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Huebner: Looking back on Gattuso murder 10 years later

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FARGO — A decade has passed since the death of Fargo dentist Philip Gattuso in what’s believed to be the area’s first murder-for-hire case.

The Forum tasked me with looking back at the crime and contacting family members involved in or affected by it, and stories have run all week leading up the crime's 10-year mark.

First, a short recap: On the morning of October 26, 2009, the 49-year-old periodontist was beaten to death with a hammer his south Fargo condo.

The man who killed him, Michael Nakvinda, worked as a handyman in Oklahoma City for Gene Kirkpatrick, who was Gattuso’s father-in-law.

After Valerie Gattuso died as a result of heart surgery complications in the spring of 2009, Kirkpatrick hatched a plan to get Philip Gattuso out of the picture so his family could raise the couple’s three-year-old daughter.

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Prosecutors were able to prove Kirkpatrick paid his handyman to commit the murder and that Nakvinda followed through. Both men are serving life in prison with no chance for parole.

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I sought interviews with them — Nakvinda at the North Dakota State Penitentiary in Bismarck and Kirkpatrick at the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls, but did not hear back.
I was unable to reach Kirkpatrick’s wife Sharon, of Jones, Okla., but daughter Regan Williams, who lives nearby, said her mother wouldn’t be up to it because she’s in poor health.

Philip, Valerie and Kennedy Gattuso
Philip Gattuso with his wife, Valerie, and daughter, Kennedy, on July 28, 2007, at the Radisson Hotel in downtown Fargo. Two weeks later, Valerie underwent heart surgery that resulted in a serious complication, which ultimately led to her death in March 2009. Philip Gattuso was murdered in October 2009. Special to The Forum

Williams said Sharon tries to visit her husband once every four to six weeks, while Williams visits her father three times a year.

A decade after the crime, Williams remains steadfast in her belief that Kirkpatrick is not guilty.

Despite evidence presented at trial that he paid Nakvinda $3,000, gave him video he took of Gattuso’s condo and Porsche and details from the dentist’s calendar, and was convicted of murder conspiracy, she doesn’t think he ordered the hit.

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“I just do not believe with any ounce of my body that my dad ever intended for Philip to be harmed,” Williams said.

I asked Fargo Police Lt. Bill Ahlfeldt, who helped pinpoint surveillance video for the case, about that single-minded viewpoint.

Though he couldn’t comment specifically on Williams, Ahlfeldt said people often take that stance because they don't want to believe a family member is capable of such a thing.

“When there's family involved, that’s when those ‘I don't think they'd ever do that’ emotions come out. ... I've seen that time and time again in my job,” he said.

I connected with several Gattuso family members, including Philip’s brother Roy Gattuso and Roy’s daughter and her husband. The couple adopted Kennedy, who’s now 13, and live in Louisiana.

They spoke with me briefly, but universally declined to go on record about the case, even ten years later. A permanent restraining order remains in effect, preventing the Kirkpatrick family from contacting Kennedy.

In 2013, a judge awarded Kennedy Gattuso $9.65 million in damages in connection with a wrongful death lawsuit filed against Kirkpatrick by Roy Gattuso.

I asked Williams if her parents have paid anything toward that award.

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With Kirkpatrick in prison, and their funds depleted through his legal fees, they have no money, Williams said.

I asked Williams about the possibility that assets were moved around in order for the Kirkpatricks to avoid paying toward the award.

She said their only property is the house her mom lives in, which may be in a trust. Rental property they used to own was sold to a family friend, Rod Thornton, she said.

Thornton is the same person who put up one million dollars to bail Kirkpatrick out of jail in Fargo in February 2010 — flying him back to Oklahoma on his private jet — to await trial. He also testified as a character witness at Kirkpatrick’s trial.

Murder defendant Michael Nakvinda testifies
Murder defendant Michael Nakvinda testifies Wednesday morning. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

Murder defendant Michael Nakvinda testifies
Murder defendant Michael Nakvinda testifies Wednesday morning. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

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