FARGO — A contractual killing 10 years ago is still on the mind of one prosecutor here who says he thinks about the murder of Fargo dentist Philip Gattuso weekly.
Cass County State's Attorney Birch Burdick said every Tuesday on his way to Kiwanis Club meetings, he drives by the condo where Gattuso was beaten to death with a hammer after dropping his only daughter, Kennedy, off at day care.
In the span of seven months, the 3-year-old lost her mother, Valerie, 37, to complications from heart surgery, then her widowed 49-year-old father was brutally killed by hitman Michael Nakvinda at the request of the girl's grandfather, Gene Kirkpatrick.
"She was the ultimate victim of all of this," Burdick said.
Oct. 26, 2009, Nakvinda entered the condo at 2536 S. University Drive, killed Gattuso and ransacked the home. He took cash, computers and anything of value before loading Gattuso's 1999 Porsche onto a rented U-Haul trailer he parked at The Bowler parking lot, 2630 S. University Drive, down the street.
Surveillance footage from the bowling alley played a vital role early on in the investigation, as did vigilant citizens. Police said locating the missing Porsche was key in solving the homicide, and several people reported seeing it on a flatbed trailer heading south.
At a rest stop in South Dakota, others reported seeing the trailer with a tarp covering the stolen vehicle. That location was also full of cameras, and police were able to get a solid look at Nakvinda, as well as a license plate number of the rented trailer traced back to him.
Detectives' work was so quick that Nakvinda hadn't even disposed of the bloody hammer inside the Porsche by the time authorities tracked him down in Oklahoma on Oct. 31. Kirkpatrick's arrest soon followed on Nov. 2.
Initially, law enforcement thought it was a burglary gone wrong. But it turned out to be far more calculated, and commissioned.
It was a case that not only stunned Fargo, but also sent out shock waves back in Oklahoma where the Kirkpatrick family lived and Nakvinda worked as their handyman.
He did repair work and had a background in carpentry. But Kirkpatrick also knew of Nakvinda's criminal history — and so came the sinister request to kill his son-in-law.
The motivation behind the murder-for-hire, according to Burdick, was that Kirkpatrick essentially blamed his daughter's death on Gattuso.
"It appeared that he was clearly very angry at Philip and held him responsible for a number of bad things that had happened in their family with the death of his daughter and bringing the child back to Fargo," he said. "And he wanted to do something about it."
Burdick said Fargo has never before nor since dealt with a murder-for-hire scheme like this. Premeditated murder? Yes, but a down payment of $3,000 to drive nearly 900 miles north to Fargo to kill a man? That was unheard of.
Kirkpatrick went so far as to provide a videotape of Gattuso's home along with the down payment.
Judge Frank Racek said it was an unusual case with an unusual set of circumstances. He said the Nakvinda jury trial was one of the most lengthy jury trials of his 30-year career.
That was mostly due to the large number of witnesses and evidence. More than 30 people took the stand and 300 pieces of evidence were included in the case.
The trial lasted eight days, with the verdict coming in on the ninth.
When sentencing Nakvinda in January 2011, Racek told the courtroom that Nakvinda "attacked Dr. Gattuso in his home, mortally beat him, stole his watch and pilfered his house as he was dying" and he "acted without empathy for his victim or remorse for his actions and as such poses a significant danger to society."
In October 2011, two years after Gattuso's murder, his father-in-law Kirkpatrick was sentenced to life in prison.
Judge Steven Marquart said at Kirkpatrick's sentencing that neither he nor the jury were swayed by letters and witnesses upholding Kirkpatrick's character.
"Your friends and family do not know the dark side of you," Marquart said of Kirkpatrick. "The dark side that the jury saw, the dark side that conspired with Mr. Nakvinda to send him some 900 miles to this community of Fargo to bludgeon Mr. Gattuso to his death, all for your misguided ends."
He continued: "Mr. Nakvinda had no reason of his own to travel here to kill Dr. Gattuso. It was you who planned this scheme. It was you who gave Mr. Nakvinda what he needed to accomplish the scheme with money, pictures, calendars and directions. And why? It was your misguided and selfish effort to gain custody of your granddaughter."
Nakvinda, 51, remains in custody at the North Dakota State Penitentiary in Bismarck. Kirkpatrick, 73, is serving his sentence in South Dakota for conspiring to murder Gattuso, despite multiple failed appeal attempts. Both were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
AJ and Larry Dahlstrom were the first family to move into Gattuso's condo in 2012.
They said it sat vacant for a few years before they moved in without hesitation. Of course they knew of the murder from the news and that it occurred there. But they fell in love with the four-bedroom condo featuring a hot tub in the backyard and a sauna in the basement.
Right off the kitchen on the main floor is the master suite, where Gattuso's body was found that fateful day. He didn't show up to pick up his daughter from day care, so a friend went into the home that evening, prompting the investigation.
The Dahlstroms said they don't get eerie feelings or caught up in the notorious details of the place they've called home the past seven years.
"It had all kind of blown over. It didn't bother us," she said. "It's very comfortable, very livable."
After they first moved in, she said the murder was a common dinner table conversation with curious guests. But she's always said, matter-of-factly, "no ghost of Gattuso here."
What is there, though, is a loving family. Kind and quiet neighbors. New memories.
AJ said she can't help but think of Kennedy, who is now 13 years old.
"I often do think about Kennedy and how she is doing," she said. "What a horrible thing to have happened."
Forum reporter Robin Huebner contributed to this report.