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Published April 17, 2012, 05:38 PM

Beheaded Victim in Cooperstown Murder Had BAC of 0.54

COOPERSTOWN, N.D. – A Cooperstown man accused of shooting a North Dakota State University researcher in the head and then decapitating him told a fellow partygoer in the days beforehand that he wanted to start a local white supremacy gang and needed to “make a statement” by blowing up a place or killing someone, a prosecutor said today.

By: Mike Nowatzki, Forum Communications

COOPERSTOWN, N.D. – A Cooperstown man accused of shooting a North Dakota State University researcher in the head and then decapitating him told a fellow partygoer in the days beforehand that he wanted to start a local white supremacy gang and needed to “make a statement” by blowing up a place or killing someone, a prosecutor said today.

In opening arguments, Griggs County Attorney Marina Spahr told jurors Cooperstown-based NDSU researcher Kurt Johnson was celebrating New Year’s Eve 2010 when Daniel Evan Wacht snuffed out his life “as suddenly and quickly as the cork popping off a champagne bottle.”

Wacht’s defense attorney, Steven Mottinger, told jurors that the evidence – which includes Johnson’s severed head found in a crawl space in Wacht’s rented home – isn’t as clear cut as prosecutors would have them believe.

“Their evidence will show that there are other possibilities, that someone else could have been involved,” Mottinger told the jury of eight men and six women, including two alternates.

In her 15-minute opening, Spahr said Johnson walked into the Oasis Bar alone at around 8 or 9 p.m. on New Year’s Eve 2010, sat down on a barstool and ordered a beer. Wacht, known by a lot of people in town as “machine gun head” because of the tattoo of a gun above his right ear, slid over to the 54-year-old Johnson and began talking to him, she said.

“It didn’t take very long at all before Kurt Johnson was fall-down drunk, and I mean fall-down drunk,” Spahr said, later telling jurors a doctor will testify that Johnson’s blood-alcohol concentration was 0.54 percent, more than six times the legal limit for driving.

After Johnson fell over backward off his barstool, a bartender suggesting calling police to help him get home, at which point Spahr said Wacht said, “We don’t need any (expletive) cops. We’ll take care of this.”

Another man helped Johnson to Wacht’s van parked outside the Oasis but couldn’t get him over the tall berm of snow that had built up, Spahr said. Wacht grabbed Johnson by the neck and waist and threw him into the side door of the van, she said.

“And that’s when the party ended,” she said. “There would be no new beginnings for Kurt Johnson.”

Wacht has admitted giving the 54-year-old Johnson a ride that night but denies killing him.

Spahr said Johnson died of a close-range bullet to the forehead and was dead before he was decapitated. A 9-mm hollow-point bullet was found lodged in his brain, and a ballistics expert will testify it could have been fired from the 9-mm Glock pistol recovered from Wacht’s back pocket when he was arrested Jan. 5, 2011, Spahr said.

A single 9-mm casing found in Wacht’s bedroom had blood spots on it, and forensic testing at a Texas lab indicated it could have only come from Johnson, his father or his grandfather, she said.

Witness Jason Bolstad will testify after he and Wacht left a party on Dec. 18, 2010, and went to Wacht’s house, Wacht told him he was in an Aryan Nation-type gang and asked if he wanted to be a part of it. Wacht also made the comment about starting a local gang at that time, she said.

Phone records also will show Wacht signed up for an account under the name Rudolf Hess, a top official in the Nazi Party, Spahr said. They also will show Wacht traveled to Crosby, Minn., on Jan. 4 and came straight back to Cooperstown, she said. The route to Crosby was among the areas authorities combed in their unsuccessful search for Johnson’s body.

Authorities also didn’t recover Johnson’s cell phone, but Sheriff Robert Hook will testify it was powered down at 12:01 a.m. on New Year’s Day 2011, Spahr said.

Jurors won’t hear how Johnson’s head was severed, but they will hear about key pieces of DNA evidence linking 31-year-old Wacht to the killing, including a loveseat cushion found in Wacht’s garbage that was soaked in Johnson’s blood, as well as Wacht’s boots and gloves that had Johnson’s blood on the outside and Wacht’s DNA on the inside, Spahr said.

Spahr said while the fact Johnson’s body wasn’t recovered is frustrating to everyone involved in the investigation and Johnson’s family, “it’s not a required element of this crime,” she said.

Mottinger told jurors it’s not their job to provide closure to the community or Johnson’s family, and he cautioned them against jumping to a hasty conclusion.

“If you’ve already decided that he’s guilty, then you have already failed,” he said.

The prosecution called four witnesses, all law enforcement officials, to enter into evidence photos taking during the investigation. Testimony resumes at 9 a.m. Wednesday in the trial, which is scheduled for two weeks.

Wacht faces up to life in prison without parole if convicted of the killing.

Security was extremely tight at the courthouse, with extra guards from neighboring counties and the North Dakota Highway Patrol stationed inside and outside the courtroom.

A sheriff’s deputy was ink-stamping the hands of visitors after they passed through the metal detector set up at the only working entrance to the 129-year-old Griggs County Courthouse, which Hook said hasn’t hosted a murder trial since 1929.

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