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Published January 24 2012

Judge allows searches in severed-head murder case in Cooperstown

COOPERSTOWN, N.D. – A judge ruled Tuesday that police had probable cause to search the van and home of a Cooperstown man accused of murder, allowing prosecutors to present evidence collected during the searches – including the victim’s severed head.

Judge Thomas E. Merrick issued the ruling after hearing arguments last Thursday in Griggs County District Court on a motion to suppress evidence against Daniel Evan Wacht, 31, who faces life in prison with no chance of parole if convicted of killing North Dakota State University researcher Kurt Johnson.

Wacht’s attorney, Steven Mottinger, had argued that authorities didn’t have the right to search Wacht’s van on Jan. 5, 2011, the day after Johnson was reported missing. He said evidence should be suppressed from that search and two later searches of Wacht’s home.

During the last of the three searches, authorities found Johnson’s severed head in Wacht’s basement, buried in a crawl space with what appeared to be a bullet hole in the forehead, court documents state.

Johnson’s body hasn’t been recovered.

In his ruling Tuesday, Merrick agreed that three statements in Griggs County Sheriff Robert Hook’s application for the first search warrant “appear to have been included in the affidavit with reckless disregard for the truth” – including that Johnson’s cousin, Ron Berge, didn’t speak directly with Wacht as alleged. Hook blamed the error on miscommunication.

Merrick also found that a paragraph in the affidavit in which Wacht was quoted as saying no one saw him drop off Johnson at The Fishbowl bar the night he went missing, was “false and misleading” and took Wacht’s statement out of context.

However, Merrick found despite the false statements in the affidavit, there was still probable cause for the van warrant, noting authorities had established:

*Johnson was inexplicably missing.

*He was so intoxicated on New Year’s Eve he was asked to leave the Oasis Bar and needed help doing so.

*Wacht volunteered to take him home.

*Johnson had last been seen with Wacht in his van.

*There was no evidence Johnson ever arrived home.

*Wacht has an extensive criminal history, including at least one violent crime.

“Those facts certainly provide probable cause to believe that evidence pertaining to Mr. Johnson’s disappearance, which could be the result of criminal activity, was probably to be found in the van at that time,” Merrick wrote.

The judge also ruled there was probable cause for the other two search warrants.

Wacht’s jury trial is set for April 16 in Griggs County District Court.