Colorado man pleads guilty to oil patch murder

AP News
Posted: Oct 22, 2014 6:16 PM
Colorado man pleads guilty to oil patch murder

SIDNEY, Mont. (AP) — A Colorado man pleaded guilty Wednesday to the murder of a Montana teacher in an oil boom town where residents say their lives were forever altered by the crime.

Montana District Judge Richard Simonton accepted Michael Keith Spell's guilty plea on a count of deliberate homicide. A charge of attempted kidnapping was dropped as part of a deal with prosecutors.

Spell testified that Sherry Arnold, 43, was killed when he and an accomplice tried to abduct the Sidney High School math teacher while she was out for a pre-dawn jog in January 2012. He said Arnold struggled when he tried to drag her into their vehicle and that she ultimately lost consciousness.

Spell, who is mentally disabled, said he and accomplice Lester Van Waters Jr. smoked large amounts of crack cocaine leading up to the attempted abduction. Spell appeared unable Wednesday to recall events in detail.

"I'm not sure who killed her. It could have been either one," he said. "All I can say is I'm sorry and ashamed of what I did."

Waters pleaded guilty last year to deliberate homicide by accountability in the case. He is awaiting sentencing.

Richland County Attorney Mike Weber recommended a 100-year prison sentence for Spell with the possibility of parole.

Attorneys for the 25-year-old man from Parachute, Colorado, said they'll ask for Spell to be sentenced to the state health department, which could allow him to serve his time in a facility for the mentally disabled.

Defense attorneys also reserved the right to ask for a lesser sentence.

If Simonton accepts the prosecution's sentencing recommendations, Spell would have to serve at least 25 percent of his time before he would be eligible for parole. Factoring in time he's already served, that means he could be eligible for release in 22 years, defense attorney Al Avigone said.

A sentencing hearing was not immediately scheduled.

Arnold's body was found more than two months after she disappeared. It was in a shallow grave in a once-quiet part of neighboring North Dakota, the center of an oil boom that has boosted the region's formerly agriculture-dependent economy but also brought social upheaval.

Hundreds of Sidney-area residents and oil field workers participated in the search for Arnold, a well-known figure in the close-knit town of about 6,200 people.

After her death, Sidney residents said they started locking their doors for the first time, newly wary of the tens of thousands of workers attracted to the Northern Plains by an energy boom that has driven a sharp increase in U.S. oil production.

Among those residents is retired librarian Lynn Donvan. She had Arnold as a student in the 1980s and worked alongside her at Sidney High School in the years leading up to the murder.

Besides locking her doors and installing a security system, Donvan said Wednesday she no longer takes early morning walks. Instead, she waits until the sun is up and avoids areas with few people.

"I guess we should have been thinking of it before. Unfortunately, that (Arnold's death) was the catalyst that hit us upside the head," Donvan said. "You don't know everybody now, which isn't a bad thing. But you do things differently."

Spell is mildly mentally disabled, according to previous testimony from experts for both the prosecution and defense. He has trouble reading and writing, and has a history of low IQ scores. Those findings prompted prosecutors to drop their pursuit of the death penalty.

The plea agreement came just two weeks after the Montana Supreme Court denied a petition from Spell to be declared unfit for trial.

Avigone noted that Spell could be eligible for parole by the time he's 47.

"That gives him a lot of hope when he's incarcerated," Avignone said, adding, "Nobody wins in a case like this."