Remains found near Williston, N.D., on Tuesday are those of missing Sidney math teacher Sherry Arnold, FBI spokeswoman Debbie Bertram said.
The medical examiner’s office at the Montana State Crime Lab in Missoula confirmed the finding Thursday. An autopsy is planned.
“The human remains recovered outside of Williston, North Dakota, by the FBI Evidence Response Team have been positively identified,” Bertram said.
Arnold, 43, was grabbed off a Sidney street while jogging on Jan. 7.
Arnold’s sister, Rhonda Whited-Rupp, said the family was being comforted and supported by friends and others in Sidney who were affected by the loss of a popular teacher and well-known member of the community.
“That’s the only thing that gets anybody through. We’re all in this together,” Whited-Rupp said. “We just kind of hang on to one another and keep praying.”
Michael Keith Spell, 22, and Lester Van Waters Jr., 48, both of Parachute, Colo., have been charged in state court in connection to Arnold’s disappearance and are being held in Sidney’s jail on $2.5 million bail each. They have pleaded not guilty to aggravated kidnapping in the case and await trial.
The FBI declined to disclose details on where the body was found or what led them to the site.
Authorities previously said that Spell tried to lead FBI agents to the site in past weeks but failed.
The discovery of the remains across the North Dakota state line from the scene of the kidnapping means federal charges could be filed against Spell and Waters.
The disappearance of Arnold launched a massive search that turned up only a single running shoe that she had been wearing the morning she was last seen. Family members and those who knew her have been anxious for her body to be found.
Arnold grew up on a ranch outside Sidney, a city of 5,000 near the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers.
She was well-known in the community and popular among her students and their parents. Arnold was married to a fellow Sidney Public Schools employee, Gary Arnold, and together they raised five children from previous marriages. Arnold’s son and daughter are students at Sidney High School.
The Montana kidnapping charges against Spell and Waters can carry the death penalty if a victim is not released unharmed. A similar federal charge could also carry a death penalty upon conviction.
Court documents filed by the prosecutor in the case indicate that Spell acknowledged his role in what an affidavit described as the crack-fueled abduction and killing of Arnold.
Spell told investigators he pulled her into a car and Waters choked her to death before they buried her in a shallow grave on a farmstead near Williston.
Farmers and other property owners were alerted by the FBI to be on the lookout for disturbed plots of ground or grass that might indicate a burial.
Sidney Mayor Bret Smelser said Thursday that the identification will bring some closure to the community and the Arnold family.
“It didn’t end the way we wanted, but I think we all knew what to expect,” he said.
While the healing continues, Sidney needs to work on the perception that the Eastern Montana community isn’t a safe place to live, he said.
“We need to address this conception that this is the wild West,” Smelser said. “It’s not. We’re doing everything in our power to keep the community safe.”
He said the crime rate in Sidney still remains below that in Billings or Fargo.
Thousands of people have poured into Eastern Montana and western North Dakota as the Bakken oil fields have been developed over the last few years. The two men charged with kidnapping Arnold had come to the area purportedly looking for work in the oil fields.
“We’re never going to be back to what it was,” Smelser said. “But sometime down the road, we’ll be better than what we were.”