Murder Suspect in Decapitation Case: 'I'm the Devil'COOPERSTOWN, N.D. – Jurors heard Daniel Wacht’s voice for the first time in his murder trial Wednesday when prosecutors played a 77-minute police interview of the Cooperstown man after his arrest but before investigators unearthed the severed head of North Dakota State University researcher Kurt Johnson in his basement.
By: Mike Nowatzki, Forum Communications
COOPERSTOWN, N.D. – Jurors heard Daniel Wacht’s voice for the first time in his murder trial Wednesday when prosecutors played a 77-minute police interview of the Cooperstown man after his arrest but before investigators unearthed the severed head of North Dakota State University researcher Kurt Johnson in his basement.
“I don’t know where the (expletive) he is. I’m not his baby sitter,” Wacht said in the interview Jan. 5, 2011.
Earlier Wednesday, the bartender at the Oasis Bar – where Johnson was last seen alive on New Year’s Eve 2010 being tossed by Wacht into his van – testified that Wacht told her “he was the devil.”
Another witness said Wacht, who faces a possible life sentence without parole if convicted of shooting and decapitating Johnson, told him nearly two weeks before Johnson disappeared that he was in the Aryan Brotherhood and wanted to start a white supremacist movement in the area.
“He told me that he was either going to blow something up or kill someone to prove that they were here,” Jason Bolstad testified.
Wacht’s attorney, Steven Mottinger, attacked Bolstad’s credibility and questioned investigators about their handling of evidence, including how often they changed gloves and whether they could have spread biological evidence from one piece of evidence to another – including a 9-mm shell casing found in Wacht’s bedroom that prosecutors say had Johnson’s blood on it.
While his head was found, Johnson’s body hasn’t been recovered.
‘It doesn’t make sense’
The Jan. 5 interview took place after authorities arrested Wacht about 6 a.m. when he arrived at his workplace, Sheyenne Tooling, where he was a welder.
Special Agent Arnie Rummel of the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation said the California warrant for Wacht’s arrest included a caution listing him as “armed and dangerous,” so authorities decided to serve the warrant at a location they could control.
As agents converged on Wacht’s maroon GMC Safari van in the parking lot, he got out and was ordered to the ground. A 9-mm Glock pistol loaded with 10 bullets was seized from his back pocket, Rummel said.
At the Griggs County Sheriff’s Office, BCI Special Agent Shelby Franklin read Wacht his Miranda rights.
“I don’t even know what I’m doing here,” Wacht said in the interview, though he had talked by phone with Griggs County Sheriff Robert Hook the day before about Johnson. “Obviously, we’re not talking about my parole violation.”
Wacht acknowledged that he wasn’t supposed to possess a gun but said he’d been trying to clear his California warrant and was applying for “sovereign citizenship” so he could “squash all this little petty nonsense.” He said he was a natural-born citizen who still had his constitutional rights and shouldn’t be subject to statutes passed by “self-serving people.”
Wacht told Franklin and Rummel that he had served in the Marine Corps from 1997 to 1999 but got out.
“I didn’t like the bureaucracy. Couldn’t take it anymore,” he said.
As for what happened New Year’s Eve, Wacht, 31, said he had been talking and drinking with Johnson – who he said seemed like a “good dude” – at the Oasis Bar and offered to give the 54-year-old a ride home when the bartender threatened to call the cops on Johnson because he was drunk. But once they were in the van, he said Johnson was belligerent and would not say where he lived.
Wacht said he drove to his own house, went inside and mixed a vodka screwdriver, leaving Johnson passed out in the van. When he later returned to the van, Johnson was conscious and still being obnoxious, so he dropped him off at the Fish Bowl Bar across the street from the Oasis either late that Friday night or early Saturday morning, he said.
“I’m a nice guy. I thought I was going to do him a favor,” he said.
When asked if things went bad that night with Johnson, Wacht said no.
