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Fargo homicide victim 'devoted everything' to his little girl after losing wife in March

Philip Gattuso plays with his daughter, Kennedy. Special to The Forum

When his wife's 18-month spiral toward death ended in March, Philip Gattuso turned all of his attention to his 3-year-old daughter.

His older brother, Roy Gattuso, witnessed it firsthand in August when the family reunited in their hometown of Gretna, La., a suburb of New Orleans.

"He was constantly with her, bringing her to the parks here and the playgrounds and giving her all the attention you could possibly give a child," he said. "He took the place of the father and the mother."

Gattuso's mysterious death Monday left his daughter orphaned and his family and friends shocked that what police are calling a homicide could happen to someone they said was so happy and likable.

"Most of us can't even believe it yet," Roy said by phone from his home in Gretna. "It hasn't set in. We're in total shock."

Philip's death ended a life marred by tragedy, he said.

His first wife suffered an aneurism just after the birth of their second son, leaving her severely disabled and unable to care for herself and others.

His second wife, Valerie, spent the final 18 months of her life battling health problems blamed on heart surgery complications.

"And now this," Roy said. "It's almost beyond belief."

The youngest of three siblings, the 49-year-old Philip Gattuso grew up in Gretna and started a successful dental practice in New Orleans, earning the nickname "Painless" from his patients, his brother said.

He later moved to Oklahoma City to pursue the specialty field of periodontics, which deals with diseases of the gums and bones supporting the teeth.

While there, he met a waitress named Valerie Kirkpatrick. He returned to the restaurant a few times before finally asking her out, and "that was it," his brother said.

They tied the knot and in 2003 moved to Fargo, where Gattuso had an opportunity to take over the periodontics practice of Robert Kline, who died the previous December. Kline's wife, Carole, had hired a headhunter to help her sell the business, and in Philip she found "a lovely guy" looking to start a new life, she said.

Valerie Gattuso gave birth to their daughter, Kennedy, in April 2006. She also took graduate courses at North Dakota State University, earning a master's degree in counseling in December 2008.

On Aug. 10, 2007, she underwent heart surgery to repair her mitral valve. Three days later, she was transferred to a Twin Cities hospital for post-surgery complications.

Her health continued to deteriorate as she lived on an artificial heart, said her friend, Molly Volkerding, whose husband, John, runs a dentist's office next to Gattuso's former office at 2838 S. University Drive.

Last November, the couple filed a personal injury lawsuit against Fargo's MeritCare Hospital, claiming negligence in Valerie's care and treatment. The hospital has denied the allegations in the suit, which is pending.

Valerie eventually was moved to Oklahoma City to be near her family. Philip sold his Fargo practice so he could be closer to her, but under a contract with the new buyer he had to stay on for six months to treat his patients, so he commuted, his brother said.

Valerie died March 30, during that six-month period.

"That just was so hard on him, on all of us," Molly Volkerding said. "But he immediately became the father and did everything for Kennedy."

"He pretty much devoted everything to that little girl."

After his wife's death, Philip was indecisive about whether he wanted to leave Fargo, his brother said.

A few months ago, Philip bought a Porsche Boxster. In August, he and Kennedy drove the convertible down to Louisiana, where he also reunited with his two adult sons, one of whom lives in London.

"He bought it literally to have the top down so he could go joyriding with his daughter," his brother said.

Police have asked for the public's help in finding the car, which has personalized North Dakota license plates 2KRYSIS - possibly a nod to the tragedies of his two wives, his brother said.

With both parents gone, Kennedy is in the temporary custody of her aunt, Valerie's sister, with whom she is very close, Roy said.

"Obviously, all the family members think that is a very good thing," he said, adding it may lead to a permanent custody arrangement.

The girl had not been told about her father's death as of Tuesday, he said.

"She cried all night for her dad, that much I do know," he said.

"She just got over losing her mother, so I don't even want to think of what would happen when she finds out," he added.

Despite the tragedy Philip endured in his life, he remained positive, his brother said.

"No matter what would happen, it would set him back, but he would pick up the pieces and move forward."