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Published April 19 2012

Jurors see grisly photos in Cooperstown beheading trial

COOPERSTOWN, N.D. – When Daniel Evan Wacht heard the severed head of Kurt Johnson had been dug up in a crawl space in Wacht’s basement, the 31-year-old paused, his complexion turned red and he sunk down in his chair, a state investigator testified Thursday.

“He stated, ‘I don’t know anything about anything,’” Bureau of Criminal Investigation Special Agent Arnie Rummel said, recalling the Jan. 6, 2011, interview with Wacht at a jail in Jamestown.

Later in the fourth day of Wacht’s murder trial, prosecutors showed jurors grisly photos of Johnson’s severed head. Some of Johnson’s family members in the courtroom averted their eyes from the images as the state medical examiner testified about the photos, saying Johnson’s assailant fired a bullet into his forehead from about 6 inches to 2 feet away, killing him “probably within minutes, possibly within seconds.”

Dr. William Massello III said a test on a sample of vitreous fluid drawn from one of Johnson’s eyes during his autopsy found his blood-alcohol concentration at the time of his death was 0.54 percent, or almost seven times the legal limit of 0.08 percent for driving.

“In many people, this level would be lethal,” Massello said, though he said a person with a history of alcoholism may survive.

When cross-examined by Wacht’s attorney, Steven Mottinger, Massello said he couldn’t determine exactly when Johnson died,

Wacht is accused of killing Johnson – a Coopers-town-based researcher for North Dakota State University – sometime between New Year’s Eve 2010, when Johnson was last seen alive being helped into Wacht’s van outside the Oasis Bar in Cooperstown, and Jan. 5, 2011, when Wacht was arrested as he showed up for work in the morning.

Cutting tool unknown

Johnson’s heart had already stopped beating when his head was amputated, Massello said. His body has not yet been found.

Massello said he couldn’t determine what tool or tools were used in Johnson’s post-mortem decapitation. Based on the evidence, “It had to be a nice sharp instrument that went through the skin and muscle,” he said, but added that a knife would have a tough time cutting through bone.

LaMonte Jacobson, a forensic supervisor in the state crime lab who was testifying as a ballistics expert, said in his opinion the bullet that killed Johnson was a Remington Golden Saber 9-mm hollow-point bullet, which matches an ammunition box found in Wacht’s rented home.

Jacobson said the bullet could have been fired from the Glock 9-mm handgun seized from Wacht during his arrest. But because the Glock’s rifling doesn’t make a distinct impression, Jacobson said he couldn’t be certain Wacht’s weapon fired the bullet.

Jacobson said it was his opinion that a spent 9-mm cartridge found in Wacht’s bedroom during a warrant search was fired by his Glock, but he couldn’t confirm whether the bullet in Johnson’s head came from that cartridge.

Griggs County State’s Attorney Marina Spahr has said evidence will show the cartridge had spots of blood on it belonging to Johnson, his father or his grandfather.

Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Byers, who is co-prosecuting the case, asked Jacobson why someone would want to use hollow-point bullets, which expand when they hit their target. Jacobson said one reason is that hollow points don’t penetrate as far.

“Another thought is that by expanding, it would cause more damage to the target,” he said.

Mottinger challenged the validity of the ballistics test, noting that Jacobson used only three test-fired rounds for the cartridge comparison and didn’t use other Glock handguns to compare markings. Jacobson said a researcher who studied more than 500 Glocks was able to match each gun to the cartridge cases it fired.

Statements disputed

Prosecutors tried to zero in on Wacht as the only person who could have been responsible for Johnson’s death.

Rummel, the BCI agent, said investigators couldn’t corroborate Wacht’s claim that he dropped off Johnson outside the Fish Bowl Bar after giving him a ride on New Year’s Eve 2010.

Rummel said investigators also talked to a witness who said Wacht knew where Johnson lived, which contradicts Wacht’s statement in a Jan. 5, 2011, interview – before Johnson’s head had been found – that he couldn’t drop off Johnson at home because Johnson wouldn’t tell him where he lived.

That 77-minute interview, played for the jury Wednesday, also was important because Wacht said his roommate, Russell Chamberlin, was out of town on New Year’s Eve 2010, Rummel said.

“That takes Russell out of the equation as to being at the house. ... That puts Daniel in there by himself,” he said.

But Mottinger grilled Rummel about why investigators didn’t find a shovel wedged under a chair and a pair of dirty gloves in a kitchen drawer when they searched Wacht’s rented home on Jan. 5 and 6, 2011. The items were found about two weeks later by Chamberlin and his mother when they returned to the home to clean up and gather belongings.

“Sometimes we do miss pieces of evidence. Sometimes they’re hard to locate,” Rummel said.

Mottinger asked if the dirt on the shovel was compared to the dirt in the crawl space where Johnson’s head was unearthed. Rummel said it wasn’t.

“So, we don’t know if Daniel Wacht ever touched that shovel, do we?” Mottinger asked.

“No,” Rummel replied.

After the jury was excused for the day, Mottinger moved for a mistrial, apparently because one or more jurors during the noon break saw Wacht being escorted to the courthouse from the sheriff’s office next door.

Judge James Hovey said he will reconsider the motion this morning.

Evidence at issue

Hovey wouldn’t allow Rummel, the BCI agent, to testify about the registration of Wacht’s Glock.

With the jury out of the courtroom, Spahr argued that the fact the gun was stolen in Las Vegas three weeks after Wacht’s release from jail is significant because criminals are more likely to use stolen weapons to commit crimes because they’re harder to trace.

But Mottinger said the gun refers to prior bad acts that the defense could only refute by putting Wacht on the stand.

Hovey agreed there was a risk of “substantial prejudice” to Wacht if the testimony were allowed.

At the same time, Hovey reserved judgment on whether the jury will be allowed to hear testimony about a canister containing gunpowder and marbles found in Wacht’s living room and what Spahr said was a bomb-making book.

Spahr said the evidence speaks to witness Jason Bolstad’s testimony Wednesday that Wacht told him he wanted to start an Aryan Nation gang here and “that he was either going to blow something up or kill someone to prove that they were here.”

But Mottinger said no one is alleging that Johnson’s death had anything to do with a bomb.

Hovey said he wasn’t at the point yet to make a decision, but he said he’s concerned that if he allows too much extraneous evidence pertaining to prior bad acts, “the jury may paint this defendant with an overly broad brush.”

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