BILLINGS - An affidavit filed Friday in the kidnapping of a Montana schoolteacher describes a crack-fueled, seemingly random abduction of 43-year-old Sherry Arnold, who was allegedly choked to death and then buried in a shallow grave on a North Dakota farmstead.
The affidavit filed Friday offers the first details of what authorities believe happened to Arnold after she went missing during a morning run on Jan. 7. Her body has not been found.
Lester Waters, 47, and Michael Spell, 22, are scheduled to appear in Montana district court Feb. 28 on charges of aggravated kidnapping. They are being held on $2.5 million bail each.
The alleged kidnapping took place just blocks from Arnold's house in Sidney, at a spot where investigators later recovered one of her running shoes.
The affidavit from Richland County prosecutor Mike Weber is based largely on the alleged confession of Spell, who told investigators that he felt guilty after helping bury Arnold's body on a farmstead outside of Williston, N.D., about 45 miles from where she was abducted.
Authorities arrested the pair about a week after the crime, after receiving a tip that led them to Spell's girlfriend, who he had confided in about the kidnapping, according to the affidavit.
Spell and Waters had left Colorado just days before Arnold disappeared, with the purported aim of picking up work in the bustling oilfields of eastern Montana and western North Dakota.
After smoking crack cocaine "during the entire trip," Waters allegedly told Spell that the drug brought "the devil" out in him and began talking about kidnapping and killing a female, the affidavit states. After they spotted Arnold jogging along a roadway, Spell allegedly said Waters told him to grab her and pull her into their Ford Explorer.
"Spell said Waters got into the back seat with the female and ‘choked her out,' " the affidavit states. That night, after dropping Arnold's body in a rural area of North Dakota, the affidavit says, Waters bought a shovel at a Wal-Mart in Williston and the pair later buried her in a 2- to 3-foot-deep hole on an old farmstead.
Property owners in parts of rural eastern Montana and western North Dakota have been asked to look for disturbed soil or other indications of a makeshift gravesite in agricultural areas.
Williams County, N.D., Sheriff Scott Busching said Friday that multiple leads have come in as a result of that request, but none so far none have panned out.
"We've checked a lot of spots, but we haven't found anything yet," Busching said.
The FBI has been heavily involved in the investigation, but no federal charges have been filed. For that to happen, authorities would have to prove Spell and Waters crossed state lines during the alleged crime - a difficult task given that Arnold's body has not been found.
Aggravated kidnapping carries a potential death penalty in Montana unless the victim is released unharmed. The minimum sentence is two years in prison and a fine of up to $50,000.
Spell and Waters are being represented by the state Public Defenders Office.
They most recently lived in Parachute, Colo. Like the Parachute area, the landscape around Sidney has seen extensive oil and gas drilling in recent years, drawing thousands of workers to eastern Montana and western North Dakota.
Waters has a lengthy criminal background in Florida, where he lived before leaving sometime after his most recent release from prison in August 2010.
Beginning in the late 1980s, he had several stints in jail in Indian River County, Fla., and served three state prison sentences between 2002 and 2010. Charges against him included possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, sale of cocaine, petty theft, burglary, failure to pay child support, contempt of court, resisting an officer and multiple counts of driving with a suspended license.
Spell has prior arrests in Colorado on charges of drug possession, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, sexual contact without consent, careless driving and driving without a license. Charges filed against Spell in a pair of 2007 arrests were later dropped, although it was unclear on what grounds.
The most recent charges came in 2009 after Colorado authorities said Spell asked a middle-school student to text other students and ask them if they wanted to buy marijuana.
He was scheduled to be arraigned in that case in January. But Spell was given permission by a judge to leave Colorado two days before Arnold disappeared, after claiming his brother had been in a car accident in Texas.