim is released unharmed. The minimum sentence is two years in prison and a fine of up to $50,000.

Spell and Waters are being represented by court-appointed public defenders. Telephone messages left Friday for the attorney who heads up the local division of the public defender's office in Glendive were not returned.

They most recently lived in Parachute, Colo. Like the Parachute area, the landscape around Sidney has seen extensive oil and gas drilling in recent years, drawing thousands of workers to eastern Montana and western North Dakota.

Waters has a lengthy criminal background in Florida, where he lived before leaving sometime after his most recent release from prison in August 2010.

Beginning in the late 1980s, he had several stints in jail in Indian River County, Fla., and served three state prison sentences between 2002 and 2010. Charges against him included possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, sale of cocaine, petty theft, burglary, failure to pay child support, contempt of court, resisting an officer and multiple counts of driving with a suspended license.

Spell has prior arrests in Colorado on charges of drug possession, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, sexual contact without consent, careless driving and driving without a license. Charges filed against Spell in a pair of 2007 arrests were later dropped, although it was unclear on what grounds.

The most recent charges came in 2009 after Colorado authorities said Spell asked a middle-school student to text other students and ask them if they wanted to buy marijuana.

He was scheduled to be arraigned in that case in January. But Spell was given permission by a judge to leave Colorado two days before Arnold disappeared, after claiming his brother had been in a car accident in Texas

By Salon Staff

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