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Amy Dalrymple and Wendy Reuer, Forum staff writers, Published January 07 2011

NDSU researcher thought murdered

A murder investigation is under way after the body of a North Dakota State University researcher was found in a Cooperstown, N.D., home.

Kurt Douglas Johnson, 54, was reported missing on Tuesday, said Griggs County Sheriff Robert Hook.

Johnson was last seen leaving a Cooperstown bar on New Year’s Eve.

Investigators found Johnson’s body late Wednesday night, Hook said. He declined to say exactly where he was found or provide further details.

A suspect has been detained in connection with Johnson’s death, Hook said, but he would not name the suspect.

Griggs County State’s Attorney Paul Murphy said he expected to file charges today.

He, too, would not name the suspect, except to confirm the man is being held in Jamestown, N.D., on an unrelated probation violation from California.

An official at the Stutsman County jail in Jamestown said Daniel Evan Wacht, 30, was being held for Griggs County on a probation violation from California.

Cooperstown is about 50 miles north of Valley City, N.D., with a population of about 900. In a news release, Hook stated that his office believes Johnson’s death is an isolated incident.

“We feel very confident that the community is safe at this time,” Hook wrote in the release.

Hook said the suspect was not originally from Cooperstown.

There is a current address for the man in Cooperstown.

Hook would not say if authorities were investigating more than one suspect in the incident.

Annie Somers, Johnson’s friend who had known him for four years, said she last saw Johnson at the Coachman Inn, a bar in Cooperstown, on New Year’s Eve, before he went to the Oasis, another local bar.

Somers said Johnson was not a regular drinker but was out celebrating the holiday.

Somers was supposed to clean Johnson’s house for him on Monday, but she ­didn’t go because she didn’t know where he was.

Friends found it unusual that they hadn’t heard from Johnson, especially after one friend went to the house on Monday and found that Johnson’s brown Lab, Sparky, was left alone without food and water, said Somers.

“By Sunday, everybody knew something was wrong because Kurt would never leave Sparky,” she said. “That dog was like his life.”

Johnson worked out of his Cooperstown home as an associate research fellow for the Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute at NDSU.

Gene Griffin, director of the institute, said he was notified by the family this week that Johnson was missing.

“We kind of suspected the worst, but unfortunately, that’s what it is,” Griffin said.

Johnson spent a lot of time working with the North Dakota Department of Transportation in Bismarck, Griffin said.

Johnson had 23 years of experience with the Department of Transportation, according to his online staff bio.

“He was a very bright guy,” Griffin said. “A very creative, very good thinker.”

Johnson grew up on a farm near Cooperstown and moved back to the city several years ago. He has three adult children.


Grand Forks Herald reporter Stephen J. Lee contributed to this report

Readers can reach Forum reporter Amy Dalrymple at (701) 241-5590 and Wendy Reuer at (701) 241-5530.