Police find NDSU researcher's head in murder suspect's basement
COOPERSTOWN, N.D. - A California felon is charged with murder after police found the decapitated head of a North Dakota State University researcher in the suspect's basement.
Daniel Evan Wacht, 30, was charged Friday with the Class AA felony in connection with the death of local resident Kurt Douglas Johnson.
Authorities discovered Johnson's decapitated head in Wacht's Cooperstown residence, according to the criminal complaint. Johnson died from a gunshot to the forehead, the complaint said.
Griggs County Sheriff Robert Hook and Assistant State's Attorney Marina Spahr said Johnson's body has not yet been recovered.
They declined to comment on the search for the body, when Johnson died or whether the firearm used has been recovered, citing an ongoing investigation.
Hook said authorities do not believe Johnson and Wacht had a relationship prior to Johnson's death, saying the meeting was "probably a chance encounter." Johnson, a Cooperstown native, had lived in town for about 10 years, Hook said, while Wacht came about four months ago.
Wacht was identified by a witness as the last person seen with Johnson when Johnson disappeared on New Year's Eve. The witness said he saw Wacht "throw (Johnson) into the rear cargo area" of a passenger van, according to the criminal complaint.
Annie Somers, a friend of Johnson's, told The Forum she last saw Johnson that night at the Coachman Inn in Cooperstown, where she works. She said Johnson left for another bar around the corner, Oasis, where Somers believes he encountered Wacht.
It's still unclear if Johnson was intoxicated when the witness saw Wacht putting Johnson in the van. Somers indicated that Johnson wasn't a heavy drinker but "celebrated New Year's too much" that night.
Johnson, 54, was reported missing Tuesday after friends and family raised concerns, Hook said.
"It became apparent that this was not a simple summons out of town," Hook said.
Wacht was detained Wednesday morning at Sheyenne Tooling & Manufacturing in Cooperstown, where he worked. Somers said Johnson and Wacht had a mutual acquaintance who worked at the company. The company declined to comment.
Hook said there are no other suspects in the case.
Wacht is being held at Stutsman County jail in Jamestown. Spahr said she did not know when Wacht's first court appearance will be.
An employee at Oasis, who did not give her name, said the killing had shaken the town of 900, where "everybody knows everybody."
" 'Shocked' is the word," said the employee, who said she was not working when Johnson visited Oasis on New Year's Eve. The employee described Johnson as a regular and "a nice guy."
Wacht, 30, was first detained based on a California warrant for a felony probation violation.
Spahr declined to discuss Wacht's criminal history, saying only that he had prior offenses.
Since moving to Cooperstown, Wacht kept a low profile, Hook said.
North Dakota court records show Wacht has a misdemeanor conviction in Griggs County for driving without liability insurance. The offense date was Nov. 6. It's unclear why he was not arrested for the California warrant - or if the warrant had yet been issued - at that time.
A Forum search of court records in Los Angeles provided limited information about Wacht's criminal history. He had several court cases between 2001 and 2008.
In 2008, Wacht was convicted of a statute barring anyone convicted of a felony or who is addicted to the use of narcotic drugs from owning or buying a firearm. He also was convicted of discharging a firearm in a grossly negligent manner.
In 2007, Wacht was convicted of possessing controlled substances with intent to sell.
Johnson worked out of his Cooperstown home as an associate research fellow for the Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute at NDSU.
Johnson was divorced with three adult children. Attempts to reach his family Friday were unsuccessful.
Reiterating earlier comments from authorities, Spahr said she considers the killing "an insolated incident" and that Cooperstown residents should feel safe.
Hook said while he's still researching the matter, he believes the last murder in Cooperstown dates back more than a century.