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Stephen J. Lee, Forum Communications Co., Published January 18 2012

Missing teacher probably alive when kidnapped, Sidney prosecutor says

GRAND FORKS – Criminal complaints against two suspects held in the disappearance of Sherry Arnold in Sidney, Mont., suggest that she was alive when kidnapped.

Lester Vann Waters Jr., 47, and Michael Keith Spell, 22, “restrained Sherry Arnold by either secreting or holding her in a place of isolation or by using or threatening to use physical force, with the purpose to inflict bodily injury or to terrorize her,” said the complaint filed by Sidney City Judge Gregory Mohr after the men were arrested in Williston, N.D.

He formally charged them Tuesday with aggravated kidnapping, which carries a maximum penalty of death under state law, accusing them of taking Arnold from a Sidney street minutes after the high-school math teacher left home at 6:30 a.m. Jan. 7.

One of her running shoes was found several hours later, and search parties have been unsuccessful. The FBI, the lead investigating agency in the case, believes she is dead, according to spokesperson Deborah Bertram.

Some have wondered if Arnold could have been hit by a vehicle during her pre-dawn run, but that’s not what authorities think.

Under Montana law, the charge of aggravated kidnapping implies the victim was alive when kidnapped, said Mike Weber, Richland County attorney in Sidney told the Herald.

Waters and Spell are being held in Williston not far from Sidney, which lies just across the state border. They were arrested last week, when Spell was in Rapid City, S.D., and Waters was in Williston.

Extradition fought

Weber said he expects a hearing within 30 days to extradite the two men. Though he expects cooperation from Williams County State’s Attorney Marlyce Wilder, who is in charge of the extradition, he said that if there were a delay he could ask Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer to intervene.

On Tuesday, Waters and Spell appeared in a Williston court, indicating they would fight extradition to Montana. They both have qualified for court-appointed public defenders, based on their attestation they have virtually no assets, a court official in Williston said.

Both men have criminal records, including drug offenses, Waters in Florida and Spell in Colorado.

A Montana television station quoted a Colorado television interview with Spell’s “estranged brother,” who said Spell, after his arrest, told the brother that he came to the Williston Basin with Waters looking for work.

Spell said Waters threatened to harm Spell’s young child and other family members if Spell didn’t do as Waters ordered, according to the report.

Weber said he could not comment on details of the men’s arrest – including why Spell was brought to Williston from Rapid City rather than to Sidney – because it involved the FBI’s ongoing investigation.

Could be federal case

No North Dakota charges have been filed against the two men, save for the extradition cases, said Williston Police Detective David Peterson, who directed all questions about the investigation to the FBI.

There still is no word about where Arnold’s body was taken, except that investigators figure it was buried at a remote rural site. The FBI has asked landowners in Williams, McKenzie, Mountrail and southern Divide counties in North Dakota – all surrounding Williston – and in northeast Montana.

If Arnold’s body is found in North Dakota, indicating an inter-state aspect to the kidnapping, federal charges of kidnapping likely would be filed, Weber said. “The similarities to the Dru Sjodin case have not been lost on me.”

Sjodin, a UND student, was kidnapped by Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. in Grand Forks in 2003 and killed. He was charged with kidnapping in state district court in Grand Forks until her body was found in Minnesota, near Rodriguez’ Crookston home five months later. Then federal charges were filed. He was convicted in 2006 and sentenced to death in early 2007.

Serious violent crime is not common in the rural county dominated by farming, ranching and, especially in the past four years, oil and gas production.

The last “deliberate homicide,” in Richland County was in 1990, Weber said. “We have had some negligent homicides since then,” he said.

Stephen J. Lee writes for the Grand Forks Herald.