Cooperstown murder suspect made gang threat; search for body ends
COOPERSTOWN, N.D. -- In the days before investigators believe he killed the man whose severed head was found in his basement, Daniel Wacht is alleged to have said he was planning a murder or an explosion to get notice for the Aryan Nation, an infamous white-supremacist gang.
Authorities also say that Wacht, accused of killing Kurt Johnson, a Cooperstown-based North Dakota State University researcher, had blood stains in his house and a shell casing the same caliber and brand as the one that killed Johnson.
Police found the items in Wacht's home when they searched it five days after he was last seen with the victim on New Year's Eve.
One piece of evidence the investigators haven't uncovered is Johnson's body. Unless new leads surface, the search for his remains is over, the Griggs County sheriff says.
Searchers, many of them in low-flying planes, have so thoroughly combed the known locations of Wacht from New Year's Eve until he was arrested Jan. 5 that there are no plans to continue looking unless more tips come in, Sheriff Robert Hook said this week.
"I feel we've covered it to the nth degree," Hook said.
Johnson's family, saying they, too, had given up on waiting for his body to be located, held a memorial service for him last Saturday. A Griggs County deputy said last week that authorities were still looking for Johnson.
Hook asked for the public's help March 29 in looking along a general route Wacht is thought to have traveled on Jan. 4 to Crosby, Minn. -- secondary county roads and state highways on the way there and U.S. Highway 10 and Fargo on the return trip.
That information generated about 30 calls, none of which turned up anything, the sheriff said.
Hook said the lack of the body shouldn't have much of an impact on the murder case, but it is difficult on Johnson's relatives -- as well as investigators -- who would appreciate closure.
"It's hard when that's lying open," he said.
Transcripts from a probable-cause hearing in May, filed in Griggs County District Court in June, revealed elements of the state's beyond the decapitated head found buried in a bag with dryer sheets under the dirt in a crawl space in Wacht's basement.
Police allege they have a witness who recalls Wacht saying less than two weeks before New Year's Eve that he wanted to blow up something or murder someone to herald the local presence of the Aryan Nation gang. The witness wasn't named in the testimony.
Hook said Wednesday he wouldn't consider Wacht's supposed statement concerning the neo-Nazi gang a "driving force" in the slaying. Neither does Hook think the Aryan Nation is a danger in the region.
A motive for the alleged murder still isn't clear, the sheriff said.
"There's only one person who knows that," he said.
Wacht has denied killing Johnson and pleaded not guilty at the May hearing.
Investigators also claim there appeared to be blood splattered on a couch at Wacht's house when it was searched Jan. 5, with portions of the fabric with stains cut away and found in a trash bag along with a blood-stained pillow. Officers contend that apparent blood was also found in a stairwell in Wacht's home.
Results of forensic tests of those samples, including whether or not the stains were actually blood, hadn't yet been completed by the time of the May 27 hearing, North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation Special Agent Arnie Rummel said in his testimony.
Investigators also said in the preliminary hearing a spent casing found in the home of Wacht home was the same brand of 9 mm ammunition lodged in the victim's head. A handgun the 30-year-old felon had on him when was a 9 mm.
A "survivalist" style of knife and a foldable shovel wedged under the seat of a chair were also seized from Wacht's residence, Rummel said in the hearing.
Wacht was the last man seen with Johnson on the blizzard-whipped night of New Year's Eve, when staff at the Oasis Bar in Cooperstown refused to serve more alcohol to an intoxicated Johnson and talked a reluctant Wacht into giving Johnson a ride around 9 p.m., Hook said.
While the complaint filed against Wacht states there was a witness who claimed to see him "throw" the 54-year-old victim in the back of his van, Hook testified in the hearing that Johnson reportedly entered the van willingly and others helped Wacht get Johnson into the back of the van, pushing him over a snowdrift.
Several hours later, around 3:30 a.m. on Jan. 1, Wacht got his van stuck in a ditch outside of Cooperstown, Rummel testified. He called law enforcement, and an officer gave him a ride back into town before he returned in the morning.
While the van was stuck, an area resident did not see anything suspicious when he looked inside the van, the BCI agent testified.
Investigators determined that two other people who were living with Wacht were out of town for several days in the time period Johnson was killed, Rummel said.
Wacht told investigators he was the only one at his home on Dec. 31 and that when he gave Johnson the ride from the Oasis, he left Johnson in the van when he went back to his own home to have a drink inside.
An order filed in Griggs County District Court on Thursday by Judge James Hovey set Aug. 1 as the deadline to either reach a plea agreement or file any pretrial motions. If there are motions to be decided, the plea-deal deadline is for one week after the motions are ruled upon. Trial start dates are tentatively set for either Jan. 30 or April 30.