Officials announce 2 men held in death of Sidney teacher

2012-01-13T16:14:00Z 2014-10-21T17:18:05Z Officials announce 2 men held in death of Sidney teacherBy ROB ROGERS Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
January 13, 2012 4:14 pm  • 

SIDNEY -- Law enforcement officials are offering few details about the death of Sidney High School teacher Sherry Arnold, or the two men possibly involved with her disappearance.

At a press conference late Friday afternoon as snow started to fall on Sidney, Police Chief Frank DiFonzo announced that the investigation was moving rapidly and declined to give details or answer questions about the case.

A 47-year-old man was in custody Friday night in Williston, N.D., DiFonzo said. A second man, 22, was being held for questioning in Rapid City, S.D. Pennington County, S.D., Sheriff Kevin Thom said nobody with that description was in the jail there. He referred questions to the FBI.

"Dozens and dozens of tips have been called in to the tip line by residents," DiFonzo said. "Today, as a result of a tip, we're able to announce that a significant breakthrough has been made."

He would not elaborate, saying only that the 47-year-old man was taken into custody Thursday night through a joint operation staged by law enforcement officials from Williston, N.D., Williams County, N.D., the North Dakota Investigation Bureau and the FBI.

The press conference was held in the lobby of Richland County's new Law Enforcement Center. By the time it began, at least 50 people had crowded into the entryway, many of them residents curious to know the latest information in Arnold's case.

Arnold, 43, was reported missing after she didn't return from her morning jog Saturday. She left around 6:30 a.m. In the days following her disappearance, hundreds of volunteers turned out to help in the search. The only thing that investigators found was one of Arnold's running shoes, on the side of a street east of the sugar beet refinery.

Arnold's family, including her husband, Gary, asked for privacy, as word of the death was released Friday morning.

"We just want some privacy and some time to process what has happened," said Karen Arnold Truax, Gary Arnold's daughter who lives in St. Paul, Minn.

Sherry and Gary Arnold were both employees of the Sidney school system. The couple has five children combined from prior marriages, including two living at home and attending the same school system where Sherry Arnold worked for the past 18 years.

"We want to be together as a family," Truax said. "We appreciate everything that everyone did to help us in this search. We are so heartbroken that this is the outcome. We just sincerely appreciate all the love and support that continues to come from the community."

After nearly a week of worry, Sidney Mayor Bret Smelser said Friday that he was somewhat relieved at the news.

"We're getting some closure," he said. "That's the only good news we've had in the past three or four days. It's always difficult when something like this happens on your watch."

Smelser said he knows Arnold and her parents well. They all attend Trinity Lutheran Church in Sidney.

Smelser said that in the coming weeks and months, the community will have to discuss how to move forward. Some are calling for increased law enforcement, which is difficult given the city's budget constraints, he said. Another option might be re-instituting the community watch program that has fallen by the wayside.

Some people are rushing to get handguns, Smelser said.

"My job right now is to make sure the community stays whole and that means assimilating our new neighbors coming to town," he said, referring to the influx of workers moving to the area to work in the Bakken oil field. "Let's not overreact."

The mayor said one of the "greatest" things to surface out of the tragedy is that all of Eastern Montana and western North Dakota was concerned and out looking for Arnold.

Arnold's death comes at the end of two gut-wrenching weeks, said Wade VanEvery, executive director of the Sidney Area Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture.

"We're overwhelmed in Sidney right now because we've had a lot of tragedy," VanEvery said. "This one is especially close to us because everyone knew Sherry. It's not the kind of thing we ever imagined would happen in Sidney."

In November, 3-year-old Austin Meyer was killed when he walked behind a neighbor's pickup at the Hilltop Estates trailer court and was struck. Also in November, James Dean Morrow, 46, and Cheryl L. Johnston, 53, died after their vehicle collided with a train north of Sidney and became wedged underneath it.

On Dec. 27, Iwona Patnaude, the chamber's administrative assistant lost her husband, Jason, and 11-year-old daughter in a fatal car accident.

"That rocked the whole community," VanEvery said.

On New Year's Eve, 46-year-old Sidney firefighter Ray Verhasselt was killed in an avalanche while snowmobiling north of Cooke City.

And, on Tuesday, a stove fire at the Triangle Nite Club destroyed the building. A woman inside the building was able to escape without injury.

"I know nothing of the particulars about Sherry's death, but I do know that in this day and age, those things can happen," VanEvery said. "All communities in time will have tragedies like this."

Law enforcement officials confirmed with the Sidney School District on Friday morning that the missing high school math teacher was dead and that a suspect was in custody.

The notification came to the school at 9:30 a.m., following notification of Arnold's family, Superintendent Daniel Farr said.

"It's very sobering," he said.

The school shortened its school day and canceled its Friday athletic games. Boys basketball games against teams from Billings Central High are scheduled to be played Saturday afternoon.

"It's sad for the whole community. We are not used to this stuff happening in Sidney. It's sad, but it's shocking. It's just downright shocking," said Kim Kain, 37, assistant manager at Millers' Corner, a gas and convenience store in Sidney.

Kain's son, Kody, 16, had Sherry Arnold for a teacher.

Arnold's death has taken a toll on the student body, though many don't say much.

"You know how kids are," Kain said. "They're sad, too."

Kain said the incident has put the entire community on edge, especially women. Many are buying Mace, halting their solo activities outdoors and breaking out of their routine schedules, she said.

"Women are just more being much more cautious," Kain said.

FBI and local law enforcement officials said earlier in the week that they were investigating the possibility that Arnold was abducted from the town near the North Dakota border, which has been changing rapidly in recent years due to an oil boom.

The FBI set up an automated tip line Tuesday and received several tips.

Hundreds of residents, police, firefighters and others were organized to comb the town and surrounding countryside. Law enforcement officials also went door-to-door seeking information.

Reporter Cindy Uken contributed to this report.

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