A would-be Aryan warrior who apparently thought he’d committed the perfect murder forgot one thing: There’s no mud in North Dakota in the middle of the winter.
It was a pair of muddy boots and coveralls, along with a mud stain on a basement wall, that led investigators to discover the buried, decapitated head of a missing state university researcher in January 2011 in Cooperstown, N.D., Griggs County Sheriff Robert S. Hook told Hatewatch today.
Daniel Evan Wacht, a 31-year-racist from California with a lengthy criminal record, was convicted Tuesday in Griggs County District Court of felony murder in the death of Kurt Johnson, 54, of Cooperstown.
Shortly before the killing, Wacht “had made the statement that he was going to start an Aryan Nations movement by either blowing something up or killing someone,’’ the sheriff said, repeating testimony from the week-long jury trial.
The remainder of the victim’s body has not been recovered but an active search is underway in North Dakota and near Brainerd, in Crow Wing County, Minn., about 300 miles away, where Wacht is believed to have made an unexplained trip, the sheriff said.
“We think the body was taken to Minnesota,’’ Hook said, “and we’re still actively looking for it.”
The racist killer decapitated the victim with a heavy sharp instrument, that wasn’t recovered, either to keep the skull as a “trophy” or to hide evidence that Johnson was shot in the forehead, the sheriff theorized.
Johnson, a highway transportation researcher on the faculty of North Dakota State University in Fargo, was last seen alive leaving the Oasis Bar with Wacht in Cooperstown on Dec. 31, 2010, the sheriff said. The two men, who were casually acquainted, had been drinking in the bar on New Year’s Eve.
On Jan. 4, 2011, when Johnson was reported missing by a relative, attention immediately shifted to Wacht, who was arrested on Jan. 5 after he stepped out of a mini-van carrying a loaded 9mm Glock handgun, the sheriff said.
Wacht initially was arrested on a probation violation warrant issued in California and later was formally charged with Johnson’s murder. Before the suspect’s true identity was determined, he was known only as “machine gun head” by townsfolk who saw an assault rifle tattoo on the right side of his closely shaved head, the sheriff said.
After a search warrant turned up ammunition in the Wacht’s van, two additional search warrants were obtained to search the 100-year-old house in Cooperstown – across the street from the courthouse – where he was living.
When blood stains were found on two pillows and a cut-out portion of a couch in the home, the third warrant was obtained to search the full basement and an adjoining crawl space under a front porch for traces of the missing man, Hook said.
Investigators found a mud smear on a wall near a small hatch door sealing off the crawl space. They also located a pair of muddy boots and mud-stained coveralls in the basement.
“You know, there’s nowhere to get mud here in the middle of winter,’’ the sheriff said, referring to the freezing snow and cold that grip his state.
With the muddy clues, the investigators’ focus turned to the home’s walled-off basement crawl space where they found recently disturbed earth. There, using a probe, investigators recovered the victim’s head buried 18 inches deep and wrapped in multiple plastic bags.
The sheriff, who knew the victim, said he was able to make positive identification, but DNA and dental records confirmed the identity. Fragments of a 9mm slug, believed to be from the gun Wacht was carrying when arrested, were recovered from the skull.
Wacht, who has multiple racist tattoos, admitted to drinking with the victim on New Year’s Eve, but denied committing the murder.
The guilty verdict was returned on what would have been the 56th birthday of Johnson, a divorced father of three, the Fargo Forum reported.
“My brother was a good man,” the victim’s brother, Korey Johnson, who lives in Minnesota, told the newspaper. “He has three wonderful kids who he loved dearly. He loved life.”