Sidney 2.0: A Stranger’s Take on Sherry Arnold

It’s been 43 days since two men from Colorado allegedly drove through Sidney while smoking crack cocaine. They had one mission in mind—kill a woman.

On Saturday, Mike, Dameon, and I stood 100 feet away from where the two suspects are being held in a $19-million, state of the art prison, which was paid for with oil profits. We weren’t allowed to see their cells, but as I walked by I caught a glimpse of the area through the window.

Fluorescent lights illuminated the thick, white walls confining inmates in chambers about a quarter the size of a typical college dorm room. As our tour guides, the Assistant Chief of Police Bob Burnison and Mayor Bret Smelser, walked us out of the holding area, Bret said he saw the two men on a computer monitor upstairs.

We could tell the image bothered him.

After the tour, we followed Bret’s dusty, white GMC Sierra to an oil well just outside of town. As he explained the process of horizontal drilling, he paused to reflect on Friday night’s media interviews.

Bret must have remarkable patience. When the new details of Sherry Arnold’s murder emerged Friday night, he spoke with the Billings Gazette,  Associated Press and Reuters. This was after he had already spent an hour chatting about oil with the boys.

“I’m saddened by the death of Sherry, but I’m frustrated that it took this long for them to notice us,” he said.

He meant that until the death of Sherry Arnold all eyes were solely on Williston, N.D. Others have told me they feel the same way. Sidney, with a population three times smaller than its oil-rich neighbor, is an afterthought.

The past month and a half may have proved that wrong. Still, I don’t think the attention will last. But does the world’s attention really matter? The lives of Sidney residents have already changed. Spend 24 hours in this town, and you begin to realize the murder has left a permanent scar.

“My boss walks me to my car at night,” Sally Sand, a bartender at The Ranger told Dameon. “I don’t leave anywhere after dark. It’s a nightmare.”

Louisa Barber, the 25-year-old Sidney Herald reporter, also said she’s extra cautious. When she does interviews at places like trailer parks, she brings another Herald staffer along for the ride.

I filled that seat yesterday as she turned down a gravel road and parked next to a motor home on a field in North Dakota. Louisa pulled out a camera, and I followed suit.

Before we started snapping shutters, we walked up to a man well into his sixties smoking a cigarette. We explained who we were, and as soon as he heard the words “Sidney Herald,” you could tell he wanted to ask a question.

“Sherry Arnold.” he began, eyes filled with concern. “Do you know anything more?”

Louisa shook her head, and the man looked down. He told us he believed Sherry’s body was in North Dakota. He paused, then added that the people who did this to her deserve a worse fate.

Louisa and I didn’t know it at the time, but 12 miles southeast in the justice center, the Sidney Herald’s editor sat patiently. He had been waiting two hours for a single signature from the judge that would publicly release an affidavit. Once signed, he immediately posted a summary to the Herald’s website.

When we returned to the newsroom 20 minutes later, the editor rushed out of his office to tell us the latest.

Dameon picked me up shortly thereafter to get ready for the evening’s Republican rifle raffle, dinner and auction at the Elks Club. I told Dameon and Mike that between the three of us, the 11 Herald employees, recent visitors to the paper’s website, law enforcement and court officials, no one else knew that Sherry was choked to death by men high on drugs with the intent to kill a stranger.

So I started to write. I tweeted about it too, but I’m not sure my quick timing made much of an impact. I only have 164 followers. As I typed this post Friday night, the Associated Press published an article. I was too slow. Everyone from the Great Falls Tribune to the Chicago Tribune had the story.

It’s been 43 days and this prairie town still has the world’s attention.

The three of us are strangers, but we’re caught up in the heart of it all. I can’t help but think what will happen when we leave. As more weeks pass by, the world may forget about Sidney, Mont. But the 5,000 people living here never will.

I don’t think we can either.