APNewsBreak: Filing says MT victim choked, buried

February 17, 2012 - 11:15 PM
Missing Montana Teacher

FILE - This file photo provided by the Williams County, N.D., Sheriff's Department shows Lester Van Waters Jr., 47. Van Waters has been charged with aggravated kidnapping in the disappearance of schoolteacher Sherry Arnold. After more than a month of secrecy, prosecutors in Montana are expected to file a criminal complaint Friday Feb. 17, 2012 detailing why they believe two Colorado men, Michael Keith Spell and Van Waters, are responsible for the disappearance of Arnold. (AP Photo/Williams County, N.D., Sheriff's Department, File)

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 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 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, Spell alleges that Waters told him to "grab the lady" and pull her into their Ford Explorer as she jogged by.

"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. The pair later buried Arnold in a 2- to 3-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 Jan. 13 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 struggling to accommodate a huge influx of workers drawn to the booming Bakken oil fields.

Arnold, who would have turned 44 years old Monday, grew up on a ranch outside town and taught math for the past 18 years at Sidney High School, where she was known for being a caring and competent teacher. Her husband, Gary, still works for the school system. Together they raised five children from prior marriages.

Sidney Mayor Bret Smelser said Friday he was saddened by the new details in the case — and frustrated that he had not been able to get more money for his town to deal with the downsides of the oil boom.

"Is this what it takes?" Smelser asked. "I'm not saying if I had the resources this wouldn't have happened. But we could have more options and with money we would have had a couple more police. We just don't have the resources to take care of ourselves."

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.

The suspects most recently lived in Parachute, Colo., another area with extensive oil and gas drilling.

Waters has a lengthy criminal background in Florida, where he lived until 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 just days before Arnold disappeared, after claiming his brother had been in a car accident in Texas.