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Jury finds Wacht guilty in decapitation case

COOPERSTOWN, N.D. -- The jury here took only two hours Tuesday to decide Daniel Wacht was guilty of murdering Kurt Johnson 16 months ago. The swift verdict by seven men and five women on the seventh day after Wacht's trial opened came on what wou...

Daniel Evan Wacht
Daniel Wacht

COOPERSTOWN, N.D. -- The jury here took only two hours Tuesday to decide Daniel Wacht was guilty of murdering Kurt Johnson 16 months ago.

The swift verdict by seven men and five women on the seventh day after Wacht's trial opened came on what would have been Johnson's 56th birthday.

"It's fitting," said Johnson's younger brother, Korey Johnson, when asked about the juxtaposition, halting to bridle his emotions. "We miss him. It makes it hard on his birthday."

Wacht, 31, was to be returned today to the Stutsman County jail in Jamestown, N.D., where he's been since he was arrested Jan. 5, 2011, at work in Cooperstown.

State District Judge James Hovey said he will sentence Wacht at a later date. The maximum sentence is life in prison without parole.


Johnson last was seen alive apparently inebriated about 10 p.m. New Year's Eve 2010 being helped by Wacht into Wacht's van outside the Oasis Bar in downtown Cooperstown. Friends began a search for him Jan. 2, and by Jan. 5 state investigators had found his severed head buried in a crawl space in Wacht's basement. His body hasn't been found.

Family responds

That horrible ending, repeated so often since in news reports, was an injustice to his brother's memory and his character, said Korey Johnson, who lives in southern Minnesota.

He and Kurt Johnson grew up with their sisters Karen and Kristie on a farm southeast of this town of nearly 1,000, about 90 minute's drive from Grand Forks and Fargo. The three remaining siblings shared a bittersweet reunion during the trial.

"My brother was a good man. He has three wonderful kids who he loved dearly. He loved life," Korey Johnson said.

People from around the country who knew Kurt Johnson through his professional work in Washington, D.C., and across North Dakota have called with condolences the past year, he said.

Asked whether his family wanted to ask Wacht to reveal what happened to his brother's body, Johnson took time to marshal an answer. "As far as Mr. Wacht, the jury spoke volumes. As far as my brother's body, I know his soul is in heaven."



The jury got the case about 11:35 a.m. Tuesday, after hearing testimony from 31 prosecution witnesses and two defense witnesses -- who took only 15 minutes Tuesday -- over six days. But Judge Hovey called them back for more instructions on how they could view certain trial exhibits.

Just before noon, the jury went back again to its deliberation room, ordering a lunch catered in.

By 2:15 p.m., the jury notified court officers it had reached a verdict.

"It was very difficult," said jury member Linda Cross of the deliberation but also about the seven-day trial. A Hannaford, N.D., resident who works in Cooperstown, she didn't know Wacht or Johnson, but knows many who knew Johnson, she said.

"We had three or four polls," but each time one or two jurors weren't sure, Cross said. "We tried to be fair to both sides," she said. "But there was so much evidence that tended toward Daniel. It was just so overwhelming."

The verdict doesn't answer a deeper question, she said: "How somebody can do something like that to another person?"

Griggs County prosecutor Marina Spahr met for a long time behind closed doors with Johnson's family and law enforcement officers involved in the case. She later said she would not comment on the verdict.

Wacht waited nearby in the law enforcement facility. His attorney Steve Mottinger walked there after the verdict was delivered.


Burden of proof

The prosecution had rested its case Monday, and the defense took its turn Tuesday.

Mottinger called on two rural neighbors, Richard Sutcliffe and Paul Motter, to testify that they found nothing strange or amiss inside Wacht's van only a few hours after Johnson last was seen alive being put into it. Wacht had gotten the van stuck near Sutcliffe's farmstead during a snow storm about 1 a.m. New Year's Day 2011. Sutcliffe, a friend of Wacht, pulled the van out later that morning.

The prosecution did not cross-examine the two and the defense rested its case after less than 15 minutes.

Mottinger's closing argument, though, took 46 minutes as he urged the jury to see that the prosecution had not met its burden of proof.

DNA found on a 9-mm shell casing found in Wacht's bedroom belonged to a still unknown person, as does DNA found inside Wacht's boots, one of which had blood matching Johnson's DNA on its sole, Mottinger said.

A pillow soaked with Johnson's blood found in Wacht's house and the garbage bags holding Johnson's severed head were handled carelessly by investigators, he told the jury. "Their biological evidence was so tainted, so compromised... its value to you is questionable at best."

Meanwhile, the mother of Wacht's roommate, cleaning the house three weeks after several thorough searches by state investigators, found a folding shovel caked with dirt and used work gloves, Mottinger said. Someone else probably planted those items to frame Wacht, he said.


The prosecution's suggestions that Wacht wanted to kill someone to impress a white supremacist gang made no sense, Mottinger said. "Why kill a white man for recognition? It doesn't make any sense."

But Jonathan Byers, the assistant state attorney general helping Spahr, said in the state's closing argument Tuesday that the 9-mm Glock found in Wacht's back pocket when he was arrested, the 9-mm shell casing with Johnson's DNA on it found in Wacht's bedroom, the box for 9-mm ammunition found in Wacht's living room and the fragments of a 9-mm bullet found inside Johnson's head, which was buried in Wacht's basement, add up to a clear case Wacht killed Johnson.

'Justice was done'

After the verdict was announced about 2:30 p.m., people here seemed to breathe a little sigh of relief that the unusual public spectacle of such an untypical event seemed over.

The big pale-green house where Johnson had lived, just across the street from the old red brick courthouse, looks abandoned and uncared for, with an official notice of vacancy posted more than once on the front door. Broken tree limbs hang to the unkempt lawn of the house neighbors say has gone into foreclosure since the killing of Johnson, who lived alone there.

Johnson, a career expert on highway transportation and a researcher in recent years with North Dakota State University's Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute, has many relatives in this community, and many friends who talk about what a good guy he was.

"This doesn't bring him back," said Nathan Lunde, a cousin who came to the trial today. "But it's good justice was done -- as far as on this side."

A farmer and cattle producer along the Sheyenne River east of this town, Lunde was close to Johnson from the start.


"We grew up three miles apart," Lunde said. "We went to high school together, played hockey together, skied together," Lunde said, pausing, overcome with emotion. "We didn't get to grow old together."

Reach Lee at (701) 780-1237; (800) 477-6572, ext. 237; or send email to slee@gfherald.com .

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