Barney Doyle has been in law enforcement for more than ten years and fascinated by crime stories since he was a child. His book, Reckless Speculation about Murder, is an analysis of famous murder investigations that critics have called “different from any other true crime book you may have read.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I was listening to Emily’s recent episode on Karina Vetrano and something she said really hit me. She explained how, statistically, female joggers were at a much greater risk of being struck by traffic than they were of being the victim of an assault, yet numbers be damned, the fear of an assault weighed heavier on most runners’ minds. It was tempting to write that fear off as irrational until Emily pointed out that approximately 43% of female runners had been the victim of some sort of harassment while running.
Harassment rarely escalates to assault, but in the moment, a victim has no way of knowing if it will. The victim can suffer the exact same sense of dread and helplessness in either case. If you’ve ever experienced that feeling then you know it can be every bit as painful and traumatizing as a physical injury. So while the numbers might suggest that female runners are more likely to be injured by a passing car than by an assault, the fear of a deranged lunatic hiding in the bushes is rational and valid. Deranged lunatics are out there. And even if they are only capable of physically harming a small number of people, the terror they spread extends far and wide.
The brutal attack on Karina horrified thousands of women around that area of New York City. The story I’m about to tell you had the same effect on a small town in eastern Montana, and the impact is still felt today, eight years after the crime.
On January 8 of 2012, back when old Barney Doyle was young Barney Doyle and working as a patrol officer in a small town in western Montana, my department received an alert for a missing person out of Sidney, Montana. A 43-year-old woman named Sherry Arnold had disappeared sometime the previous day. I am ashamed to admit my initial reaction, but I will share it with you just to give you a sense of what the world was like in that place and time. I assumed she ran off with another man.
I had spent a couple of days in Sidney sometime around the year 2000. It might as well have been any other farm town in rural Montana. Less than 5,000 people lived in the city limits. I don’t think it had a McDonald’s or a Burger King back then, but I do seem to remember a Taco John’s. The social scene revolved around high school sports. Even respectable folks went to the bar on Saturday nights. And everybody knew everybody else’s business. Some people like that way of life, but it isn’t for everyone. More than one desperate soul has abandoned their family and run off on a tryst with a handsome stranger to escape the drudgery of places like Sidney. I assumed Sherry was another one. I could wrap my head around that. It was certainly easier to accept than what actually happened.
I was wrong, and the local news reports quickly painted the picture of what Sherry was really like. Sherry was very happy in Sidney. She was a mother and a wife and math teacher. She was the type of earthly saint capable of marching into a room of rambunctious 12-year-olds every day with the unshakable optimism that children can somehow be taught to solve equations. She had not run away. And by January 9, it was clear that something bad had happened to her.
Sherry was reported missing by her husband Gary Arnold. Gary went for a walk early on the morning of January 7, 2012. Sherry was not home when he returned, so Gary assumed that she had gone for her usual morning run. When she didn’t return, Gary got concerned and went out looking for her. Having no success, Gary reported Sherry’s disappearance to the police that day.
I’m going to apologize to Gary right now for what I believed on January 9, 2012. I was certain Gary had done something to Sherry. I didn’t know the man at all, but I had been a cop long enough to understand the law of averages. When a woman suffers violence it is usually at the hands of her significant other. I figured Gary did something to her and was trying to cover his tracks by reporting her missing. Jogging in Montana at 6:30 in the morning in January? It was 10 degrees outside (F not C). Something didn’t add up.
We had plenty of domestic violence in Montana. Again, it was a scenario I could wrap my mind around. Again, I was wrong.
Sherry had indeed gone jogging that morning. Somewhere on Holley Street, known locally as the “truck route,” Sherry had the misfortune of meeting two of the most vile human beings to ever pass through the state of Montana.
In early January of 2012, Lester Waters and Michael Spell left Parachute, Colorado, for the Bakken oil boom taking place in western North Dakota and eastern Montana. Spell and Waters were ostensibly looking for work in the oil fields. In actuality, they were a couple of criminal lowlifes drawn by rivers of cash and drugs flowing through the Bakken.
As Spell would later tell investigators, Spell and Waters got loaded on crack cocaine between Colorado and Montana and Waters told Spell that crack brought “the devil” out in him. In reading the court records it is apparent that the devil himself would be disgusted to be associated with Lester Waters.
Somewhere along the drive, Waters and Spell decided they wanted a woman. In the Karina podcast episode, Emily made a great point about how dangerous it is for women when certain men view them as possessions that they are entitled to. Spell and Waters are that danger incarnate. Spell and Waters concocted a crack-fueled fantasy about kidnapping and killing a woman for their own gratification.
Sherry was out on her Saturday morning jog when Waters and Spell spotted her. According to Spell, Waters pulled his Ford Explorer to the side of the road in front of her. Spell got out and tackled Sherry then forced her into the Explorer. They used her, killed her and buried her body in a shallow grave outside of Williston, North Dakota.
Spell and Waters were caught within a week because they were high on drugs and not particularly bright (Spell had a diagnosed intellectual disability, although doctors at the state mental hospital believed he was exaggerating and exploiting the condition to help his case in court). Spell told his girlfriend what they had done and the story eventually made it back to the FBI. Waters was caught with a receipt from the shovel they purchased to bury the body. Sherry’s hat and shoe were found where Spell said the abduction took place. Waters eventually confessed and took investigators to Sherry’s body.
Waters was sentenced to 100 years in prison and Spell was sent to join him for 80 of those.
The Sidney that I saw in 2000 was a different place than it was 2012, owing almost exclusively to the oil drilling in the Bakken shale formation. I visited the place again in about 2015 and didn’t recognize it. I have spent a little time in the Bakken and significant time in the Permian Basin oil fields of West Texas and can’t come up with many nice things to say about either place. The air, ground and water are all heavily polluted from the fracking process. Crime and drugs are rampant. Most of the people who work in the oilfield are decent, hardworking people who have chosen a very difficult job because the pay is fantastic. But it isn’t just oilfield workers who go to the booms. The oilfield also draws plenty of people like Spell and Waters, drawn to the cash and drugs like moths to a flame.
There were plenty of murders in Montana before the oil boom and there have been plenty since that have had nothing to do with the oil fields. But Sherry Arnold’s death felt like something different. The world seemed like a scarier place after Sherry died. If something as innocent and routine as a Saturday morning jog wasn’t safe for a woman like Sherry, what other horrors were waiting out there that we hadn’t considered?
The attack on Karina only killed one person, but it terrorized thousands of others who lived and worked around that area of New York. Similarly, the attack on Sherry Arnold only killed her, but it did irreparable damage to the sense of peace and comfort that people in towns like Sidney once had.
Supreme Court State of Montana v. Michael Keith Spell