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Published December 05 2011

Defense seeks to throw out searches of murder suspect’s home, van

COOPERSTOWN, N.D. – The lawyer for a Cooperstown man accused of killing a North Dakota State University researcher is asking a judge to suppress evidence obtained through search warrants for the man’s van and home.

In a motion filed last week in Griggs County District Court, attorney Steven Mottinger argues authorities didn’t have probable cause to search Daniel Evan Wacht’s van on Jan. 5 – a search authorized in part on the basis of reports the defense claims were unreliable.

Because evidence seized during the van search led to two warranted searches of Wacht’s home, Mottinger argues that evidence from all three of the searches should be thrown out.

During the last of the three searches, authorities found the severed head of Cooperstown-based NDSU re­searcher Kurt Johnson in Wacht’s basement with what appeared to be a bullet hole in the forehead, court documents state.

Authorities say Wacht also had blood stains in his house and a shell casing the same caliber and brand as the one that killed Johnson, whose body hasn’t been found.

Wacht faces life in prison without parole if convicted of Class AA murder. His jury trial is set to start April 16.

Mottinger’s motion to suppress focuses primarily on Griggs County Sheriff Robert Hook’s affidavit for the initial search warrant, which has been sealed.

According to Mottinger’s motion, in one paragraph of the affidavit, Hook refers to a witness who reported that Wacht told him he went home with Johnson and was there for some time while Johnson was passed out in his van and that he then dropped Johnson off at the Fish Bowl bar.

However, that same witness told a private detective hired by Wacht that he had never actually met or talked to Wacht and that the information he passed on to Hook had been relayed to him by bar patrons a few days after Johnson’s disappearance, Mottinger states, calling it “a deliberate attempt to give reliability to information that totally lacked reliability.”

Mottinger also criticizes a lack of information about several other sources in the affidavit. He claims it shows not only a lack of probable cause but also “negligence in obtaining information as to the reliability of the evidence, if not deliberate deception” of Judge James D. Hovey, who signed the warrants.

Mottinger also refers to an affidavit by Special Agent Arnie Rummel of the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation.

“Even if the information in the affidavits in support of the search warrant of the van had been reliable, it showed little more than that Mr. Wacht was allegedly the last person to be seen with Mr. Johnson, which is not enough to support the issuance of a search warrant,” the motion states.

Judge Thomas E. Merrick is scheduled to hear the motion on Dec. 14.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528