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Dave Roepke, Published November 04 2009

Fight brews over Gattuso’s daughter

Philip Gattuso’s family is asking authorities in North Dakota to take custody of the slain Fargo dentist’s 3-year-old daughter, worried to have her staying with an aunt whose father has been charged in Gattuso’s death.

Philip’s brother, Roy Gattuso, said they are frightened that the girl, Kennedy Gattuso, is still with Regan Williams, sister of Gattuso’s late wife, Valerie.

Gene Kirkpatrick, Regan and Valerie’s father, was charged Tuesday in Fargo with conspiring to murder Gattuso, hiring a hitman to kill the 49-year-old dentist.

In Oklahoma, Williams is seeking emergency custody of Kennedy, Roy Gattuso said, though he hasn’t been able to obtain court records detailing the petition. The legal move requires arguing that there are special circumstances that warrant it, he said.

“It’s a horrible situation,” he said. “I cannot believe that Regan’s attorney is proceeding in this direction. I can’t believe any court would allow this to continue the way it is under the facts that exist.”

Williams’ attorney, Chris Deason, did not return a phone message Tuesday, and Williams didn’t answer her phone, which doesn’t allow messages to be left.

Asked if he believes there has been much interaction between Kirkpatrick and Williams, Roy Gattuso said Williams drove here with the Kirkpatricks after the slaying.

Roy Gattuso said officials in Cass County are looking into the custody matter and haven’t told him how they will respond.

Cass County State’s Attorney Birch Burdick said Tuesday he’s not aware of any custody proceedings in Cass County concerning Kennedy Gattuso, but added that they wouldn’t be public if they did take place.

Fargo police have said they think the girl is safe with Williams.

Roy Gattuso said in a conference call after the killing but before he was in North Dakota, he did not object to Williams taking temporary custody of Kennedy, as the alternative would have been putting her with strangers.

He didn’t suspect police would link Kennedy’s grandfather to the fatal hammer beating. Police think that Kirkpatrick paid Michael Nakvinda, his handyman, $3,000 to kill Gattuso.

“If I did, I would have been there quicker than you could have blinked. I would have never allowed that child to be anywhere close to any of them,” Roy Gattuso said.

The Kirkpatrick family hadn’t been pleased with Gattuso’s care of his child since Valerie’s death in March, which police say Gene Kirkpatrick told a Fargo detective. An arrest warrant for Kirkpatrick filed Tuesday states that he admitted he told Nakvinda he wanted his son-in-law “gone or dead and had felt this way for quite a while.”

There is no guardian for Kennedy named in Philip Gattuso’s will, his brother said. Roy Gattuso said he will seek permanent custody of Kennedy when a court makes that determination, which family law lawyers said would be the eventual way to settle the custody case.

Jason McLean, a Fargo attorney who specializes in family law, said he would not be surprised to see the state take temporary custody of the orphaned girl.

“Given what’s gone on, I think there’s probably a vested interest of the state to make sure everybody’s on the up and up,” he said.

McLean and Deborah E. Fortune, an Oklahoma City family law attorney, both said based on what they know about the case, North Dakota courts would make the call on permanent custody. Laws in both states call for courts in the state where the child has lived for the previous six months to determine custody.

Fortune said figuring out which of two vying family members gets custody of an orphaned child is likely to hinge on which residence is thought to be better for the child, a balancing act that relies heavily on the child’s comfort in a home and existing relationships.

“That is not necessarily an economic test,” she said. “You stack up the contacts like bricks. Which side is heavier is going to win.”

In a case like Kennedy Gattuso’s, where a member of one side of the family is facing criminal allegations, it would need to be clear there’s little connection between the accused and the guardian, Fortune said.

Whatever happens might be difficult to assess, said McLean. Custody cases are not open to the public.

“We may not know a lot about it moving forward,” he said. “My guess is they’d be done very quietly.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535