FARGO — Regan Williams makes a point to visit her father in prison three times a year — in February, May and October — most recently last weekend.
Gene Kirkpatrick, 73, is serving a life sentence with no chance for parole for his role in a Fargo murder-for-hire case 10 years ago this week, on Oct. 26, 2009.
Williams brings as many family members as possible for the long drive from Oklahoma to the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls, where Kirkpatrick is incarcerated.
Her mother, Sharon Kirkpatrick, visits as often as she can, but suffers from health problems.
Williams said her father is involved in church services at the prison and never complains.
“He’s going to act like everything is fine, like he’s staying in a five-star resort,” Williams said during an interview from her home in Jones, Okla.
She said the family also tries to keep an upbeat mindset despite Kirkpatrick’s 2011 conviction on a murder conspiracy charge.
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Kirkpatrick was found guilty of hiring handyman Michael Nakvinda to kill his son-in-law, Fargo dentist Philip Gattuso. The aim — to gain custody of 3-year-old Kennedy Gattuso after the death of her mother, Valerie Gattuso.
Williams still believes, steadfastly, that her father is not guilty.
“He does not have what it takes to take someone’s life,” she said.
Williams was the only person in the two families contacted by The Forum who was willing to interview with The Forum.
Neither Philip Gattuso’s brother Roy, nor Roy’s daughter Molly and her husband, Adam Massey, who have since adopted Kennedy, wanted to speak on the record.
Mother's death sparked custody rift
Williams’ younger sister was 37 when she died.
Valerie and Philip Gattuso moved to Fargo from Oklahoma in the early 2000s for him to pursue a periodontist practice.
Before giving birth to daughter Kennedy in 2006, Valerie began experiencing heart problems.
In August 2007, she underwent surgery at then-MeritCare, now Sanford, to repair a mitral valve, a procedure that was supposed to be somewhat routine, the family was told.
Valerie had a serious complication and within days was transferred to a Twin Cities medical facility, where she was put on a ventricular assist device and medically sedated for nearly two months. She would battle organ failure, blood infection and mini-strokes, and would lose parts of her limbs during her nine-month stay there.
After being released from the hospital, she went with daughter Kennedy to live with her parents, Gene and Sharon Kirkpatrick, in Oklahoma to face a long rehabilitation while husband Philip continued working in Fargo.
According to Williams, Philip didn’t support Valerie enough during this time and that he “rarely” came to visit.
“I don’t want to speak ill of the dead… but he was not a shining example,” Williams said.
Ultimately, the surgery complications were too much and Valerie died on March 30, 2009.
Her husband took Kennedy back to Fargo after the long stint in Oklahoma, further deepening a rift between the families.
Philip Gattuso would be dead just seven months later.
Nakvinda killed Gattuso with more than 10 blows to the head with a hammer in Gattuso’s south Fargo condominium sometime after the father dropped off his daughter at daycare that morning. Nakvinda also took Gattuso’s silver 1999 Porsche Boxster and other valuables.
Surveillance video of a pickup and trailer hauling the tarp-covered vehicle led police to Nakvinda in Oklahoma within days, and to Kirkpatrick shortly afterward.
Following his arrest, Kirkpatrick implicated himself in a statement to police about his granddaughter and son-in-law.
“I thought her future welfare was more valuable than his life,” Kirkpatrick said in a recording that was played during his trial.
Williams said her dad likely said that because he’d been in a small room for hours, answering the same questions over and over and finally said what police wanted to hear.
Williams believes Nakvinda’s motivation was mostly financial — seeing Gattuso as a target because of his dental practice and fancy car.
She claims the family knew nothing about Nakvinda’s previous criminal history, which included rape, kidnapping and armed robbery. She said he came recommended as a handyman from one of her dad’s co-workers.
Kirkpatrick admitted at trial he’d spoken with Nakvinda about having Gattuso killed, but that it was just “talk.”
Williams said while it’s common for people to joke about wanting someone they’re upset with “knocked off,” she has a different view of that now.
“It’s not funny,” she said.
Gene Kirkpatrick was the subject of a wrongful death lawsuit filed on behalf of Kennedy Gattuso. In 2013 a judge ruled in favor of the girl, awarding her $9.65 million in damages.
Williams said her parents haven't paid any of that award because their funds were depleted on Kirkpatrick’s legal defense.
Restraining order still in place
Gattuso family friend Julie Willert, who found Gattuso’s body, said neither the Kirkpatricks nor Williams asked about Philip when they came to pick up Kennedy the day after the murder — as if they knew full well what had happened.
To Williams, asking would have been distasteful.
“We were all very upset about Philip. Nobody would want that to happen to their worst enemy,” she said.
She did point out, though, that she considered Philip to be a narcissist.
“He couldn’t relate to others' feelings. I never saw someone who could be so cold,” Williams said.
This is a sharp contrast to how others described Philip Gattuso following his death, with friends and colleagues calling him a soft-spoken person who was devoted to daughter Kennedy.
When Valerie Gattuso was sick, Williams said her sister repeatedly asked that she, rather than Philip, raise Kennedy if something were to happen.
Williams had custody for a few weeks after the murder until it became evident her father may have been involved in Philip’s death.
She fought for custody for a while, but it would be the last time she or any other family members saw Kennedy, who’s now 13. A permanent restraining order is in place preventing them from contacting the girl.
Williams said she would never try to enter Kennedy’s life uninvited but hopes someday, after Kennedy turns 18, she will look them up.
“We’d love to know that she’s doing well and that she’s happy and has a good life,” Williams said.