SIDNEY, Mont. — Family and friends of one of the two suspects in a brutal Montana kidnapping described him as an illiterate young father who was eager for work when he fell under the sway of a convicted criminal promising lucrative employment in the Bakken oil fields.
Michael Keith Spell, 22 and Lester Van Waters Jr., 47, pleaded not guilty Tuesday to one count each of aggravated kidnapping during an arraignment in state district court in Arnold's hometown of Sidney, near the North Dakota border.
Court documents filed by the prosecutor in the case indicate Spell, of Parachute, Colo., has confessed to his role in the crack-fueled abduction and presumed killing of 43-year-old Sherry Arnold of Sidney, Mont.
Wearing orange-striped prison garb and handcuffs, Spell and Waters said little during Tuesday's brief hearings. However, when Spell was asked if he had read the charging documents in the case, he replied, "No, ma'am. I can't read, but I have been informed."
State district Judge Katherine Irigoin set separate trial dates for the two men beginning in July. She told the defendants they could face the death penalty under Montana law if convicted.
Arnold was abducted — apparently at random — while she was jogging near her home on the morning Jan. 7. Her body has not been found, but Spell allegedly told investigators he pulled her into a car and she was choked to death by Waters before the pair buried in a shallow grave on an old farmstead near Williston, N.D.
Spell's father, Harry, told The Associated Press that his son had travelled with Waters to the Bakken oil fields of Montana and North Dakota after Waters guaranteed work paying up to $2,000 a week.
Harry Spell said his son was anxious to prove himself to his parents and girlfriend Angel Cruz, with whom he has a 1-year-old son.
Michael Spell had found past work in the oil fields near Parachute and on a fire damage cleanup crew, but was unable to keep the jobs "because he didn't quite understand what to do," Harry Spell said.
"He might be 22 years old, but he has an education less than a kindergartner," Harry Spell said.
Authorities suggested Tuesday that may be a factor in the failure so far to locate Arnold's body. Sheriff Scott Busching of North Dakota's Williams County said investigators have taken Michael Spell out to find where Arnold is buried, but he has been unable to find the spot.
He has no concept of time or distance so he couldn't tell us how far he was from town (when Arnold was buried) and he couldn't even tell us if he was in the state," Busching said. "I think he's trying to help but doesn't really know how."
Spell and Waters are being defended by court-appointed attorneys. Attempts to reach family members of Waters were unsuccessful.
Michael Spell and Cruz had lived with family members while Spell looked for ways to support his family, Cruz and others said.
Tina Godwin, who describes herself as Cruz's aunt, said Michael Spell would help out around her house — doing dishes, pulling weeds from the driveway and painting. He was around children and would often play with them, Godwin said. And he liked the kids' simple video games, including Sonic the Hedgehog and Kingdom Hearts.
"He was like a kid playing those games. You saw the light on his face," Godwin said.
Michael Spell met Waters about a year ago. Waters had come to Colorado in the months after his release from prison in Florida, and moved into an apartment complex on a bluff overlooking the Colorado River in the bluish grey mesas of the Grand Valley in western Colorado, according to interviews with friends and family.
Chadwick McConnell, 25, a distant cousin of Michael Spell, said Waters started a conversation with one of his friends at the complex and offered him work as a roofer. With jobs in the nearby gas and oil fields more difficult to get, McConnell said he and three others, Spell included, jumped at the chance to get paid in cash.
But working with Waters proved difficult. He would often tell McConnell, Spell and other workers to be at a location at 7 a.m., then not show up until around noon, failing to answer his cellphone.
"He's the kind of guy who'd talk to you and make you believe he's your friend," McConnell said. "But he won't live up to any of the things he says."
Waters told Michael Spell the jobs in the oil fields in North Dakota were a sure thing, Harry Spell and Cruz said. Waters also tried to recruit another man to travel with them but he declined.
Spell "was going down there for work, and he was going to be making money to support us," Cruz said. "He didn't know there was nothing down there."
When Spell left Colorado, he was awaiting arraignment on charges that he encouraged a middle school student to text other students and ask them if they wanted to buy marijuana. He reportedly told the judge in the case his brother had been in a car accident in Texas.
Barry and Nadine McConnell, the parents of Angel Cruz, described Spell as a person who wants to be helpful.
But getting a straight story out of him was always difficult, Barry McConnell said, especially when they asked him whether he would get a job to help support his son.
"He would talk in riddles," Barry McConnell said, adding that at some point they stopped believing anything he said.
Nadine McConnell says she is angry, astonished and horrified.
"To think that I let him into my house, I fed him, invited him to birthday parties," she said.
Banda reported from Parachute, Colo.