By Laura Zuckerman
(Reuters) – One of two men charged with abducting a Montana teacher reported missing and presumed dead was previously convicted in Florida of nearly a dozen crimes, including burglary and drug offenses, and served time in that state's prison system, legal records show.
Sketchy details from the lengthy criminal record of Lester Vann Waters, 47, came to light as FBI agents and police in Montana and North Dakota pressed their search for possible sites where the remains of the missing woman might have been buried.
Sherry Arnold, 43, a high school math instructor from the northeastern Montana farming community of Sidney, vanished on January 7 after setting off for a predawn run along a truck route on the outskirts of town. She was later reported missing by her husband, and one of her shoes was recovered during an initial search of the area.
Waters was arrested Thursday night in Williston, North Dakota, about 45 miles east of Sidney, following an anonymous tip to a hotline set up in the investigation.
A second man, Michael Keith Spell, 22, was detained for questioning in Rapid City, South Dakota, on Friday, the same day that Arnold's spouse was informed by authorities that his wife was presumed dead.
Over the weekend, authorities named Spell as a second suspect, and the two men, both from Parachute, Colorado, were charged with aggravated kidnapping. Both were being held in Williston.
The FBI on Sunday confirmed that Arnold may be dead even though her body has not yet been found. Investigators have asked landowners in Williston and adjacent rural areas near Sidney to check for possible burial sites where there are mature or rotted trees.
Meanwhile, legal records in Florida, where Waters resided for at least 22 years, showed he was arrested in that state on suspicion of dozens of misdemeanors and felonies dating from 1986 to 2008, and amassed convictions for such offenses as dealing cocaine, burglary and a hit-and-run injury accident.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which listed his occupation as that of a construction worker, also documented that he served time in various county jails and the state penitentiary.
Arnold's disappearance and presumed death have shaken the sense of safety and security in Sidney, the seat of a Montana county known for leading the state in production of sugar beets and dry beans.
The town of 5,000 is experiencing rapid growth linked to a regional oil and gas boom related to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
Sidney Mayor Bret Smelser told Reuters in a weekend interview that city officials are seeking to ease the fears "that some of the female population have right now" by reestablishing the neighborhood watch program and examining other kinds of surveillance.
"We hope the community remains the same as it was ... a community that accepts outsiders, knowing that 99.9 percent want a better life just like the rest of us," he said.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Barbara Goldberg)
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