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Search for body of beheaded North Dakota researcher extends into Minnesota lakes country

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crime Perham, 56573

Perham Minnesota 222 2nd Avenue SE 56573

The investigation into what happened to the decapitated body of a Cooperstown, N.D., man killed on or just after New Year's Eve now reaches into the heart of Minnesota lakes country, according to Griggs County Sheriff Bob Hook. The man charged with his murder remains in jail awaiting a preliminary hearing.

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On Tuesday, Hook made a public plea for citizens to look for one or more black or metallic gray trash bags along routes between Cooperstown and Crosby, Minn, which is just northeast of Brainerd.

Kurt Johnson, 54, an engineer and researcher with North Dakota State University's Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute, last was seen alive on New Year's Eve being helped into a vehicle by Daniel Wacht, 30, outside a Cooperstown bar. Johnson was wearing a bright blue puffy down-type jacket, blue jeans and western boots, Hook said.

Wacht was arrested Jan. 5 and soon charged with Johnson's murder after Johnson's severed head was found in Wacht's basement. But Johnson's remains haven't been found and Hook thinks it's likely Wacht disposed of them somewhere between Cooperstown and Crosby, Minn., which is just northeast of Brainerd.

Wacht remains in jail without bond in Jamestown, N.D., facing a charge of murder. His preliminary hearing is set for May 27 in Cooperstown. Since his arrest, he has not talked to Hook or other investigators.

Hook's investigation, aided by the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation as well as several other agencies, found that Wacht drove to Crosby on Jan. 4 in his 1995 red GMC Safari van. Wacht is thought to have returned on U.S. Highway 10 from Crosby, through the Detroit Lakes, Minn., area back to Fargo and then back to Cooperstown, Hook said Tuesday.

Wacht, who moved to Cooperstown from California less than a year ago, had made a "social visit" to the Crosby, Minn., area late last year and "was somewhat familiar with the area and terrain," Hook said.

The grisly fact is that it's very possible Wacht dismembered Johnson's body and left the remains in several sites along the way, Hook said.

Johnson grew up on a farm near Cooperstown and lived and worked in Bismarck and Fargo before moving back to Cooperstown, where he has a large extended family, about a decade ago.

Johnson reportedly was escorted out of the bar New Year's Eve because he was so drunk, and Wacht, who had been drinking with him, offered to take him home. Hook said the operating theory is that Johnson was killed by being shot in the forehead, within hours of leaving the bar, Hook said.

There hasn't been any information released about a possible motive.

At the turn of the year, the countryside across eastern North Dakota had an unusually heavy snow cover.

"That, in some ways, helped narrow our search area down tremendously," Hook said Tuesday. "You couldn't even get off on most county or township roads until (Jan. 3 or Jan. 4)."

Which means a likely scenario is that Wacht dumped Johnson's remains somewhere along main roadways, possibly on his way to Crosby on Jan. 4, Hook said.

A big melt two weeks ago made an aerial search feasible, but last week's heavy snowfall knocked back his investigation a little ,making aerial searches again not fruitful, Hook said.

He and his staff have made many trips, on the clock and personal, to Fargo, always keeping their eyes open for possible evidence.

"And other agencies are aware of what we are looking for," he said, adding that the public can play a big role, too, in the investigation that covers thousands of square miles.

"Most people in this country, if something looks out of place, they notice it right away."

Minnesota law enforcement officials have been very cooperative, Hook said.

He said Tuesday that people should look for black or dark metallic gray plastic trash bags that may be lying about or partially covered with snow, along roads between Cooperstown and Crosby, Minn., which is about 140 miles southeast of Fargo.

"We are not looking for big, fluffy garbage bags sitting on top of the snow," Hook said. The bags would have been placed the first few days of the year, and been covered more than once since with snow, and possibly uncovered by animals, he said. Cooperstown is about 110 miles northwest of Fargo.

Once the snow cover melts more again, Hook's investigation will take to the air again, he said.

"We need to find his body, number one for his family, to give some closure," Hook said. "That is just a looming question for everybody. We just need to put that to bed."

Anyone with information should call Hook's office at (701) 797-2202.

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