FARGO -- The day after his wife's funeral, Philip Gattuso's mother-in-law gave him a one-page typed letter apparently signed by his wife.
Dated 17 days before his wife, Valerie Gattuso, died March 30, the letter said Valerie wanted her sister, Regan Williams, to parent their toddler-aged daughter because she didn't like how the Fargo dentist raised his sons from a prior marriage.
Due to those final wishes and the close relationship her family developed with the girl while her mother battled for her life, Williams said Wednesday she plans to fight for custody of Kennedy Gattuso.
The 3-year-old was orphaned last month when her father was killed in a bloody beating police think was a paid hit.
"She calls me 'Mommy,' " Williams said of Kennedy. "I'm her aunt, but I feel like I'm her mother. My sister encouraged that."
To bolster her chances in the custody case, Williams has cut off contact with her parents. Her father, Gene Kirkpatrick, faces charges of conspiring to murder Gattuso, allegedly paying a former handyman $3,000 to kill the dentist so his family could raise the girl.
Court records filed in the custody case show Gene's wife, Sharon Kirkpatrick, can't believe her husband ordered a murder despite assuming he'll go to prison, but Williams' comments Wednesday were the first public statements from a Kirkpatrick family member since Gattuso's death.
Those comments came a day after an order in Cass County District Court gave temporary custody of Kennedy to Philip's brother, Roy Gattuso, for 180 days until a permanent guardian is determined. Until Tuesday, Williams had temporary custody through a similar order issued in Oklahoma.
On Wednesday, Roy Gattuso said his attorneys are researching whether the letter purported to be from Valerie Gattuso is genuine and noted she couldn't use her right hand at the time.
Regardless, he said, the letter shouldn't determine who gets eventual custody of the girl, as his brother's wishes would've trumped his wife's after she died. Philip Gattuso didn't name a guardian in his will.
"Whether it did exist or didn't exist is completely immaterial as far as the custody of Kennedy," Roy Gattuso said of the letter.
Williams has argued that her home is best for Kennedy because the girl has stayed there for 20 of the past 26 months as her mother tried to recover from eventually fatal complications from a heart surgery. The 3-year-old is as close as can be to her family, Williams said.
The Gattusos objected to Williams having custody of Kennedy because of the charges against her father and Williams' close ties to her parents. She and her husband live a half-mile from her parents in Jones, Okla., near Oklahoma City.
Williams said while it's been difficult to sever ties with her mother, it was a necessary step to show she's not linked to the murder allegations.
"They're grown people, I'm a grown person, and Kennedy's an innocent little child," Williams said. "As adults, our feelings are not the ones that are important. It's just protecting the innocent little child that's important."
Though she said she hasn't contacted her parents since Kirkpatrick was arrested on Nov. 2, Williams sent an e-mail Nov. 6 urging others to ask prosecutors to try Kirkpatrick in Oklahoma.
"I was only stating an opinion," she said.
According to his arrest warrant, Kirkpatrick told police on Oct. 31 that he wanted Gattuso gone and that he arranged to pay a handyman and ex-convict, Michael Nakvinda, to do that for him. Nakvinda has been charged with murder and is in the Cass County Jail, and Kirkpatrick plans to waive extradition later this week.
A day after police questioned Kirkpatrick, according to an e-mail included in court files in the custody case, Sharon Kirkpatrick wrote that she had to hide their guns and give Gene a sleeping pill the night of Oct. 31, because he believed "it would be better for all of us if he were dead, too."
Sharon Kirkpatrick also wrote that Gene seemed "pretty much in shock" when Gattuso was killed, so "Regan and I had no suspicions of any involvement."
The day after that - Nov. 2, the same day her father was arrested - attorneys for Williams successfully petitioned for temporary custody. The petitions do not mention Gattuso was murdered, or that police suspected Kirkpatrick.
Williams said Wednesday that her attorney told the judge about the situation and advised her at that point to distance herself from her parents. She said she had no idea if her dad did what police say he did.
"You know as much as I do, basically," she said.
When she heard about the accusations, Williams was "completely stunned, in disbelief, horrified and heartbroken. It was just horrible and devastating."
To further illustrate she wasn't involved in a plot to kill Gattuso, Williams took a voluntary lie detector test a week ago and released a report of the test to The Forum on Wednesday. The examiner stated that her responses were not indicative of deception.
Roy Gattuso has said that there was tension between his brother and his in-laws over custody of Kennedy, but Williams said she knew of no pressure the family put on him other than the letter from Valerie.
Philip and Williams had a good relationship and were even planning a trip to Disney World with their children at the end of the year, said Williams, who has three children, including one the same age as Kennedy.
"There was never any outward conflict," she said.
Roy Gattuso disagreed, saying he has witnesses to testify that the Kirkpatrick family consistently tried to challenge how his brother was raising Kennedy.
"I can assure you it was constant. It was not always direct," he said. "They have a way of twisting words to make everything sound extremely rosy."
Despite their differences, Williams said she would like to arrange visitations with Kennedy while she's with her father's side of the family. Roy Gattuso has said he's open to that.
"I think she needs to know that not everybody she loves and cares about disappears," Williams said.