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Colorado man pleads guilty of killing Montana teacher

SIDNEY, Mont. -- A Colorado man pleaded guilty Wednesday to the murder of a Montana high school teacher, as her husband listened with "mixed emotions."...

Michael Spell
Michael Spell

SIDNEY, Mont. -- A Colorado man pleaded guilty Wednesday to the murder of a Montana high school teacher, as her husband listened with “mixed emotions.”

Montana District Judge Richard Simonton accepted Michael Keith Spell's guilty plea to deliberate homicide in the death of Sidney High School math teacher Sherry Arnold, 43. A charge of attempted kidnapping was dismissed as part of a plea deal with prosecutors.

“Given the circumstances, the prosecution achieved all it could achieve. I’m happy with their efforts,” Gary Arnold, Sherry’s husband, said after Wednesday’s hearing.

Spell admitted to killing Arnold in early January 2012, after he and another man took a drug-fueled road trip from Colorado to the Bakken in search of work in the region’s oilfileds.

Before the energy boom, Sidney was a city of about 5,000 in northeast Montana, where many residents believed their close-knit community was shielded from crime.


But all that changed with Arnold’s abduction after she went out for a jog on a winter’s day.

“It changed how people felt about the community. I think we felt insular to crime. I think it made people feel vulnerable,” local business owner Kris Gifford said.

Sidney is a town where people care about their neighbors and watch out for each other, she said.

When Arnold went missing, Gifford said at least 1,000 people came out the next day to search for her.

“To me, that’s pretty amazing. That says a lot about the town,” she said.

Sidney High School vice principal Loretta Thiel recalled the day when she heard Arnold had disappeared. She joined scores of others, searching into the evening.

“She was missing, then they (law enforcement) had enough information to believe she was dead,” Thiel said. “We had to relive it a few times, that was hard on staff and students.”

Thiel said she had known Arnold about nine years, from their respective careers in the public school system.


“She was a kind, considerate person - a great colleague to work with.” she said.

Arnold’s body was found two months later near Williston, N.D., about 45 miles from Sidney. Arnold had apparently been choke or drowned in a puddle.

Sidney Public Schools Superintendent Daniel Farr called Arnold a “phenomenal teacher” on the cutting edge of what she was trying to accomplish with her students.

“It was a horrible roller coaster for our community. … having Sherry back, having her recovered was a huge relief to the community.” Farr said.

The news of Spell’s plea deal signalled the hope for closure, he said.

“The fact that he (Spell) will be incarcerated, hopefully, to me that brings a lot of resolution to a tragic loss,” Farr said.

Richland County Attorney Mike Weber recommended a 100-year prison sentence for the 25-year-old intellectually disabled man with the possibility of parole.

Attorney Al Avignone said the defense team will ask the judge to commit Spell to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services for placement into an appropriate facility for people with intellectual disabilities.


Spell’s partner in the crime, Lester Van Waters Jr., had pleaded guilty to deliberate homicide in August 2013 and was to testify against Spell had a plea deal not been reached.

Sidney resident Joy Johnson said two of her children had Arnold as a teacher. They liked her because she made learning fun.

Johnson expressed relief that with Spell’s guilty plea Arnold’s family will be spared the trial.

“I don’t think he (Spell) was smart enough to have done this - he was an accomplice. I think for the family and the town of Sidney it’s a good thing he’s taking a plea deal so that we can lay it to rest,” she said.

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