COOPERSTOWN, N.D. — A North Dakota man was convicted Tuesday of shooting and beheading a university researcher in what prosecutors claimed was an attempt to start a white supremacist group.
Jurors had the case for less than three hours Tuesday before finding Daniel Wacht, 31, of the eastern North Dakota town of Cooperstown, guilty in the death of 54-year-old Kurt Johnson. Wacht shook his head from side to side as the verdict was read. He faces up to life in prison without parole.
Johnson was last seen alive getting into Wacht's van outside a Cooperstown bar on New Year's Eve 2010. His severed head was found in a crawl space in Wacht's basement about a week later. His body has never been found.
Though Johnson was white, prosecutors contended Wacht was motivated by his attraction to the Aryan Nation. They said he wanted to start a local white supremacist group and make a statement by blowing something up or killing someone.
The defense contended prosecutors didn't have enough evidence to prove Wacht killed Johnson and questioned the alleged motive.
Johnson was a North Dakota State University researcher based in Cooperstown, which has fewer than 1,000 residents and is about 75 miles northwest of Fargo.
The verdict came on what would have been his 56th birthday – something his brother, Kory Johnson, said was both fitting and painful. Asked if he would implore Wacht to disclose the location of his brother's body, Johnson paused for several seconds.
"To Mr. Wacht, the jury spoke volumes. Justice has been done here," he said. "As far as my brother's body, I know his soul is in heaven."
Defense attorney Steven Mottinger said he would consider some pretrial issues for appeal but would not be specific.
"It was a tough case," Mottinger said. "We did what we could with the evidence we had to work with."
Marina Spahr, the Griggs County attorney and lead prosecutor, left the courtroom without commenting. Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Byers, who helped with the case, said he was pleased with the verdict.
"You would like to hope that it provides a little bit of closure for the family. But it doesn't bring him back," Byers said.
Jurors were given the case around noon, and returned the verdict before 3 p.m.
Mottinger contended in his closing argument Tuesday morning that there were no eyewitnesses and no way to prove his client pulled the trigger. Mottinger also asked the jury why Wacht would "kill a white man" for recognition from a white supremacist outfit.
"Hint, guess and suspicion are not and can never be enough," Mottinger told jurors during closing arguments.
However, Spahr told jurors there were "layers of evidence" to prove Wacht was guilty. During his closing, Spahr highlighted evidence that included a love seat cushion found in Wacht's garbage that was soaked with Johnson's blood and boots and gloves with Johnson's blood on the outside and Wacht's DNA inside.
"You don't have to see Daniel Wacht pull the trigger to know that he did," Spahr said.
James Bolstad, who is now in prison on a probation violation, was a key witness in the case. He testified for prosecutors that Wacht had told him he wanted to do something dramatic to start a local Aryan Nation group.
Mottinger questioned Bolstad's credibility.
"They base their whole theory on a man who admits to multiple felonies, admits his testimony would help him out of his own legal problems," the defense attorney told jurors.
Bolstad is in prison on a probation violation stemming from his conviction in a theft and drug paraphernalia case in 2004.