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Apr 17, 2015 4:44 PM

Man gets 100-year term in murder of teacher in oil boom town

The Associated Press

SIDNEY, Mont. (AP) A mentally disabled Colorado man was sentenced to 100 years in prison Friday for the murder of a Montana teacher whose death highlighted the downsides of an oil boom that's sweeping across the remote Northern Plains.

Michael Keith Spell, 25, of Parachute, Colorado, was sentenced following a hearing before state District Judge Richard Simonton in Sidney.

Spell pleaded guilty in October to killing Sherry Arnold, 43, after attempting to abduct the popular math teacher as she was jogging near her home in 2012. Arnold's body was found months later buried in a shallow grave in a rural area near Williston, North Dakota.

Co-defendant Lester Van Waters Jr. was sentenced in December to 80 years in prison on a charge of deliberate homicide by accountability.

Defense attorneys had asked that Spell be placed into custody of state health officials for placement in an institution for the mentally disabled. They said Spell's mental problems made him unable to conform to the law, making him eligible for commitment to the Montana Department of Health and Human Services.

In the days before Arnold's killing, Spell and Waters traveled to Sidney from Colorado, using crack cocaine throughout their journey, according to authorities and the men's previous testimony. The defendants came to the region looking for work in the booming Bakken oil patch.

During their trip, Waters allegedly told Spell that using crack "brought the devil out in him" and began talking about kidnapping and killing a woman, according to an affidavit filed by prosecutors.

Spell's attorneys alleged Waters threatened to kill Spell unless he went along with the kidnapping plan.

After the pair spotted Arnold along a Sidney street, Spell tried to grab her, leading to a struggle in which Arnold was choked or otherwise asphyxiated, authorities said.

Spell said during an October change-of-plea hearing that he was unsure if he or Waters had killed Arnold.

For Sidney residents, Arnold's death offered a horrifying illustration of the social upheaval caused by an energy boom that has turned the once-sleepy town into an oil patch hub.

Crime has spiked in the Bakken region of Montana and North Dakota over the past several years as traffickers of methamphetamine and other drugs seek to profit off oil workers flush with cash, according to law enforcement officials.

Spell was spared a potential death sentence after state health officials agreed with the defense that he was mentally disabled. But Simonton in May rejected arguments from the defense that Spell's history of low IQ scores, his difficulty reading and other mental problems rendered him incompetent to stand trial.

Defense attorneys Al Avignone and Lisa Banick said Friday's judgment will be appealed based on their continued belief that he was not fit for trial. If the state Supreme Court agrees, Spell would be committed to a state mental institution, Avignone said.


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