Arnold suspects charged with murder, to face death penalty

2012-04-27T14:58:00Z 2014-08-25T10:47:50Z Arnold suspects charged with murder, to face death penaltyBy GREG TUTTLE The Billings Gazette

Two men accused of abducting and killing Sidney school teacher Sherry Arnold have been charged with murder, and prosecutors filed a court notice indicating their intent to seek the death penalty against both men.

The amended charges and death penalty notice were filed Friday in Richland County District Court against Michael Keith Spell and Lester Van Waters Jr., who are accused of abducting and killing the 43-year-old Arnold during her morning jog on Jan. 7.

Spell, 22, and Waters, 48, both of Parachute, Colo., were previously charged with aggravated kidnapping in the case. Arnold's body was discovered buried in a remote area outside Williston, N.D., in March. Authorities have said the men left Colorado to find work in the Bakken oil fields.

Spell was arrested in South Dakota a few days after Arnold was reported missing and after he allegedly confessed to the crime. Waters was arrested next in Williston, and both men were jailed there until they were returned to Montana on the aggravated kidnapping charge.

On March 20 authorities announced that a body believed to be Arnold had been found outside Williston. The Montana State Crime Lab confirmed her identity the next day.

The case gained media attention as the influx of workers in the booming oil fields of Montana and North Dakota has changed the landscape of mostly rural communities, stretching the limits of housing and law enforcement.

The amended charging documents filed against Spell and Waters also include new information, including how Arnold may have been killed and how authorities discovered her body after a six-week search.

Waters and Spell are now charged with deliberate homicide and attempted kidnapping. Separate trial dates have been previously set for both men in July, but it is unlikely the cases will go to trial on those dates with the new charges.

In previous court records, authorities allege that Spell confessed to grabbing Arnold as she was jogging, dragging her back to the vehicle where, he said, Waters choked the woman to death.

In the new court records, a man named Michael Pruit told authorities Spell told him a different version of the abduction and murder. Pruit was incarcerated with Spell while both were receiving medical care at the Williams County jail in Williston, court records state.

Pruit stated Spell told him that Waters "was the instigator" in the kidnapping and told him what to do because the men were "high on drugs and Waters wanted to have sex."

Spell told Pruit that Arnold jogged past him and said, "Hi." 

"Spell said he turned around and speared Sherry in the back of the head and knocked her down," court records state.

"Spell said he choked her out ... pushed Sherry's face into some water and drowned her to make sure she was dead. Spell said he picked Sherry up and carried her to the vehicle."

On March 19, Waters led FBI agents to where Sherry's body was located, the new court documents state.

After leading agents out of Williston, Waters directed the agents on to Highway 1804 "until he recognized the area where Sherry Arnold was buried."

Waters said the burial site was in a shelter belt, and eventually led agents to where her body was buried.

"Waters recognized the burial site and pointed out where the dirt from the hole was deposited," court records state. "A broken branch was resting over the hole."

Waters said Arnold had been buried on her side in the fetal position and showed the agents where they had parked the vehicle. Waters became emotional at the site, court records state.

"I didn't kill that lady," he told the agents, according to court records.

Arnold had taught math for 18 years, most of that time at Sidney High School. She was buried at Sidney Cemetery on March 30 after a funeral at a crowded high school gymnasium attended by her family and hundreds of students, colleagues and other of members of the community.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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