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Published April 20 2012

Fresh dirt tipped investigator in search that turned up severed head

COOPERSTOWN, N.D. – On the fifth day of the murder trial for Daniel Wacht, a state crime agent described how investigators located the buried severed head of Kurt Johnson – the man Wacht is accused of shooting and decapitating.

Johnson’s head was found in a crawl space in the basement of Wacht’s rented house on Jan. 5, 2011, five days after Johnson was last seen alive being helped into Wacht’s van on New Year’s Eve 2010 outside the Oasis Bar in Cooperstown. His body hasn’t been found.

Special Agent Shelby Franklin of the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation said in Friday testimony the idea to dig in the crawl space arose after he had noticed that black coveralls and a pair of tan boots in one of the home’s entryways had dirt on them, some of which looked fresh. It seemed odd because there was three feet of snow covering the ground outside, he said.

Before crawling inside the space, Franklin photographed a boot print, which he said had a “very similar, if not exact” pattern as Wacht’s boots upstairs, as well as a handprint in the dirt. Using a metal probe to feel for soft dirt, he moved a metal wheel and debris off a mounded area and began digging with a stick and coffee can.

About 14 inches down, he dug past wads of fabric softener sheets and found the charcoal-gray garbage bag with blue ties containing the 54-year-old Johnson’s head. Franklin said he believes the sheets were buried over the bag to cover up the smell of decomposition.

Also on Friday, a forensic expert said it’s “highly likely” a DNA sample from a 9-mm cartridge case found in Wacht’s bedroom came from Johnson, a North Dakota State University researcher who was based in Cooperstown.

Of the 15 DNA markers observed in a sample taken from the cartridge, 10 matched a blood sample from Johnson, said Rick Staub, forensics laboratory director at Orchid Cellmark Inc. in Dallas, the lab chosen for independent DNA testing lab in the case.

Results for four other markers didn’t meet the threshold for comparison.

One marker had two results: one matching Johnson, while the other could have either come from another person or been the result of the DNA amplification process, Staub said.

Staub said during cross examination those results mean someone else might have touched the cartridge.

Stephanie Maier, a forensic scientist at the state crime lab, said a sample taken from a blood-soaked loveseat pillow cushion that was in a garbage bag in Wacht’s entryway matched Johnson’s DNA, as did the exterior of one of Wacht’s boots and a pair of latex gloves found in another garbage bag.

However, a swab of the boot’s interior indicated a DNA mixture, with Wacht as the major contributor and the minor contributor being inconclusive, which Wacht’s attorney, Steven Mottinger, jumped on to show another person could have worn the boot.

Friday began with one of the 14 jury members being excused for what Judge John Hovey said was a family emergency. That leaves one alternate on the panel for the remainder of the trial, which is expected to wrap up next week.

Hovey also denied Mottinger’s motion Thursday for a mistrial.