BILLINGS — A Montana community shaken by the kidnapping of a popular high school math teacher finally got some closure Thursday, as authorities identified a body found in neighboring North Dakota as missing teacher Sherry Arnold.
The discovery raised the possibility of new charges against two men being held for aggravated kidnapping in the case, although none were immediately filed.
The defendants also could face potential federal prosecution since Arnold’s body was apparently taken across state lines.
The remains of the 43-year-old mother of two were recovered Wednesday near Williston, N.D. That’s about 50 miles northeast of Sidney, the Montana town where Arnold lived and worked most of her life.
She was kidnapped at random Jan. 7 during a morning run in Sidney and choked to death, according to court documents. The two suspects were arrested a week after Arnold’s disappearance. The search for her body dragged on for another two months.
Family members and those who knew Arnold had become increasingly anxious for her body to be found to bring the case to some resolution.
Arnold’s sister, Rhonda Whited-Rupp, said Thursday the family was being comforted and supported by friends and others in Sidney affected by the loss of the well-known teacher.
“That’s the only thing that gets anybody through. We’re all in this together,” Whited-Rupp said. “We just kind of hang on to one another and keep praying.”
Suspects Michael Spell, 22, and Lester Van Waters Jr., 48, have pleaded not guilty to aggravated kidnapping in the case and await trial.
The FBI declined to disclose details on where the body was found or what led them to the site.
Authorities previously said Spell tried to lead FBI agents to the site in past weeks but failed. Spell is illiterate, and his father has said he has less education than a kindergartner.
The state charges against Spell and Waters can carry the death penalty if the victim is not released unharmed. A similar federal charge could also carry a death penalty upon conviction.
Court documents filed by the prosecutor in the case indicate Spell acknowledged his role in what an affidavit described as the crack-fueled abduction and killing of Arnold.
Spell told investigators he pulled her into a car and Waters choked her to death 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
There was no immediate word on when the body would be returned to Arnold’s family. A date for funeral services will be set after that happens, Whited-Rupp said.
Confirmation that the remains found Wednesday were those of Arnold came after the body was taken to the Montana State Crime Lab in Missoula.
An autopsy was planned to determine the cause and manner of death.
Richland County Attorney Mike Weber, who is prosecuting the case, said he was awaiting forensic results before deciding whether to file any additional charges.
While a typical autopsy can be completed in a matter of hours, DNA testing, fingerprint analyses and toxicology tests can take weeks.
A decision on whether federal charges will be filed rests with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Montana. Assistant U.S. Attorney Jessica Fehr said the office had no immediate comment on the potential for federal involvement.
The disappearance of Arnold launched a massive search that turned up only a single running shoe that she had been wearing the day she was last seen.
She grew up on a ranch outside Sidney, a city of 5,000 near the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers that’s been drastically changed by a recent oil boom.
She was well-liked among Sidney High School students and their parents. She was married to a fellow public schools employee, Gary, and together they raised five children from prior marriages. Arnold’s son and daughter are students at Sidney High School.
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