SIDNEY — One of the men accused of killing an Eastern Montana high school teacher has made a deal with prosecutors that will spare him the death penalty in exchange for his testimony against his co-defendant.
Lester Van Waters Jr. has agreed to plead guilty to deliberate homicide by accountability in the January 2012 slaying of Sidney High School math teacher Sherry Arnold, according to the plea agreement filed in state court Monday.
District Judge Richard Simonton accepted the plea agreement during a hearing Tuesday afternoon in Sidney, according to the Richland County clerk of court's office. A sentencing hearing has not yet been set.
Prosecutors have agreed to drop an attempted kidnapping charge and will recommend a sentence of 100 years in prison with 20 years suspended, instead of the death penalty.
Waters also has agreed to cooperate with the state's prosecution of co-defendant Michael Spell.
Waters and Spell are accused of abducting Arnold during her morning jog in Sidney on Jan. 7, 2012.
The men at some point either strangled her or held her face in mud or water until she died, prosecutors said.
Her body was found about two months later buried in a shallow grave in a field near Williston, N.D., about 50 miles away.
Hundreds of residents and law enforcement officials searched for her from Sidney to Williston.
The killing underscored the changes brought on by an oil boom in Montana and North Dakota as thousands of workers have descended on small towns and led to an increase in crime. Arnold's killing prompted federal prosecutors to convene a retreat last year for police, sheriffs, federal agents and other law enforcement to craft a strategy to deal with rising crime.
Waters and Spell were arrested about a week after her disappearance. Waters was 48 at the time and Spell was 22.
Spell has pleaded not guilty to the charges. His defense team has asked Simonton to rule out a potential death sentence because Spell is mentally disabled.
His attorneys also asked the judge to toss out a statement to investigators in which Spell said they were high on crack.
Spell is illiterate and his father has said he has less education than a kindergartner.
A 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling banned executions of the mentally disabled, saying it violated the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
Spell's attorneys are asking that his Jan. 6 trial be moved to Bozeman because they believe Richland County jurors would be biased because of the publicity the case has received, and they are asking prosecutors to turn over any agreements and promises they made to Waters for his testimony.