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Man gets 80 years in teacher’s oil-patch killing

UPDATED: Mon., Dec. 15, 2014

Associated Press
BILLINGS, Mont. — A Colorado man was sentenced Monday to 80 years in prison for killing a Montana teacher in a case that emerged as a chilling example of the social changes brought by the Northern Plains’ oil boom. Lester Van Waters Jr., 50, will not be eligible for parole for at least 20 years under the sentence from Montana District Judge Richard Simonton in Sidney, said Richland County Attorney Mike Weber. Waters pleaded guilty last year to deliberate homicide by accountability in the January 2012 death of Sherry Arnold. An additional 20 years in prison was suspended. Authorities said Waters and accomplice Michael Keith Spell killed the 43-year-old Sidney High School math teacher during an attempted abduction while she was jogging just blocks from her house. Her body was found more than two months later buried in a rural area of North Dakota. Weber, who prosecuted the case, said he was satisfied with the sentence, the terms of which were outlined in a plea deal reached last year. The deal with prosecutors called for him to testify against Spell if the case went to trial. In exchange, Waters was spared the death penalty. Sending Waters to prison will help people in Sidney deal with the loss of Arnold, a much-loved teacher in the community, Weber said. But he noted that the case is not fully resolved as Spell still is awaiting sentencing. “It’s one step in the process,” Weber said. Waters defense attorneys could not be reached immediately for comment. Spell and Waters had traveled to Sidney from Colorado, using crack cocaine throughout their journey, according to authorities and previous testimony from the men. They had told friends and family they were searching for work in the Bakken oil fields along the Montana-North Dakota border, where an oil boom has boosted agricultural communities but brought a spike in crime. During their journey from Colorado, 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. Arnold was choked or otherwise asphyxiated after Spell tried to grab her. Spell said during a change-of-plea hearing in October that he was unsure if he or Waters had killed Arnold. Prosecutors called two people to testify during Monday’s hearing: FBI agent Craig Overby and state probation officer Wally Peter. Private investigator Richard Wood testified on behalf of the defense. Waters had a lengthy criminal background in Florida, where he lived until after his most recent release from prison in August 2010. Beginning in the late 1980s, he had several stints in jail in Florida’s Indian River County and served three state prison sentences between 2002 and 2010. Spell has pleaded guilty to deliberate homicide. His sentencing has not been scheduled.
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