By Laura Zuckerman
(Reuters) - A Colorado man accused of killing a Montana teacher during a cocaine-fueled frenzy pleaded guilty to murder on Wednesday as part of a deal in which prosecutors will dismiss a kidnapping charge in the case, court documents showed.
Michael Spell, 25, of Parachute, Colorado, admitted his role in the strangling death of math instructor Sherry Arnold while prosecutors dropped a count of attempted kidnapping, according to the plea agreement.
A Montana judge approved the deal and accepted Spell's plea at a hearing on Wednesday afternoon.
Prosecutors are recommending a prison term of 100 years for the crime of deliberate homicide, but would place no restrictions on Spell’s eligibility for parole during that period, according to the deal.
Arnold, 43, vanished Jan. 7, 2012, after setting off for a pre-dawn run in her northeastern Montana home town of Sidney, where a regional oil boom has sharply increased population and crime.
Spell later told authorities he and Lester Waters, a friend from Parachute, had smoked crack cocaine and were driving through Sidney toward neighboring Williston, North Dakota, for oilfield jobs when Arnold jogged by. Waters ordered him to pull her into their Ford Explorer, according to Spell's account.
Spell told investigators that Waters "choked her out" in the back seat, but prosecutors alleged in court documents that Spell strangled her.
Arnold “lay dead inside the vehicle and under a blanket” while the men drove to Williston, where they threw her clothing into a dumpster and bought a shovel to bury her body in a shallow grave outside town, a Montana prosecutor said in a sworn statement.
Waters, 50, pleaded guilty last year to a charge of deliberate homicide in Arnold’s death. He has not yet been sentenced.
Both Waters and Spell initially faced kidnapping and murder charges and pleaded not guilty. Spell’s competence had been at the center of several court hearings in Montana as his attorneys sought to prove he was unfit for trial because of mental deficiencies.
Under the terms of the plea agreement, Spell’s attorneys can recommend a lesser sentence or commitment to a Montana Department of Health and Human Services facility.
(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho; Editing by Dan Whitcomb, Andre Grenon and Eric Walsh)