Despite two arrests, friends and family don't know how – or why – Sherry Arnold died

By Howard Breuer
January 20, 2012 07:45 PM
Courtesy of Arnold Family

Folks in Sidney, Mont., used to leave their doors unlocked, knowing the worst crimes were usually bar fights. The last murder was 33 years ago.

But that small-town sense of security during what has been a regional economic boom vanished on Jan. 7, when Sherry Arnold, a 43-year-old high school math teacher – the great-granddaughter of the city’s first police chief – went jogging before dawn.

Now, authorities are searching for her body in two states in what is being called a criminal case. So far, all that’s been found is one of her Brooks running shoes on the edge of town along a thatch of prairie bordered by a truck road and the railroad.

But authorities have two men in custody: Lester Vann Waters Jr., 47, arrested in North Dakota, and Michael Keith Spell, 22, in South Dakota. Both were charged with aggravated kidnapping. At a court appearance on Tuesday, they requested a hearing challenging their extradition to Montana.

After investigators spoke with the men, Williston, N.D., Police Chief Jim Lokken asked property owners in eastern Montana and western North Dakota with large, open tracts of farmland to inspect their properties for any sign of a fresh burial – particularly by any area of “mature, dying or rotted trees.”

Regional Economic Boom

Many in the city have been quick to blame the crime on a regional boom in oilfield jobs that has drawn outsiders as if it were the California Gold Rush. It’s turned the parking lot outside the Williston, N.D., Walmart into a makeshift homeless camp of wall-to-wall trailers.

Sidney schools superintendent Dan Farr, himself a former oilfield roustabout, cautions that residents shouldn’t rush to judgment against the oil workers.

He notes that authorities haven’t yet revealed what may have drawn the two men to Sidney, or how they allegedly crossed paths with Arnold. Court records only indicate that they committed the alleged kidnapping at 6:40 a.m. on Jan. 7 near 900 E. Holly St. in Sidney – the approximate location where Arnold’s sneaker was discovered.

A Caring Teacher

By all accounts, Sherry Arnold was an exceptional, caring and popular math teacher – with the district for 18 years and a teacher of the month last year. She was a married mom of two kids and three stepchildren.

The day after her disappearance, more than 1,000 of the city’s roughly 5,000 residents – including students from the district – searched for her.

The following day, a Monday, many of the students who showed up for her class couldn’t help bursting into tears and had to be escorted to the counseling office.

“Sherry is a rock, she’s supposed to be there,” Sidney High School counselor Tom Barnhart said the day before the FBI confirmed Arnold’s death. “We try to be as strong as possible for the kids, and once they’ve left, I have a local minister in town that I visit with where I just break down.”

His oldest daughter tries to put things in perspective.

“I was talking with one of my co-workers about why I was leaving so abruptly from my job, and I asked, ‘Who does this happen to?’ And she said, ‘Normal people like you,’ ” says Karen Arnold Truax. “This is the thing that you think would never happen to someone you love.”