What happened to Sherry Arnold? Authorities, court records reveal little

2012-01-18T16:45:00Z 2014-10-21T17:18:06Z What happened to Sherry Arnold? Authorities, court records reveal littleBy CHELSEA KROTZER and GREG TUTTLE Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette

Six days after two men were arrested in the disappearance of Sidney math teacher Sherry Arnold, authorities remain silent on what evidence links the men to her abduction and apparent murder.

As severe winter weather moved across Eastern Montana and into North Dakota, where authorities believe Arnold may be buried, no new information was released Wednesday about the efforts to locate her body.

A spokeswoman for the FBI, Deborah Bertram, was not available Wednesday to provide an update on the search.

Authorities in Sidney, where Arnold went missing Jan. 7, also did not return messages Wednesday.

Evidence connecting two Colorado men being held in a North Dakota jail to Arnold's disappearance has remained cloaked in secrecy.

Public court records obtained this week by The Billings Gazette shed little light on the case against Lester Vann Waters Jr., 47, and Michael Keith Spell, 22.

The two men from Parachute, Colo., have been incarcerated since Jan. 13, the day that authorities announced that a tip from the public led them to a break in the case that has drawn national and international media attention.

Waters and Spell appeared Tuesday in a Williston, N.D., courtroom. There they chose not to be brought voluntarily to Montana, where they have been charged in Sidney City Court with aggravated kidnapping. A judge set their bond at $2.5 million each, the amount requested on the Montana arrest warrants.

The first legal document filed in the case came on Jan. 17 in Sidney City Court, four days after the men's arrests. Sidney Deputy Police Chief Robert Burnison filled out citations for Waters and Spell to appear in city court on the felony charge, which carries the death penalty.

The form citations, usually used for traffic tickets or other municipal infractions, provide a location of the alleged crime - 900 E. Holly St. - and the Montana criminal code number for aggravated kidnapping. The forms do not include any information related to evidence that supports the charges, known as probable cause.

The documents order Waters and Spell to appear before Sidney City Judge Gregory Mohr on Jan. 24 at 2 p.m. That court date is likely to change.

The citations were sent to Williams County, N.D., District Court in Williston hours before the men made their first court appearance on the Montana charges.

Because the men did not waive extradition at that hearing, it could take 30 days or more before a decision is made on whether North Dakota should turn them over to Montana law enforcement. The process could take even longer if Montana authorities ask for more time.

In an unusual action, the notices to appear that were issued to Waters and Spell were replaced the same day they were filed by criminal complaints also filed in Sidney City Court. The subsequent legal documents also contain no affidavits from law enforcement supporting the criminal charges.

Once a felony criminal case reaches District Court, prosecutors are required to provide a probable cause affidavit that explains the reasons for the charges. Often, such affidavits are also filed in Justice Court when a defendant makes an initial appearance.

In this case, none of the charging documents contain any information explaining the basis for the charges.

While Montana state law allows for felony cases to originate in a city court if the crime occurred within city limits, most felony cases are filed in either Justice Court or District Court. Because these charges were filed in a city court, prosecutors are not required to provide a probable cause affidavit.

Richland County Attorney Mike Weber said Wednesday that the next step is for the criminal case to be filed in District Court.

"When we file in District Court, then there will be a lot more information," he said.

Meanwhile, it's unclear what influence federal authorities may be exerting in the case because of the FBI's involvement in the investigation and the possibility that Waters and Spell could eventually be prosecuted in federal court.

If Arnold's body is found outside Montana, the case could fall within federal jurisdiction. The FBI became involved in the search for Arnold within days of her disappearance.

At two brief press conferences, Montana and North Dakota law enforcement officials provided some information, but further questions have been referred to the FBI.

On Sunday, the FBI asked for landowners' help in locating Arnold's body in a five-county area around Williston and Sidney. It was unclear Wednesday if there were any developments in the search as a severe winter storm set in.

 

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