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Forum News Service, Published July 18 2013

ND high court denies killer's appeal in Griggs County beheading

BISMARCK – Daniel Wacht, convicted in the murder and beheading of Kurt Johnson in Griggs County, has lost his appeal before the North Dakota Supreme Court, according to a court opinion released Thursday.

Wacht, who is serving a life sentence at the state prison, argued that law enforcement officials did not have probable cause to search his van and his home, where they eventually found Johnson’s head, and a couch cushion and pillow stained with Johnson’s blood.

The court said in each case there was enough information to establish probable cause even if, as Wacht claimed, individual pieces of information were insufficient. For example, Wacht said, the fact that Johnson was last seen alive with him in his van should not give police cause to search the van. Wacht said he dropped Johnson off at a bar.

But the court said other pieces of information that might be insufficient alone were sufficient when taken together.

Prosecutors said Wacht, now 32, shot Johnson after a night of drinking on Dec. 31, 2010, then cut off his head. He was convicted Aug. 1 in state district court in Cooperstown.

Wacht’s court-appointed attorney, Steven Mottinger of Johnson, Ramstad & Mottinger in Fargo, appealed to the Supreme Court later that month. Mottinger could not be reached at his office late Thursday afternoon.

Johnson’s body still has not been found.

Wacht challenged three search warrants for lack of probable cause.

The first search warrant was granted by district court based in part on the fact that Johnson was last seen with Wacht in Wacht’s van and that Wacht, a felon from California, possessed a gun. Felons are not allowed to have firearms.

Police found spent rifle shells in the van, which led to another warrant to search Wacht’s home. There police found more firearms, ammunition and a blood-stained couch cushion.

Police then sought a warrant to search the home for Johnson. They found his head, a bloody pillow and several items with Johnson’s DNA on them.

Wacht argued that Johnson being last seen alive in the van wasn’t enough to establish probable cause. The Supreme Court said that it was when seen together with other information, such as his criminal history and the fact that no one saw Wacht at the bar where he claimed he dropped Johnson off.

Wacht argued that there was no connection between his home and his possession of a gun. The high court said there was because police observed him from the moment he left his house until he got to work, where he was arrested with the gun on his person.

The blood-soaked cushion was also sufficient information, given the circumstances of Johnson’s disappearance, for a search warrant of Wacht’s home for Johnson’s body, the high court said.

Wacht also made several arguments, including that there was not enough evidence to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that he killed Johnson. The high court denied him that as well: “The evidence of Wacht’s guilt was overwhelming.”

The court opinion listed such facts as Johnson’s DNA being found on spent 9 mm casings from Wacht’s gun, on the blood-stained cushion from Wacht’s sofa, on a boot and a pair of gloves in Wacht’s home and on a sponge in a garbage bag in Wacht’s laundry room, among other places; and Johnson’s head found in a crawl space under Wacht’s home.