COOPERSTOWN (AP) - Prosecutors say a man on trial for shooting and decapitating a North Dakota State University researcher in Cooperstown was starting a local white supremacist gang and planned to make a statement by blowing something up or murdering someone.
Daniel Wacht, 31, has pleaded not guilty to murder in the death of Kurt Johnson, who was last seen alive on New Year's Eve of 2010. Johnson's severed head was found in Wacht's basement in Cooperstown. The victim's body has not been recovered.
Griggs County prosecutor Marina Spahr said in her opening statement that the 54-year-old Johnson was celebrating the new year at a Cooperstown bar when he met a "person who was known as Machine Gun Head," for a tattoo above his right ear. Spahr said the tattooed man was Wacht and that he snuffed out Johnson's life "as suddenly and quickly as the cork popping off a champagne bottle."
Defense attorney Steven Mottinger said Spahr gave an "excellent presentation" but cannot prove her case. Mottinger told jurors they are not the conscience of the community and it's not their jobs to provide closure for residents or Johnson's family.
"You're not here to send a message," Mottinger said during his opening statement.
Spahr told jurors that Wacht wanted to send a message he was serious about starting a racist gang. She said Wacht had earlier tried to recruit somebody he met at a party to take an Aryan Nation pledge, but the man declined.
Wacht also signed up for a phone in the name of Rudolf Hess, who was Adolph Hitler's deputy, Spahr said.
Wacht is white, and so was Johnson.
Spahr said evidence to be introduced at trial includes a love seat cushion found in Wacht's garbage that was soaked with Johnson's blood; a belt with Johnson's blood on it; boots and gloves with Johnson's blood on the outside and Wacht's DNA inside; a cleaning sponge with Johnson's blood; and a 9 mm shell casing found in Wacht's bedroom with blood that could only belong to Johnson, his father, or Johnson's grandfather.
Mottinger said there's no evidence to show Wacht pulled the trigger.
"Their own evidence will show other possibilities," he said, including that someone else might have been involved in Wacht's death. He was not specific.
Spahr said Johnson was "fall-down drunk" and couldn't stay on his bar stool when a bartender suggested calling police. Prosecution evidence shows that Johnson's blood-alcohol content was .54, or six times the legal limit for driving in North Dakota.
Spahr said Wacht responded by saying, "We don't need any (expletive) cops. We'll take care of this."
The prosecutor said another man helped Johnson out of the bar, where Wacht's burgundy van was parked outside. Wacht eventually grabbed Johnson by the collar and waist and placed him into the van, she said.
"And that's where the party ended," Spahr said. "Kurt Johnson was never seen again."