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Published April 15 2012

Jury selection begins today in decapitation trial

COOPERSTOWN, N.D. – The first murder trial here in more than 80 years will feature a defendant with a machine-gun tattoo on his head and reported ties to a white supremacist gang, a victim whose severed head was found in the alleged killer’s basement and the oldest working courthouse in North Dakota.

Jury selection begins today in the trial of 31-year-old Daniel Evan Wacht. He stands accused of shooting and decapitating Cooperstown-based North Dakota State University researcher Kurt Johnson after they left the Oasis Bar in Wacht’s van on New Year’s Eve 2010.

Johnson’s body wasn’t recovered, despite extensive air and ground searches tracing Wacht’s known whereabouts from New Year’s Eve until his arrest on Jan. 5, 2011.

The search reached as far as Crosby, Minn., 250 miles from Cooperstown. Investigators believe Wacht drove his red GMC Safari van to the Crosby area the day before his arrest.

Griggs County Attorney Marina Spahr said she expects to call roughly 30 prosecution witnesses during what is scheduled to be a two-week trial.

Wacht’s court-appointed attorney, Steven Mottinger of Fargo, said he subpoenaed between five and 10 witnesses but doesn’t know how many will testify. He wouldn’t comment on whether Wacht will take the stand in his own defense.

Despite extensive media coverage of the case, Mottinger didn’t request a change of venue to move the trial out of Griggs County, population 2,420.

Mottinger said the state Supreme Court has made it clear the preference is to try to pick a jury in the county where the crime is charged. Jury candidates filled out an extensive questionnaire, he noted.

“We are hopeful that we are going to be able to pick a jury in Griggs County, but we will have to see what happens once we get into it,” he said.

Extra security will be in place as the trial unfolds in the historic Griggs County Courthouse, which last hosted a murder trial in 1929, Sheriff Robert Hook said.

The three-story courthouse turns 130 years old next year and is targeted for a facelift. County voters will decide on June 12 whether to approve $3.1 million in bonds to renovate and remodel the structure and build a 5,800-square-foot addition for the sheriff’s office and County Commission chambers.

Voters rejected a $4.7 million courthouse bond issue last September by a vote of 196 to 358. Before the election, officials in the vote-by-mail county learned of a nearly $1 million federal grant to build an emergency operations center as part of the addition, but it was too late to change the ballot, Anton said.

The sheriff’s office currently operates from a mobile home parked next to the courthouse, while the commission meets in the jury room – or, if that’s in use, the veterans’ services office, County Auditor Cindy Anton said.

Griggs County has no jail, so deputies will transport Wacht to the courthouse each day from another county’s jail. Hook said he’s not concerned about the possibility of interference from the Aryan Nation, the white supremacist gang to which Wacht allegedly has ties.

“If we follow our standard procedures for transporting prisoners and do our job correctly, there should be no issue,” he said.

During a preliminary hearing last May, a Bureau of Criminal Investigation agent testified that in the weeks before Johnson went missing, Wacht told a witness he wanted to make a statement that Aryan Nation people were in the area, “and that something either was going to get blown up or somebody was going to get murdered to make that statement.”

Mottinger has asked Judge James Hovey to suppress testimony about that alleged statement – which points to the only possible motive raised publicly so far – as well as Wacht’s criminal history and the fact he had a warrant out of California for a parole violation.

Another judge already ruled that prosecutors can present evidence collected during searches of Wacht’s van and house.

Johnson’s head was found in Wacht’s basement, buried in a crawl space with what appeared to be a bullet hole in the forehead, court documents state. Authorities say Wacht also had bloodstains in his house and a shell casing the same brand and caliber as the one that killed Johnson.

Wacht acknowledges he gave Johnson a ride when the 54-year-old was kicked out of the Oasis Bar on New Year’s Eve, but he has denied killing Johnson or having any involvement in his disappearance, court documents state.

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