SIDNEY — Two men charged in the kidnapping of a high school math teacher were extradited Tuesday to Montana, where they appeared in court less than a mile from where Sherry Arnold disappeared during her morning run.
Sidney City Judge Gregory Mohr told Lester Van Waters, 47, and Michael Spell, 22, that they could face the death penalty if convicted of aggravated kidnapping. The judge set a Feb. 28 appearance in Montana district court.
Arnold’s body has not been found, and authorities have released few details about what they believe happened to her. But more than five weeks after her disappearance, Arnold’s mother said the family has been told enough by authorities that relatives no longer hold much hope she is alive.
Sharon Whited said it “would be a miracle” for her daughter to have survived.
“We’ve just come to the conclusion she’s probably not (alive),” Whited said. “Yesterday was Sherry’s birthday. That was a rough day. She would have been 44.”
Arnold was last seen leaving home for a run at about 6:30 a.m. on Jan. 7. Investigators later recovered one of her running shoes along her route. They have since asked property owners in rural parts of Eastern Montana and western North Dakota to look for signs of disturbed soil that could point to where her body is buried.
Spell and Waters are listed as residents of Parachute, Colo., although Waters spent most of his life in Florida, where he had an extensive criminal record and spent time in state prison.
Both are charged with one count of aggravated kidnapping. Judge Mohr ordered them held at the Richland County jail on $2.5 million bail each.
The defendants had been held in Williston, N.D. — about 45 miles from Sidney — since their arrest last month. They had challenged their extradition, but North Dakota District Judge David Nelson ordered their return to Montana during a brief court hearing Tuesday morning.
Waters and Spell appeared in court in shackles and black and gray prison garb. They stared at the floor and said nothing as their attorneys argued that there was insufficient cause to extradite them and authorities lacked enough information to prove their identities.
Neither Waters nor Spell claimed to be someone else. Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer had requested their extradition last week.
Nelson, who has been a North Dakota district judge for 18 years, said Tuesday’s hearings were the first contested extraditions he had handled. He normally hears two extraditions a week, he said.
Sidney residents said Tuesday that they wanted Waters and Spell returned to face prosecution in the town of about 5,000 people. Arnold grew up on a nearby ranch, taught at Sidney High School for 18 years and was well-known in the community for the patience and caring she showed her students.
“Whenever you needed help, she was there to help and she’d help you until you got it,” said Chris Knels, 18, a former student of Arnold’s. “She was really nice. Everyone liked her.”
Knels and others said the kidnapping deeply affected Sidney, which already was struggling to deal with an influx of workers lured to eastern Montana and western North Dakota by the drilling boom in the surrounding Bakken oil fields.
Residents said the changes to their community brought on by the rapid pace of energy development came into sharp focus with Arnold’s disappearance — although it remains unclear whether Waters and Spell had a connection to the oil industry.
“People are more aware of their surroundings now,” said 62-year-old Renee Gross, director of the city and county library. Gross said her three children had Arnold as a teacher.
“Safety is at the front of people’s minds now and not at the back of their minds,” she said.
Speculation about what happened to Arnold has been rampant.
But Matt Pavelich with the state public defender’s office, which has been appointed to represent Spell and Waters, said Tuesday that the defense had been given little to work with so far.
“One of the things we’re fighting is there’s far more speculation than solid information available and it creates a pretty difficult environment to work in,” Pavelich said. “We probably have less information than the folks at the coffee shop.”
Mike Weber, the Richland County prosecutor, said Tuesday he doesn’t expect charging documents in the case to be filed until later in the week. Those are expected to provide more details on what role authorities believe Spell and Waters played in Arnold’s disappearance.