Stephen J. Lee, Forum Communications Co., Published January 18 2011
Severe weather halts search for body in Cooperstown
Meanwhile, the sole suspect in the case remains in jail charged with murder but hasn’t said much to help the search, according to Griggs County Sheriff Robert Hook.
“We are regrouping,” Hook said Monday. “There are so many square miles out there – we are trying to plan where we would look next.”
Kurt Johnson, 54, last was seen alive being kicked out of the Oasis Bar in Cooperstown on New Year’s Eve and being helped into the back of a van by the main suspect, Daniel Wacht, 30, Hook said.
The van belonged to Wacht, who had been drinking with Johnson that night at the Oasis, Hook said.
Four days later, Johnson’s family and friends reported him missing. On Jan. 5, Wacht was arrested at his job as a welder at Sheyenne Tooling and Manufacturing in Cooperstown, where grain augers and other farm equipment are built.
Johnson’s head, with a gunshot wound in the forehead, was found in Wacht’s house, after a lengthy search involving progressively more detailed search warrants, Hook said.
But despite searches of several sites in and outside of the city, Johnson’s body hasn’t been found.
“We searched points along (U.S.) Highway 200,” Hook said of the main road through Cooperstown, east to west.
Hook has agents of the state’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation, as well as officers from other law enforcement agencies who he says aren’t inclined to be identified, aiding in the investigation. The search has included cadaver dogs.
Wacht’s van is part of the evidence.
Hook said Wacht had one “full-time” roommate in the house he rented in Cooperstown, but is the only suspect in Johnson’s death.
Since the initial contact with Wacht at the time of his arrest, investigators haven’t met again with Wacht, who has an attorney, Hook said.
But he said it’s still early in the investigation.
“We are just putting our plan together to see where we are at with our case, get some ideas where we want to pursue this next,” he said.
To state the obvious: the weather hasn’t helped.
“Basically, we have had a storm event about every day nonstop (this) month,” Hook said. “Over this time period, we have had wind events, snow events that all have hampered our case to some degree.”
Cooperstown has had 16 inches of snow since New Year’s Eve, according to the National Weather Service in Grand Forks. Monday began a spell of frigidity in which temperatures will struggle to get above zero every day for a week or more, while plunging to 15 below to 20 below at night, with wind chills of 25 below to 35 below, the weather service says.
On Monday, driving conditions were poor, with blowing and drifting snow travel difficult, much less searches through snowy, remote fields and pastures that surround Cooperstown.
“I’m not going to send people out to search in the countryside in 3 feet of snow until we have a reason to search,” Hook said.
Johnson was a native of Cooperstown who moved back about a decade ago. He has a large extended family in the area, as well as three children with his first wife, all of whom live out of state.
His second marriage had ended after a relatively short time, a relative said.
A graduate of North Dakota State University, Johnson worked for years for the state Department of Transportation, and in recent years for the Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute at NDSU as an engineering expert on roads and bridges.
Wacht came from California several months ago, and while he had a criminal record, he does not have a history of violent crime, as far as Hook knows. In Cooperstown, Wacht hadn’t caught the attention of local law enforcement before Johnson’s disappearance, except for a minor traffic violation last fall.
“He lived here unassumingly and went to work at his job and didn’t cause us any problems,” Hook said.
There didn’t appear to be any longtime acquaintance or interaction between Wacht and Johnson, Hook said. Rumors have been flying around Cooperstown, Hook said, but most of them are untrue.
One is about Johnson’s house being searched several months ago as part of a drug task force investigation into the illegal party drug known as ecstasy.
A “general search” of Johnson’s house did take place, but the investigation found no involvement by Johnson in any drug deal nor any sign of drugs in his home, Hook said.
Rather, there was an investigative connection at the time to a person Johnson had allowed to stay in his home for a short time. But Johnson was cleared, and there doesn’t appear to be any connection, either, between that drug investigation and Wacht, Hook said.
Although the investigation into Johnson’s murder is in its early stages, the whole thing has put a strain on his department of two full-time deputies and one part-time deputy shared with neighboring Steele County.
“For a department of my size, this case is a pretty serious hit for man hours,” Hook said. “Besides this case, we have to carry on our routine duties, so it was very tough on my deputies and staff, to man all the hours needed to help in this investigation.”
And Hook maintains that public safety has been maintained.
“This was an isolated incident, and the citizens of our county are still safe in their daily routine,” Hook said. “This was a stranger among us that did, at least it appears from the way it looks, a bad thing. And we are going to work to solve it.”
Steven J. Lee writes for the Grand Forks Herald