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Sherry Arnold

Men charged in Montana kidnapping had just left Colorado

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region Park Rapids, 56470
Park Rapids Minnesota PO Box 111 56470

The two men charged with kidnapping Sherry Arnold from a Sidney, Mont., street Jan. 7 apparently had just arrived in the Williston (N.D.) Basin, according to information from a court in Colorado where the men are from.

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Leslie Waters Jr., 47, and Michael Spell, 22, remain in a Williston jail, fighting extradition to face aggravated kidnapping charges, a crime that carries a maximum penalty of death in Montana.

Both men lived in Parachute, Colo., and apparently didn't leave for Sidney until the afternoon of Jan. 5, when Spell got permission from a judge to leave the state.

Other than Arnold's running shoe, officials have not reported finding any other clue to the 43-year-old math teacher's whereabouts. The FBI has asked landowners in northeast Montana and northwest North Dakota to search abandoned farmsteads with shelterbelts of mature, or rotting, trees and matted grass.

Bill Mercer, a former U.S. attorney for Montana now in private practice in Billings, suggested that investigators got some information, directly or indirectly, from both or one of the men that led to the request.

He has told reporters that Waters and Spell, unfamiliar with the region, may not know which state they were in when they allegedly buried Arnold's body.

40 hours

A district court official in Garfield County, Colo., said Thursday, citing court documents, that Spell got permission to leave the state from a county district judge at 12:30 p.m. MST on Jan. 5.

Spell was facing an arraignment on a felony charge of soliciting a minor to help him sell marijuana to young school children via cell phone text messages. Through his court-appointed attorney, Tina Fang, Spell told the judge on Jan. 5 he needed to go to Texas because his brother had been in an accident there.

According to a Montana television report, Spell told his "estranged brother" after his arrest that he had driven to Sidney with Waters to look for work and that Waters threatened to hurt family members if Spell didn't do what he said.

Both men claimed in court documents to be indigent and had no money to speak of on them. Waters said he was a construction worker; Spell listed "labor" as his occupation.

Forty-hours after the judge's permission, around 6:30 a.m. on Jan. 7, Arnold left her Sidney home for a run. Within 10 minutes, when the 43-year-old math teacher was on Holly Street, she was kidnapped from Holly Street by Waters and Spell, Richland County Attorney Mike Weber said.

Searchers found one of her running shoes there several hours later.

Fang on Thursday declined to comment, saying she can't say anything about a client's case, including whether he waited to leave Colorado until he got the judge's OK.

An obvious route from Parachute to Sidney would involve driving north, passing through Casper, Wyo., and Miles City, Mont. That involves about 760 miles and about 13 hours of driving.

Sidney is 45 miles southwest of Williston, only five miles from the North Dakota line.

Spell was arrested Jan. 13 in Rapid City, S.D.; Waters was arrested Jan. 12 in Williston. The FBI said a tip to the investigation's "hotline" led to their arrests.

Death penalty

If Arnold's body is found in North Dakota, federal charges of kidnapping leading to her death likely will be filed, Mercer said.

That charge, the same one filed in Fargo against Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. in 2004 involving Dru Sjodin's death, also carries a possible death sentence.

The Rodriguez case illustrates how the death penalty can figure in prosecuting such crimes.

Rodriguez, from Crookston, spent several months in the Grand Forks County jail facing a North Dakota kidnapping charge while thousands of searchers looked for Sjodin's body. Investigators believed the state line had been crossed and it would become a federal case. Because of that, then-U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley was involved early in the case.

North Dakota has no death penalty, but kidnapping resulting in death can result in the death penalty under federal law.

At the Sjodin family's request, Wrigley quietly met with Rodriguez and his court-appointed attorney David Dusek in January 2004. Wrigley promised to not seek the death penalty if Rodriguez would reveal where Sjodin's body was left.

But Rodriguez refused, and maintained his innocence.

When Sjodin's body was found April 17, 2004, near Crookston, it soon became a federal case. Wrigley, who is now North Dakota lieutenant governor, won federal permission to seek the death penalty. Awaiting trial, Rodriguez then offered to plead guilty in return for a life sentence. Wrigley refused.

Rodriguez is appealing his death sentence from federal prison in Indiana.

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