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Montana teacher's kidnapping and death echo Sjodin case

Sherry Arnold1 / 2
These photos provided by the Williams County, N.D., Sheriff's Dept. shows Lester Vann Waters Jr., 47, left, and Michael Keith Spell, 22, both of Parachute, Colo. Vann Waters and Spell have been charged with aggravated kidnapping in the disappearance of Sherry Arnold, a school teacher in Sidney, Mont., about 46 miles southwest of Williston, N.D.2 / 2

The FBI knows that Sherry Arnold, the Sidney, Mont., teacher missing since Jan. 7, was kidnapped and is dead, but it hasn't located her body yet.

It's a case with echoes of the kidnapping and killing in 2003 of UND student Dru Sjodin.

On Sunday, the FBI named two Colorado men being held in Williston, N.D., as suspects in the Arnold case.

Deborah Bertram, spokeswoman for the FBI regional office in Salt Lake City, which includes Montana, released this statement Sunday: "Based on investigative evidence gathered over the last few days, it is believed that Ms. Arnold may be deceased. Her body has not been recovered."

Arnold, 43, grew up on a ranch near Sidney and had taught math for 18 years in the school where she had graduated. She went running in the early morning of Jan. 7 and her husband, school administrator Gary Arnold, who grew up near Dickinson, N.D., called police about 9:30 a.m. that day to report her missing. After hundreds searched for her, all that has been found of her was one of her shoes in a ditch along the route she typically ran.

The two suspects now face charges that carry a possible death penalty under Montana law. Two men are on death row in Montana and only two have been executed since 1976, according to the state prison's website.

Lester Vann Waters Jr., 47, and Michael Keith Spell, 22, are in the Williams County jail in Williston, on a hold from Richland County officials in Sidney, a jail spokesman said.

Both men are from Parachute, Colo., a town of about 1,000 on Interstate 70 about 150 miles west of Denver. Waters was arrested last week in Williston, and Spell was detained in Rapid City, S.D. They were brought to the Williston jail Friday and will be extradited to Montana to face aggravated kidnapping charges, said Williams County Sheriff's deputy Jon Garrison, according to The Associated Press.

Under Montana law, aggravated kidnapping carries a maximum sentence of death.

If Arnold was taken across the state line into North Dakota before she died, the case would become a federal kidnapping charge; federal kidnapping resulting in death carries a maximum penalty of death.

Bertram of the FBI said Sunday in an email to the Herald that the FBI became involved in the case because Sidney is so close to North Dakota that a state line may have been crossed in the alleged kidnapping.

Sidney, with about 5,000 people, is in the booming Oil Patch of the Williston Basin and is only a few miles from North Dakota, and about 45 miles southwest of Williston.

But the FBI made clear Sunday they -- and perhaps the two suspects -- don't know for certain if a state line was crossed in the alleged kidnapping.

The FBI put out a request for property owners in northwest North Dakota and northeast Montana to check vacant farmsteads for signs of disturbed soil where Arnold's body may be buried.

The FBI issued a statement late Sunday saying Arnold's body might be buried in an area with a line of mature or rotted trees, and the surrounding grass might be matted.

The statement sent by Bertram asked North Dakota property owners in Williams, McKenzie and Mountrail counties - all main oil producing counties -- and in extreme northeastern Montana, check such areas.

On Nov. 22, 2003, Sjodin, 22, was kidnapped by Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., now 58, of Crookston from the Columbia Mall parking lot in Grand Forks. A registered sex offender, Rodriguez was arrested Dec. 1 and charged in North Dakota district court in Grand Forks with kidnapping. Neither North Dakota nor Minnesota has a state death penalty.

Once Sjodin's body was found April 17, 2004, in a gully near Crookston, North Dakota charges against Rodriguez were dropped, and he was charged in federal court in Fargo with kidnapping leading to the death of Sjodin, which carries a maximum penalty of death.

He was found guilty in 2006 by the same jury that then decided he should be sentenced to death, which sentence U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson pronounced in early 2007.

Rodriguez remains on federal death row in Terre Haute, Ind., and is appealing his sentence.

During his trial, his defense attorneys argued that because prosecutors could not prove Sjodin was alive when taken into Minnesota -- which would mean it was not an interstate kidnapping --- the case should not have been brought in federal court.

As part of his appeal earlier this year, Rodriguez's interviews with a psychiatrist were made part of the public court record, in which for the first time he, in effect, confessed to killing Sjodin.

It happened, argues his new defense team, during temporary insanity caused by post-traumatic stress stemming from Rodriguez' alleged childhood sexual abuse.

In the documents, the psychiatrist says Rodriguez said he was driving "around town" with Sjodin in his car after attacking her in the Grand Forks parking lot and wasn't sure exactly when she died.

Part of the appeal's argument is that the trial defense attorneys failed to adequately make the case that Sjodin may have been dead from asphyxiation from a plastic bag he put over her head before her body was taken into Minnesota.