“Why the hell would I want to kidnap some old guy? It doesn’t make sense,” he said.
Rummel pointed out that people at the Fish Bowl that night – several of whom testified Wednesday – said Johnson never showed up.
“What if somebody else picked him up? He doesn’t have any friends?” Wacht told investigators.
Wacht said after he dropped Johnson off, he went home and then tried to drive to a friend’s house north of Cooperstown. But in a snowstorm, he misjudged the turn off Highway 200 and got stuck in the ditch, he said.
At around 3 a.m., Wacht called the sheriff’s office to ask for a ride into town, which he received. Hook testified that the two deputies who responded said “it appeared Mr. Wacht did not want them near his van.”
‘From zero to 60’
Kerry Sad, the bartender at the Oasis on New Year’s Eve 2010, said Johnson
didn’t appear intoxicated when he came in the back door at about 9 p.m. and pulled up a stool at the bar.
But as he and Wacht talked at the bar, he quickly went from not drunk to very drunk, she said. Griggs County State’s Attorney Marina Spahr said in her opening statement Tuesday that a state medical examiner will testify Johnson had a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.54 percent.
“It was almost like Kurt went from zero to 60 in 45 minutes,” Sad said.
At one point, she said she heard Wacht tell Johnson, “If you don’t like me, you can just shoot me in the head then.”
Sad said Wacht also said something strange to her that night.
“He asked me if I was Christian, and before I could even say anything, he told me he was the devil and was serving the devil,” Sad said, adding that she was “freaked out by the whole thing” and asked her husband to come behind the bar.
Focus on Aryan ties
Prosecutors focused part of the day on Wacht’s alleged affiliation with the Aryan Nation, which has been raised as a possible motive for the killing.
Bolstad, 26, of Grand Forks, said when Wacht told him Dec. 18, 2010, he was going to blow something up or kill someone, he told Wacht that he wouldn’t get away with it and the cops would be all over him.
“He said that they were all idiots and that they were corn-fed people up here,” said Bolstad, who is serving time at the James River Correctional Center in Jamestown on a probation violation stemming from a 2004 theft and drug paraphernalia conviction.
In cross-examination that became testy at times, Mottinger pressed Bolstad about why he didn’t offer to share his information on Wacht with investigators until he knew he was likely headed back to prison.
Spahr noted that investigators never cut a deal with Bolstad.
“Are you making any of this up to help yourself out?” she asked him.
“No,” Bolstad said.
Bolstad said he was at a house party with his younger brother and his brother’s friends on Dec. 18 when Wacht and a friend showed up. He said he noticed the machine-gun tattoo above Wacht’s right ear and didn’t want Wacht around his brother.
Wacht told him he was in the Aryan Brotherhood, a white supremacist gang. He said Wacht’s friend came up and said something about the “14 Words,” a white nationalist slogan.
They decided to go to Wacht’s house for drinks, and when they got there, Wacht and his friend pulled out guns and set them on the table, Bolstad said. Later, Bolstad said he and Wacht went out to a cemetery north of Cooperstown and fired a gun at a tree, a picture of which was shown to jurors.
Bolstad said Wacht asked him if he wanted to join the Aryan Brotherhood and had him talk on Wacht’s cellphone to a man Wacht told him was named Nico, “some kind of leader of an Aryan gang in California or something,” Bolstad said.
Hook, the sheriff, also said photos of Wacht’s body show he has Swastika and SS army symbols on his body.
Special Agent Mark Nickel of the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation said agents searching Wacht’s home after his arrest found a canister containing gunpowder and marbles, as well as a coil of fuse, on an entertainment center in the home.
Nickel said fabric softener sheets were found in a garbage bag containing Johnson’s severed head, which was discovered buried in a crawl space in Wacht’s basement.
Jurors were shown a picture of the partially opened bag with Johnson’s head partly visible inside. Across the courtroom, Johnson’s mother covered her face with her hands until the picture was removed from the monitor.