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State v. Wacht

Supreme Court of North Dakota

July 18, 2013

State of North Dakota, Plaintiff and Appellee
v.
Daniel Evan Wacht, Defendant and Appellant

Appeal from the District Court of Griggs County, Southeast Judicial District, the Honorable James D. Hovey, Judge.

Marina Spahr (argued), Assistant State's Attorney, and Jonathan R. Byers (appeared), Assistant Attorney General, for plaintiff and appellee.

Steven D. Mottinger, for defendant and appellant.

OPINION

VandeWalle, Chief Justice.

[¶ 1] Daniel Evan Wacht appealed from a criminal judgment entered after a jury found him guilty of murder. We affirm.

I.

A.

[¶ 2] Kurt Douglas Johnson was reported missing to Griggs County Sheriff Robert Hook on January 4, 2011 by his cousin, Murray Stokka. After determining that Johnson was last seen on December 31, 2010 with Daniel Evan Wacht, Sheriff Hook obtained a search warrant to search Wacht's van on January 5, 2011 at 12:25 a.m. The evidence presented to the district judge to obtain the search warrant was contained in affidavits from Sheriff Hook and Bureau of Criminal Investigation Agent Arnie Rummel.

[¶ 3] Sheriff Hook's affidavit set forth the events leading up to the night Johnson was reported missing. Murray Stokka, Johnson's cousin, contacted Hook to report that Johnson was missing. The last time anyone had seen Johnson was at the Oasis bar in Cooperstown on December 31, 2010. Johnson appeared to be drunk and was causing a disturbance at the bar. The bartender threatened to call the sheriff. Wacht was also at the Oasis, and offered to give Johnson a ride home. Tim Vincent, later identified as a patron of the Oasis bar on December 31, 2010, told the sheriff that he helped Wacht get Johnson out of the bar, and Wacht proceeded to throw Johnson into the van. Johnson was never seen again. Johnson's family thoroughly searched his house for him, including inside the cupboards, but did not find him. Sheriff Hook also searched Johnson's house and did not find him. The person who does Johnson's snow removal said there were no footprints in the snow when he came to shovel on January 1, 2011. Wacht is employed by Sheyenne Tooling in Cooperstown, and Tim James, his supervisor, stated Wacht had not reported for work since December 23, 2010 because his mother had died in California. An informant said Wacht told the informant he was shopping in Fargo. Sheriff Hook called Wacht's cell phone and it sounded like Wacht was driving. Wacht stated that he dropped Johnson off at the Fish Bowl bar in Cooperstown at 11:30 p.m. on December 31, 2010, and "[n]o one saw me do it." Ron Berge Jr. stated that Wacht told him Wacht took Johnson to Wacht's own home and was there for some time while Johnson was passed out in Wacht's van, then dropped Johnson off at the Fish Bowl bar. No one saw Johnson at the Fish Bowl bar that night. Sheriff Hook spoke with his deputies and they stated they received a call requesting assistance because Wacht was stuck in a ditch. Wacht reported he had been at his buddy's place, gesturing toward the Richard Sutcliffe farm. Wacht adamantly refused to allow the deputies anywhere near his van, which was the same van where Johnson was last seen. The deputies gave Wacht a ride home.

[¶ 4] Agent Rummel's affidavit recited Wacht's criminal background since 2001, including charges of grand theft auto, burglary, force with a dangerous weapon, use of a firearm or animal during a theft, taking a vehicle without owner's consent, possession and transport of a controlled substance, parole and probation violations, felon in possession of a firearm, willful discharge of a firearm with gross negligence, and manufacture or possession of a dangerous weapon. Agent Rummel also stated Wacht had an outstanding warrant in California for probation violation, and that he believed Wacht has violent tendencies.

B.

[¶ 5] After staking out Wacht's home and work, law enforcement arrested Wacht pursuant to the California warrant outside Sheyenne Tooling on the morning of January 5, 2011. When Wacht was arrested, he was in possession of a stolen Glock 9mm handgun. Wacht was interviewed by Agent Rummel, and he admitted Johnson was in his van on New Year's Eve. Wacht also stated that he believed he had a Second Amendment right to possess firearms regardless of his probation conditions. The police towed Wacht's van to a local body shop and sealed it to preserve the evidence. When they searched the van, they found an envelope containing five spent rifle shells and ammunition for a rifle. Agent Rummel then applied for a search warrant to search Wacht's home for firearms, weapons, and ammunition. His affidavit stated they found ammunition for a rifle in Wacht's van, that Wacht had told officers he believed he had a constitutional right to possess firearms despite his criminal convictions and probation conditions, and that an informant told Rummel about an incident in which Wacht had shot through a coffee table inside Wacht's house. The affidavit also stated that Wacht was under surveillance from the time he left his home to the time he arrived at work, and that Wacht admitted that he brought a gun to work on a regular basis. The search warrant was granted.

C.

[ΒΆ 6] Law enforcement searched Wacht's house, discovering more firearms and ammunition. They also found a blood stained couch cushion in a garbage bag in Wacht's laundry room. Law enforcement applied for and obtained another warrant to search the house for evidence of Johnson. That search uncovered Johnson's decapitated head buried in the crawl space under Wacht's house, as well as a bullet casing, ...


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