No parole: Wacht gets life sentence for NDSU researcher’s murderDaniel Evan Wacht, 31, showed little if any response Wednesday as state District Judge Jim Hovey sentenced him to life in prison without parole for the murder of Kurt Johnson as 2010 turned to 2011.
By: By Stephen J. Lee , Forum Communications, The Jamestown Sun
COOPERSTOWN, N.D. — Daniel Evan Wacht, 31, showed little if any response Wednesday as state District Judge Jim Hovey sentenced him to life in prison without parole for the murder of Kurt Johnson as 2010 turned to 2011.
Saying little before or after his sentencing, he was immediately driven to the state prison in Bismarck.
Acting Griggs County state’s attorney Marina Spahr was joined by the Johnson family in seeking the maximum sentence for the crime, which involved the shooting and beheading of Johnson.
“On Jan. 1, 2011, the children and family of Kurt Johnson received a life-time sentence of memories and nightmares of his murder,” Kory Johnson, Kurt’s brother, read from a statement. “Our family will never be afforded the luxury of parole from these nightmares and Dan Wacht should never be afforded the luxury of parole. Daniel Wacht can never walk out of prison a free man; the only way he can come out is in a pine box. Or after what he did to my brother, a trash bag may be more appropriate.”
North Dakota does not have a death penalty.
“A death sentence would be the easy way out,” Kory Johnson said.
Asked by the judge if he wanted to address the court before sentencing, Wacht said, “No, I don’t have anything to say.”
His court-appointed attorney, Steve Mottinger, said Wacht still has a constitutional right to maintain his innocence and not to speak in light of the appeal that Mottinger plans to file today in state district court.
About 45 people were in the old courtroom Wednesday for Wacht’s sentencing, including Johnson’s mother and his three siblings, who hugged each other and law enforcement personnel afterward.
Wacht, who was a felon on the run when he was arrested, has had no family or friends at court hearings. One family member contacted in California early on asked not to be called.
Kurt Johnson, a North Dakota State University researcher, was 54 when he was last seen about 10 p.m. on New Year’s Eve 2010 outside the Oasis bar in Cooperstown. Witnesses said he was very drunk and Wacht helped him into Wacht’s van to take him home.
A few days later, police searching Wacht’s rented home in town found Johnson’s severed head buried in a dirt crawl space in the basement. They determined he had been shot in the forehead at close range with the 9 mm Glock handgun they found in Wacht’s pocket when they arrested him.
The grisly news was “numbing,” and nearly beyond words, Kory Johnson said from the witness stand only a few feet in front of the orange-clad and shackled Wacht.
Pausing often to control his emotions, Johnson recalled law enforcement officials meeting with his family after searching Wacht’s home: “Spahr called me into the entryway to ask how my mother should be told about the details of the murder and the fact that he had been decapitated.”
Johnson said he told Spahr, “You need to be honest, to tell her the truth.”
After the sentencing, he looked at his mother visiting with others in the courtroom and said, “She’s strong. She always has been.”
Wacht was convicted by a jury in April. Johnson’s body hasn’t been found.
One old friend of Wacht’s, Nicholas “Nico” Schwarcz, in Santa Monica, Calif. — someone Wacht may have met in prison and whom he calls “brother,” law enforcement officers say — talked briefly to the Herald Tuesday.
“It’s an unfair verdict,” Schwarcz said. “He didn’t do it.” He then swore and hung up.
In imposing his sentence, Judge Hovey cited as reasons not to allow parole were Wacht’s extensive criminal record in California and his lack of cooperation with law enforcement after his conviction, especially on the whereabouts of Johnson’s remains.
Mottinger asked Hovey to sentence Wacht to life in prison with the possibility of parole, saying America’s heritage is based on “the hope of redemption.”
Before sentencing, Spahr had asked Hovey to consider all 17 of Wacht’s convictions in California, including using weapons in auto thefts, burglary and drug crimes. He was a fugitive from justice when he moved to North Dakota in 2010 and the handgun he used to kill Johnson was stolen in Las Vegas and illegally possessed by the felon, Spahr said.
All his adult life, he’s failed every attempt to rehabilitate him, the state’s attorney said.
A changed town
Cooperstown residents say the case still puzzles them.
Several who knew Wacht in Cooperstown said they never figured him as someone capable of such a brutal murder. Some said they still can’t believe he’s guilty of it.
“There’s a lot more to it,” said one woman who knew him, but asked that her name not be published.
He appeared to use alcohol and/or drugs to excess regularly and seemed to hang with others who did, several residents said.
Others who hung out with him told investigators that he had talked about committing crimes, including shooting a law enforcement officer.
Spahr said the first murder case in Cooperstown in 80 years has changed the community.
“There are doors locked now that weren’t locked before. I know they look at strangers twice now, before they invite them into their lives in some way,” he said.
Stephen J. Lee is a reporter
at the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by
Forum Communications Co.