Prosecution rests in murder trial over researcher’s deathThe jury in the murder trial of Daniel Wacht could get the case today. After calling more than 30 witnesses over five days in the murder trial of Daniel Wacht, Griggs County State’s Attorney Marina Spahr rested her case Monday afternoon.
By: By Stephen J. Lee , Forum Communications Co., The Jamestown Sun
COOPERSTOWN, N.D. — The jury in the murder trial of Daniel Wacht could get the case today.
After calling more than 30 witnesses over five days in the murder trial of Daniel Wacht, Griggs County State’s Attorney Marina Spahr rested her case Monday afternoon.
Wacht’s defense attorney, Steve Mottinger, told court officers, he could be done today. He will begin calling his witnesses this morning, but would not say whether Wacht would take the stand.
The trial, which began April 16, was initially scheduled for two weeks.
Wacht, 31, is accused of shooting Kurt Johnson, 54, a Cooperstown native and a North Dakota State University researcher. Prosecutors charge Wacht with AA felony murder, which carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment without parole.
Johnson was last seen outside the Oasis Bar here about 9:30 p.m. on New Year’s Eve 2010. Wacht was heaving a very inebriated Johnson into Wacht’s van, purportedly to give him a ride home.
By Jan. 5, 2011, Johnson’s severed head was found buried inside garbage bags under dirt and debris in a crawl space in the basement of Wacht’s rented house here. Johnson’s body has not been found.
9 mm bullets
Several witnesses for the prosecution focused Monday on the bullet that killed Johnson.
Investigators believe it was a 9 mm Remington Golden Sabre hollow-point that was fired inches from Johnson’s head.
Shelby Franklin, an agent with the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation who was in on the first searches of Wacht’s house, said a box of Golden Sabres was found on top of a large TV stand.
In Wacht’s room, agents found a Golden Sabre shell casing containing blood with the DNA matching only Johnson or close male relatives such as his father and grandfather, who have been dead for years, Franklin said. Johnson’s other male relatives, including his two grown sons and a brother and his son, were not in the area when he was killed, she said.
Investigators say they believe the casing could have come from a round fired from the Glock handgun found in Wacht’s back pocket when he was arrested at his job site. Such handguns eject shell casings several feet from the action of the gun each time a round is fired.
Benjamin Nelson, who owns a gun shop here, testified that he special-ordered for Wacht a box of Golden Sabres and that, based on his meticulous records, the box of bullets in Wacht’s room was the same one he sold to Wacht.
When the order came in Dec. 10, 2010, Nelson said he called Wacht. “He was down there in two or three minutes to pick them up.”
In his cross-examination of Franklin, Mottinger elicited testimony that Wacht’s DNA was not found on the shell casing and that “unidentified DNA” was found on it along with Johnson’s DNA.
Mottinger said it was obvious the shell casing had been placed in an upright position on wood trim in an alcove in Wacht’s bedroom, implying someone else was trying to implicate his client.
Other witnesses for the prosecution tried to rule out Wacht’s housemate, Russell Chamberlin, as a suspect in Johnson’s death.
They testified that Chamberlin left Cooperstown for Minnesota in the early afternoon of New Year’s Eve 2010. By the time Wacht and Johnson were seen leaving the Oasis that evening, Chamberlin was stuck near Glyndon, Minn., during the heavy snowstorm that hit the region; he didn’t return to Cooperstown for a week or more.
Chamberlin’s relatives, Joseph Dahlberg and his wife, Alexi Chamberlin, said Wacht called them about 2 a.m. New Year’s Day, asking for help because he was stuck on U.S. Highway 200 a few miles west of town.
But they could not drive out in the snowstorm and gave him the number of the local law enforcement dispatch. A deputy went out to pick up Wacht about 3:30 a.m., they said.
They were moving into town from McHenry, N.D., that weekend and had expected Wacht to spend New Year’s Day helping them, then eating and having drinks at a nearby bar. Instead, they said, Wacht rushed to help lift only “the big stuff” saying he had something he had to do.
Witnesses for the prosecution also testified on other items found in the house Wacht shared with Chamberlin.
Franklin said a cushion from a loveseat in the house was found, soaked with blood matching Johnson’s DNA, inside garbage bags in the laundry room. A large hunting knife in a black sheath was found in a kitchen cupboard, she said, showing the jury the 8- or 10-inch blade.
Under cross-examination by Mottinger, Franklin said there was no blood or human DNA on the knife and no clear connection of the knife to Johnson’s death.
Chamberlin’s mother, Carrie Swanson, said that, while helping clean the house nearly three weeks after Wacht’s arrest, she moved a chair and found a military-style folding shovel “packed with dirt” wedged underneath between the frame and springs.
Calling in her son, she could tell he was surprised to see it and they quickly called law enforcement to report it.
Apparently investigators had not found the shovel during several searches of the home, where they believe Wacht dug a hole in the basement crawl space to hide Johnson’s severed head.
Trying to tie up a possible loose end in the prosecution’s case, Spahr called to the witness stand Patrick Mrolza, a longtime friend of Johnson who lives in Aneta, N.D.
Mrolza said he was watching a Minnesota Vikings football game Sept. 26, 2010, in Johnson’s home when Wacht, who he did not know at the time, came over to talk to Johnson for about 10 minutes.
During cross-examination, Mottinger questioned why Mrolza waited until January 2012 to reveal this information. Mrolza said he came forward after reading in news stories that Wacht claimed in court that he didn’t even know where Johnson lived. “When I saw he said he had never been over there, flags were flying,” Mrolza said.
Mrolza was the first person to begin notifying people Johnson was missing because he had planned to have dinner at Johnson’s house New Year’s Day, he said.
Wacht’s trial has both transfixed and saddened people in this town less than 1,000 where Johnson has many relatives. Some were in court Monday, including a sister and brother.
A woman working at a downtown café was quick to talk about how she and her husband had dinner with Johnson the evening he went missing, the disbelief still evident on her face.
She also managed the apartments where Wacht stayed for a few weeks in late 2010 before moving in with Chamberlin to the rented house. Wacht was a good tenant and responded well when she denied his request to bring a dog into the apartment, she said.
“But I guess Danny did it,” she said.
Wacht, who grew up in Southern California and moved here in September 2010, did not appear to have a high opinion of North Dakota, according to testimony during the trial.
Griggs County Sheriff Robert Hook testified Monday that on recorded telephone calls from the jail in Jamestown, N.D., Wacht told one person “everyone up here is retarded” and more than once referred to the region as “(expletive) red-neckville.”
Family members in California have declined to comment to the Herald and asked not to be contacted about the trial or Wacht.
Stephen J. Lee is a reporter at the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.