BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Authorities said Wednesday they believe a body found outside Williston, N.D., is that of a missing Sidney, Mont., high school math teacher who disappeared Jan. 7 during a morning run.
Sidney Assistant Police Chief Robert Burnison said the body, likely that of Sherry Arnold, is being sent to the state medical lab in Missoula for further identification.
Authorities told The Associated Press the body had been buried. The recovery effort started Tuesday in western North Dakota about 50 miles from Sidney, and the body was found early Wednesday, authorities said.
It’s still not clear what led them to that location.
The location of the body across the state line from where the alleged kidnapping occurred means there could be federal charges against the two suspects in the case, Michael Keith Spell, 22, and Lester Van Waters Jr., 47, both of Parachute, Colo.
U.S. Attorney Michael Cotter said Wednesday he could not comment on whether the case would change jurisdictions.
Arnold was a popular veteran teacher at Sidney High School, where her husband, Gary, also worked. She grew up on a ranch outside the city of 5,000 near the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers.
Her father, Ron Whited, said he met with authorities Wednesday afternoon about the possible recovery of her body. “Whatever there is to say, the law enforcement and FBI have to say it,” he said.
Sidney Mayor Brett Smelser said that if authorities confirm it’s Arnold’s body, it would provide “the closure that we needed” after the case has dragged on for more than two months.
“It’s been tough for the family and the community,” Smelser said. “Hopefully the family will have some final closure and be able to put the body to rest.”
Authorities said no further details will be released at this time.
Spell and Waters pleaded not guilty last month to one count each of aggravated kidnapping during an arraignment in state district court in Sidney.
They face a possible death penalty under Montanalaw if convicted.
Court documents filed by the prosecutor in the case indicate Spell has confessed to his role in what an affidavit described as the crack-fueled abduction and killing of Arnold. Authorities have said Spell attempted to take FBI agents to the site but he could not find it.
Arnold was grabbed from along Sidney street — apparently at random — while she was jogging near her home. Spell told investigators he pulled her into a car and Waters choked her to death by 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 stirred up plots of ground or grass that might conceal a grave. Authorities have said the alert drew multiple leads, but none panned out until this week.
Dennis Stomme, who raises crops and cattle 25 miles north of Williston, said he and his neighbors had been watching for any unusual ground disturbance.
“It’s been traumatic,” he said of Arnold’s murder. “You don’t think of that kind of thing happening around here, but it appears some people are changing their habits now.”
Williston Mayor Ward Koeser said the city had been asked by the FBI to scour the city landfill for Arnold’s body or clothing remains. City employees spent several days sifting through the landfill, costing Williston about $10,000 on overtime, but nothing was found, he said.
The alleged kidnapping of Arnold raised concerns among Sidney residents about the changes fast over-taking their community with the influx of thousands of oil field workers. Concealed weapons permit applications have been soaring and residents say the close-knit town is now more suspicious of strangers.
Still, community leaders — and Arnold’s parents — have insisted the oil industry itself is not to blame for the killing.
Spell’s father, Harry, has told the AP that his son had travelled with Waters to the booming Bakken oil fields of Montana and North Dakota after Waters guaranteed work paying up to $2,000 a week working. Harry Spell said his son was anxious to prove himself to his parents and girlfriend Angel Cruz, with whom he has a 1-year-old son.
Michael Spell had found past work in the oil fields near Parachute and on a fire damage cleanup crew but was unable to keep the jobs “because he didn’t quite understand what to do,” Harry Spell said. Harry Spell has said his son has an education less than a kindergartner.
Spell said in a court appearance that he was illiterate, and that his publicly appointed attorneys had to read him the documents in which he was charged with kidnapping.
Waters is originally from Florida, where had a lengthy criminal background and served time in state prison.
State District Judge Katherine Irigoin set separate trial dates for the two men beginning in July. The case earlier this month was transferred to Dawson County Judge Richard Simonton at Irigoin’s request.
– By MATTHEW BROWN, Associated Press
Associated Press writers Matt Volz in Pablo, Mont., and James MacPherson in Bismarck, N.D., contributed to this report.
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