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Fargo murder for hire trial; alleged mastermind opens up to investigators

Michael Nakvinda

For the first hour, Gene Kirkpatrick did most of the talking.

It was Halloween night in 2009, five days after his former son-in-law, Philip Gattuso, was chased into the bedroom of his Fargo home, struck in the head with a hammer multiple times and left to die slowly.

Kirkpatrick was telling a pair of investigators what it was about Gattuso that bothered him, a beef stemming from the way the dentist dealt with the long illness of Valerie Gattuso, his late wife and the daughter of Kirkpatrick.

Tables were turned when Fargo police Det. Paul Lies gave him the stunning news: An arrest had been made.

"Holy mackerel, who in the Sam Hill was it?" asked Kirkpatrick.

"Mike," Lies said.

First there was a moment of silence. Kirkpatrick then asked a question police thought he could answer: "What's his last name?"

The news was true.

Michael Nakvinda, who frequently did odd jobs at Kirkpatrick's acreage near Oklahoma City, had been arrested on suspicion of killing Gattuso and stealing his Porsche.

But the story Lies and an Oklahoma investigator began telling minutes later wasn't true. They told the grandfather that Nakvinda had already implicated him, a bluff that would eventually draw an alleged confession out of Kirkpatrick.

The jury in the murder trial for Nakvinda heard roughly two-thirds of the two-hour, 20-minute interview on Wednesday, the trial's first day of testimony. The duration of the recording presumably will be played as the trial resumes today.

Jurors didn't yet hear the part where, according to court records, Kirkpatrick told police he met Nakvinda at a McDonald's in Oklahoma City and gave him $3,000 for the killing.

They did hear investigators repeatedly press him for details of the arrangement, insisting throughout that Nakvinda had told police Kirkpatrick was involved.

"You know what? He's got nothing to lose, so I'm believing him," Lies said.

In fact, the detective testified before the recording played, Nakvinda wouldn't talk when arrested. Lies recalled Nakvinda saying: "Fargo? What does Fargo want with me?"

Nakvinda is claiming he was framed by Kirkpatrick, a theory based in part by the lack of forensic evidence to tie the ex-convict to the crime scene. Though police processed the scene for nearly three days, they didn't find anything they could trace to Nakvinda in the ransacked condominium.

Asked if it would be difficult to not leave physical evidence at a crime scene, Lies said it wouldn't be.

Kirkpatrick, arrested two days after the interrogation and charged with conspiracy to commit murder, is scheduled to testify against Nakvinda next week. He's set to stand trial in his own murder case in March.

Kirkpatrick maintained that though he spoke with Nakvinda about killing Gattuso, provided him with a videotape of the condo and discussed what a hit would cost and how he could pay for it, he never gave the handyman a "green light."

The retired telecommunications salesman said he was told by many people besides Nakvinda that they could arrange Gattuso's death, saying at one point, "It was just guy talk."

He told police he did not have "the guts" to kill Gattuso himself and was worried about getting caught, but he didn't deny he wanted the dentist gone.

"If Philip ended up dead, I wouldn't care," he said.

It's been publicly known for more than a year that police think Kirkpatrick's motive was to gain custody of the lone daughter Philip and Valerie Gattuso had, who was then a 3-year-old. After and before Valerie died in March 2009, Philip resisted the Kirkpatricks' desire to raise the girl in Oklahoma.

Before the interview with police turned tense, he had spoken at length about the issues he had with Gattuso. He said his two adult sons from a prior marriage were "disasters," in part due to one being gay and the other having too little ambition.

He characterized Gattuso as an "oddball" incapable of nurturing children or pets.

"If you give him a cat to play with, he doesn't know what to do with it," he said.

Kirkpatrick said he saw Valerie Gattuso typing a letter given to Philip after her funeral in which she asks him to give her family custody of their daughter.

Above all, he didn't like how Gattuso reacted when Valerie suffered potentially lethal complications after a heart surgery. While his in-laws were whole-heartedly in favor of doing whatever it took to try to prolong her life, Gattuso "hemmed and hawed" about whether to OK the procedures, he said.

"I'd never seen that side of him," Kirkpatrick said. "He was weak, is what I think. He wanted out of it."