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Published April 22 2013

ND Supreme Court hears appeal in Cooperstown murder

BISMARCK – The North Dakota Supreme Court heard arguments Monday in the appeal of a man convicted of killing North Dakota State University researcher Kurt Johnson, of Cooperstown.

Daniel Evan Wacht, 32, is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole after a Griggs County jury found him guilty April 24, 2012, of murdering Johnson.

Johnson’s head was found in a crawl space in the basement of Wacht’s rented house in Cooperstown 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.

Johnson’s body hasn’t been recovered.

Wacht is asking the high court to reverse the judgment against him, claiming the trial court erred in denying his motion to suppress evidence obtained during what he claims were illegal searches of his van and home. He also says there was insufficient evidence to find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Wacht’s attorney, Steven Mottinger, argued Monday that there wasn’t probable cause to justify a search warrant for the van. Evidence found in the van led to two additional warranted searches, including the one that turned up Johnson’s severed head.

Mottinger told justices he wasn’t there to argue that Griggs County Sheriff Robert Hook “did anything intentionally wrong.”

“But obviously the information contained in that initial search warrant application … if we take those out of the equation … the application certainly becomes much weaker,” Mottinger said.

Griggs County Assistant State’s Attorney Marina Spahr said there were a “multitude of facts” to support both the guilty verdict and the district court’s decisions.

The Supreme Court took the case under advisement and will issue its opinion at a later date.


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