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In two hours, jury convicts Wacht of murdering decapitated NDSU researcher

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

The swift verdict, 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 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. A search for him began Jan. 2 by friends, and by Jan. 5 state crime investigators had found his severed head buried in a crawl space in Wacht's basement.

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.

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

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

Asked whether his family had any comment to Wacht about revealing 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," he said.


The jury got the case about 11:35 a.m. today, after testimony from 31 prosecution witnesses and two defense witnesses -- who took only 15 minutes today -- over six days.

Judge Hovey called back the seven men and five women within a few minutes to give them more detailed instructions on how to view exhibits in the courtroom, if needed.

Just before noon, the jury went back 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 trial that began with jury selection April 16.

She lives in Hannaford, N.D., and works in Cooperstown. She didn't know Wacht or Johnson, but knows many people who knew Johnson, who grew up in the community and returned several years ago.

"We had three or four polls," Cross said of the jury's deliberations. Each time one or two weren't sure, she 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 strange and grisly murder seems so at odds with the quiet, farm-centered community an hour's drive from either Fargo or Grand Forks, said Cross.

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

Griggs County State's Attorney Marina Spahr met for a long time behind closed doors with Johnson's family and said she would not comment today on the verdict.

Wacht's defense attorney, Steve Mottinger, walked from the courthouse to the law enforcement facility where Wacht had waited for the jury's verdict.

Remembering Kurt

People in this town of nearly 1,000 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 court house, looks forlorn, empty 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 here.

Johnson, an expert on highway transportation and a researcher in recent years with North Dakota State University's Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute, grew up on a farm southeast of town with his brother Korey and sisters Karen and Kristie.

There are many Johnson relatives here, and many friends who talk about what a good guy Kurt Johnson 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 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," he said, pausing, overcome with emotion. "We didn't get to grow old together."