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Fargo murder for hire trial: Defendant claims he was framed

Murder defendant Michael Nakvinda took the stand in his own defense Tuesday at the Cass County Courthouse in Fargo. Carrie Snyder / The Forum

The man accused of killing Philip Gattuso took the stand in his own defense on Tuesday, but jurors won't hear him explain how he ended up with the hammer used to kill Gattuso or the dentist's stolen car until the trial resumes today.

Michael Nakvinda is testifying on his own behalf in Cass County District Court in a trial on counts of murder, robbery, burglary and theft. He's accused of being paid $3,000 to kill the Fargo dentist, a murder-for-hire plot allegedly orchestrated by Gattuso's former father-in-law, Gene Kirkpatrick.

Prosecutors rested their case Tuesday after calling witnesses for a little more than four days. Using security videos and witnesses, the state laid out a chain of evidence eventually leading them to a storage unit Nakvinda rented in Oklahoma City where the Porsche Boxster taken from Gattuso's home was found.

In the convertible, police found items stolen from the dentist's home and a hammer with Gattuso's blood and hair on it suspected to be the murder weapon.

Nakvinda says he's being framed by Kirkpatrick, the retired salesman who hired the contractor on many occasions to do work on his 10-acre estate. Kirkpatrick testified on Monday that he and Nakvinda had talked about a paid hit on Gattuso, but he insists he didn't give him the go-ahead, despite videotaping Gattuso's Fargo home for Nakvinda.

Kirkpatrick has also been charged in connection with Gattuso's death and is set to stand trial for conspiracy to commit murder next spring in a separate case. Questioned five days after the murder on Oct. 26, 2009, Kirkpatrick told police he wanted Gattuso gone so his granddaughter, Gattuso's 3-year-old girl, could be raised in Oklahoma.

Nakvinda claims he hasn't been to Fargo and denies beating Gattuso to death. His attorney repeatedly pointed out throughout the state's case that there's no physical evidence or eyewitnesses to link him to the crime scene or to Fargo.

"Until I was arrested and looked at the papers, I didn't know that I'd met him," Nakvinda said of Gattuso, whom he recalled seeing once at the home of the Kirkpatricks.

The 42-year-old, who did a stint in prison for armed robbery and kidnapping in Oklahoma, claims he spent the night before the murder in a home in Wahpeton, N.D. He says he was asked by Kirkpatrick to pick up a car he'd supposedly bought on eBay and was directed to the Wahpeton residence via citizens band radio and a truck he was to follow.

Nakvinda's attorney said in an opening statement that Nakvinda woke up the next day to find his truck and trailer loaded with a car, which he drove back to Oklahoma.

Former Cass County detective Dean Wawers, now a private investigator hired by the defense, testified that he questioned Nakvinda three times about his story, and it was consistent, which he said is unusual if someone is lying. "What he said the first time, he said the second time and the third time," Wawers said.

Using details Nakvinda provided about the Wahpeton house, Wawers said he found a home matching the description, but he couldn't provide the address when asked by prosecutors. He said the address is in a defense report he wrote.

"I looked at almost every street and avenue in Wahpeton," he said.

Prosecutors contend that given the timeline established by witnesses and surveillance video, there wasn't enough time to drop the truck and trailer off in Wahpeton. It would require driving from Fargo to Wahpeton and then to the rest stop just south of the South Dakota border on Interstate 29 in 70 minutes.

One of the state's final four witnesses taking the stand Tuesday was Nakvinda's mom, Edith Wade.

Wade called Nakvinda a "very good son" who lived with her in Oklahoma City, helping her as her health has deteriorated. She said that in the days before the killing, Nakvinda told her he was leaving town to do some work on a Hurricane Katrina-damaged house in Louisiana.

Nakvinda will continue to testify today as the trial enters its seventh day. He testified for just 25 minutes before the trial was ended for the day Tuesday, often recounting the specifics of construction projects he'd done in Oklahoma.

Depending on how long his testimony lasts, closing arguments could happen as soon as this afternoon.

If Nakvinda is still on the stand at 10:30 a.m., Judge Frank Racek said, closings will be delivered Thursday.