The state and the defense have wildly differing theories on Gene Kirkpatrick's role in the hammer beating that killed his former son-in-law and orphaned his 3-year-old granddaughter.
On Monday, Kirkpatrick took the stand to deny both allegations, insisting his discussions about having Fargo dentist Philip Gattuso murdered were mere "locker-room talk."
"Never once did we cross that line," Kirkpatrick said before later adding, "I know what it sounds like, but we were just talking."
Prosecutors allege that Kirkpatrick orchestrated the killing of Gattuso in order to get custody of his granddaughter, paying $3,000 to his handyman, Michael Nakvinda, in a murder-for-hire plot the 64-year-old retired salesman says he never approved.
Nakvinda is arguing that Kirkpatrick framed him, an assertion Kirkpatrick also dismissed on Monday.
"That's all news to me," he said of Nakvinda's claim that Kirkpatrick asked him to go to Wahpeton, N.D., to pick up a Porsche he had bought on eBay. Gattuso's stolen Porsche was found in a storage unit rented by Nakvinda, with a hammer with Gattuso's blood and hair in the car along with other stolen items.
His attorney has said that Nakvinda will testify in the trial, which started last week and is expected to end later this week.
Kirkpatrick's voluntary testimony for the state - for which prosecutors say he wasn't given a deal in his own case - came in the trial for Nakvinda on charges of murder, theft, robbery and burglary in Cass County District Court. Kirkpatrick is charged with conspiracy to commit murder and is set to stand trial in March.
He said Monday that the payment he made to Nakvinda, which he told police about when he was questioned five days after the killing on Oct. 26, 2009, was for work Nakvinda did for his daughter and for work he was going to do on his own acreage outside of Oklahoma City.
Jurors last week heard the 2½-hour interview in which Kirkpatrick told the police he knew Gattuso would be killed a week before his death and that the future welfare of the toddler was more valuable than her father's life. He questioned Gattuso's ability to nurture a child and wasn't impressed with how Gattuso's adult sons from a prior marriage had turned out, he told police.
Kirkpatrick said Monday that he was tired and stressed during that interview, and he pointed out his repeated denials that he'd reached an agreement with Nakvinda.
"They were putting words in my mouth," he said of the investigators, who falsely told him Nakvinda had implicated him.
In the interview, he said Nakvinda had told him he knew someone who could kill Gattuso. At first, Nakvinda said it would cost $100,000. Later, they talked about Kirkpatrick using a future business to funnel a payoff of $10,000 to Nakvinda. Kirkpatrick admitted he shot a video of Gattuso's home that was requested by Nakvinda.
"I didn't have the guts to say 'no,' " he said Monday.
Kirkpatrick said he had discussed killing Gattuso with others, though he said he never brought up the issue himself. He also said members of his church had prayed for Gattuso's death, and he admitted that talking about killing Gattuso was "therapeutic" for him.
While that sounds awful, it's how people are, he said.
"That's just life. That's reality," he said. "It's what happens."
Prosecutors also called to the stand the witness who was identified in late July, delaying the trial's original August start date: Deborah Baker, a family friend of the Kirkpatricks who also hired Nakvinda to do work around her home.
Baker said that in early October, weeks before the death of the dentist, Nakvinda told her that he could take care of Kirkpatrick's trouble with Gattuso. She testified that he told her he would use a hammer.
"You'd ruin everybody's life. You're not serious," she recalled telling him.
"I wouldn't get caught," Baker said he told her.
When she told Nakvinda that their conversation was creeping her out, he smiled at her. She said she figured that meant he was joking, and they returned to talking about paint colors.
Baker said she tried not to follow news of the killing and didn't know, at first, a hammer was the supposed murder weapon. When she did find out, she didn't go to police, in part because she was afraid, she said.
"I'd like to believe he's not capable of it," she said of Nakvinda, fighting off tears. "It breaks my heart."
Asked by Nakvinda's attorney why he would keep the bloody hammer in the stolen car, Kirkpatrick said he had no answer.
"I agree. It's weird," he said.
Earlier in the day, Roy Gattuso, Philip's older brother, testified that his brother told him before the March 2009 death of Valerie Gattuso - Philip's wife and Kirkpatrick's daughter - that Kirkpatrick threatened to kill him if he didn't raise his girl in Oklahoma.
Kirkpatrick denied that, saying he'd have known he would never see his granddaughter again if he said something like that.
After finding out that his brother had been killed, Gattuso said he didn't suspect that Kirkpatrick was involved, even though "everybody else in my family did."
Roy Gattuso's family is raising Kennedy Gattuso, his orphaned niece, after a custody battle with Regan Williams - Kirkpatrick's other daughter - was dropped by Williams and her husband this summer.
He said Williams dropped the case after she and her parents were deposed for the custody trial. In those depositions, she admitted she sent an e-mail to her attorney asking how many years she would have to serve if she "knocked him off," referring to Gattuso, Roy Gattuso testified.
Williams' remark, which was in an e-mail sent about two months prior to Valerie Gattuso's death seeking advice on a possible divorce with Philip, was a joke made in "poor taste," Kirkpatrick said.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535
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