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Target lends forensic labs to police in Fargo dentist murder probe

Michael Nakvinda

Fargo cops had an unlikely partner helping them solve the Philip Gattuso murder case: Target.

The Minneapolis-based retailer used its forensic analysts to perform image enhancement to help police narrow in on a suspect after the Fargo dentist's murder. Turns out Target has for years been quietly doing laboratory work for police on violent felonies such as this.

The role Target played in the investigation was revealed last month in the murder trial for Michael Nakvinda, who was convicted for the 2009 hammer slaying of Gattuso.

After finding video at a South Dakota rest stop that depicted a trailer carrying a sports car similar to Gattuso's stolen Porsche, police wanted to analyze the image to determine the license plate number on the trailer. Knowing the plate number eventually helped detectives track the trailer back to Nakvinda.

Lt. Pat Claus, head of the Fargo Police Department's investigations, said police decided to ask for Target's help because it's generally quicker than the top-of-the-line lab used by the FBI.

It's also considered just as high-tech, Claus said.

"We thought we'd get equal, and in some people's opinion, better results," he said.

About one-third of the caseload at the retailer's two labs - one in the Twin Cities opened in 2003 and a second in Las Vegas built in 2005 - is devoted to cases with no connection to the store, said Jessica Carlson, a Target spokeswoman.

The practice of helping in unrelated police investigations started shortly after the Minnesota lab opened, as Houston investigators asked to use Target's lab in a fatal arson case, Carlson said. Word spread to police departments, so much so that the store had to limit assistance to cases involving serious violence, she said.

Target doesn't charge for the lab work, Carlson said.

"We understand that resources are diminishing," she said.

It's not the first major case in the area in which Target's lab was tapped for forensic help.

According to a 2008 story in Forbes magazine, Target analysts were able to establish a timeline of Alfonso Rodriguez Jr.'s movements using in-store footage from a Grand Forks Target. The timeline was used in the investigation of Rodriguez, who was convicted in 2006 of murdering Dru Sjodin and awaits an execution.

Moorhead police Lt. Tory Jacobson said he couldn't recall Moorhead cops using Target's lab, but he said the retailer has long supported police with grants.

"That history goes back quite awhile," he said.

West Fargo Detective Sgt. Greg Warren said he was not aware Target lent its forensic expertise to police investigations. West Fargo, unlike most local police agencies, does do some in-house image analysis.

Though Claus said Fargo police had kicked around the idea of asking Target for help before, the Gattuso investigation was the first time he recalls detectives using the service.

He said it's an example of how community policing is applicable to corporations.

"That partnering is priceless," Claus said. "It's leveraging resources we don't have."

Warren agreed it was an encouraging collaboration.

"The bottom line is working together; that's the key," he said.