Man who conspired to murder Fargo dentist receives life in prison without parole
FARGO - As deputies led her husband away to spend the rest of his life in prison, Sharon Kirkpatrick stood in front of reporters Monday at the Cass County Courthouse and took one last jab at Philip Gattuso, the Fargo dentist whose murder her husband was convicted of plotting.
"Philip was not a sterling angel," she said. "If there was ever a prince of darkness, that man was."
However, like the jurors who found Gene Kirkpatrick guilty of conspiracy to commit murder in July, Judge Steven Marquart saw darkness elsewhere.
"Your friends and your family do not know the dark side of you," he told Kirkpatrick, 65, of Jones, Okla., before giving him a life sentence with no chance for parole - the maximum sentence allowed under state law.
It brought closure to the murder-for-hire case, but Gattuso's brother said another tragedy lies ahead: Someday, when counselors decide it's appropriate, Gattuso's 5-year-old daughter, Kennedy, will learn that her grandfather was one of the two men responsible for the Oct. 26, 2009, fatal hammer beating of her father - and that she was at the center of it all.
"She, I'm sure, will be devastated," said Roy Gattuso, who with his daughter now shares custody of Kennedy in Louisiana.
Kirkpatrick, shackled in an orange jail jumpsuit that stood in stark contrast to the business suits he donned during his trial, swallowed and bowed his head but otherwise showed no emotion as Marquart pronounced the sentence.
Earlier in the hearing, the grandfather turned to face the Gattuso family and told them how, as a parent who lost a child, he was "extremely sorry" for their pain and suffering. His daughter, Valerie, who was married to the 49-year-old dentist, died of complications from a botched heart surgery seven months before Gattuso's death.
"I am grieved that Kennedy, who we love more than anything, is an orphan," Kirkpatrick said.
But Marquart said it was Kirkpatrick's "misguided and selfish effort" to gain custody of his granddaughter that led him to hire his handyman, Michael Nakvinda, to kill Gattuso, going so far as to pay Nakvinda $3,000 and record a video of Gattuso's Fargo condo for Nakvinda, who was convicted of murder last December and is serving a life sentence.
Kirkpatrick's attorney, Mack Martin, argued the retired telecommunications salesman deserved some credit for testifying at Nakvinda's trial. Martin said that at one point the state offered Kirkpatrick a 25-year prison sentence for his cooperation, though he acknowledged there was never a plea agreement.
Cass County State's Attorney Birch Burdick painted Kirkpatrick's testimony at Nakvinda's trial as a self-serving attempt to alter the story Kirkpatrick originally told police in a nearly three-hour interview, when he admitted he had paid Nakvinda $3,000 and promised him another $10,000 to kill Gattuso.
Kirkpatrick told police he was unsettled by Gattuso's parenting skills and upset by how he became distant from Valerie Gattuso during her 19-month decline toward death.
Burdick scoffed at defense testimony that Kirkpatrick suffered from "complex grief" over Valerie's death, saying many people who lose family members suffer grief.
"They don't look for somebody else to blame and someone to kill," Burdick said.
While Kirkpatrick had no prior criminal record, his behavior was "extreme" and unprovoked, and there's no guarantee he wouldn't take such action again if someday released from prison, Burdick argued.
Martin countered that it was "untenable" to give Kirkpatrick the same sentence as Nakvinda, who had three prior violent felony convictions and committed the murder.
"Had it not been for Gene Kirkpatrick, this would never have happened," he said.
In tearful testimony, Sharon Kirkpatrick said her husband never hated Gattuso, but she said Gattuso's behavior toward the Kirkpatrick family was "very bizarre" and they questioned his parenting.
She said her husband never would have hired Nakvinda, someone he didn't know well, to drive to Fargo and kill Gattuso.
"He's a planner, and he's smart," she said of her husband.
Kirkpatrick's other daughter, Regan Williams, who lost the custody battle over Kennedy, called her father "the best man I know" and begged the court for mercy.
Martin also choked up as he recalled how his own brother hasn't been the same since his 21-year-old son drowned six years ago. Martin grabbed a tissue and a drink of water as he regained his composure.
Marquart said he received more than 40 letters from Kirkpatrick's family and friends attesting to his good character, but the judge wasn't swayed.
Roy Gattuso said the family was pleased with the sentence.
"We are elated that the judge saw through and saw the truth," he said.
He said the last couple of years "have been a total nightmare" for the family as they dealt with Philip's death and fought for custody of Kennedy.
"Fortunately, it all rendered in our favor, and she's doing phenomenally well," he said.
Philip Gattuso's mother told WDAY AM Radio in a phone interview from Louisiana that Kennedy is in good hands and Kirkpatrick got what he deserved.
"My son had to die for his daughter to get away from ... these wicked people," she said.
Sharon Kirkpatrick continued to defend her husband after the sentencing.
"There's been a two-year war waged against us by the Gattusos," she said. "They've told one lie after another, and we have remained silent, but I want this city to know that they have convicted an innocent man."
Martin said he was disappointed in the sentence and will discuss an appeal. Nakvinda is appealing his conviction on the grounds there wasn't enough evidence to convict him.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528