Sherry Arnold kidnapping suspects plead not guilty

2012-02-28T15:10:00Z 2014-08-25T14:46:49Z Sherry Arnold kidnapping suspects plead not guiltyBy GREG TUTTLE gtuttle@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette
February 28, 2012 3:10 pm  • 

SIDNEY -- Two Colorado men accused of abducting popular Sidney High School teacher Sherry Arnold in January made their first court appearance in Richland County District Court on Tuesday, where they denied felony charges of aggravated kidnapping.

Appearing separately with court-appointed public defenders, Lester Van Waters Jr., 47, and Michael Keith Spell, 22, each pleaded not guilty at arraignment before Judge Katherine Irigoin.

Spell appeared first with public defender Randi Hood, who told the judge she would not ask to reduce the current bond, set at $2.5 million.

Hood also told the judge she had read the charging documents to her client after Spell said he cannot read.

Waters then also pleaded not guilty to the felony charge, which carries a possible death sentence. Waters was represented at the arraignment by public defender Cynthia Thornton.

Thornton did not request lower bond for Waters, who also is being held on a $2.5 million bond set in an arrest warrant issued for both men in January. 

Irigoin told Waters that Richland County Attorney Mike Weber had filed a notice to have Waters designated a persistent felony offender, which carries a possible sentence enhancement of five to 100 years in prison. The judge said the notice was based on two prior felony convictions on Waters' criminal record in Florida. Those offenses were leaving the scene of an accident and a third or subsequent conviction for driving without a valid license.

Irigoin set tentative trial dates for both men. Spell's trial was set for the week of July 16. Waters' trial was set for July 30 through Aug. 3. 

The arraignments took about 20 minutes, after which both men were returned to the Richland County Jail.

Arnold, 43, disappeared Jan. 7 while on an early morning run in Sidney. A search has failed to find the high school math teacher, who remains missing and is presumed dead.

Waters was arrested in Williston, N.D., on Jan. 13. Spell was arrested at about the same time in South Dakota. Authorities allege that Spell confessed to grabbing Arnold as she was jogging. He claimed that Waters strangled the woman as he drove out of Sidney toward Williston.

Spell allegedly told authorities that the men buried the woman's body in a remote area outside Williston. 

The two men had left Colorado two days before the abduction in search of work in the North Dakota oilfields.

After their arrests, Waters and Spell fought extradition to Montana. On Feb. 14, a judge in Williston ordered them returned to Sidney to face the kidnapping charges.

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