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Dave Roepke, Published December 09 2010

Gattuso murder trial: Nakvinda worried about witness

After finding out this fall that his alleged conspirator in killing Philip Gattuso had changed his story, Michael Nakvinda called his mom from a jailhouse phone.

He gave a candid opinion about how he thought his defense against charges of murder, theft, robbery and burglary was stacking up.

His one worry was Debbie Baker, the witness who would later tell jurors that Nakvinda, weeks prior to the dentist being beaten to death with a hammer, told her he’d use a hammer if he were to kill Gattuso.

“Now all I’ve got to worry about is this bitch,” he said of Baker, who often hired him as a handyman.

Ryan Younggren, an assistant Cass County state’s attorney, revealed the call in his cross-examination of Nakvinda on Wednesday, as the jury finished receiving evidence in the seventh day of the murder trial.

Jurors will hear the attorneys’ closing arguments this morning before beginning their deliberations.

Baker was the last-second witness the state located in late July, a discovery that convinced Cass County District Court Judge Frank Racek to delay the trial’s original August start date.

She testified Monday that Nakvinda had the hammer conversation with her in early October, before Gattuso was bloodily beaten to death on Oct. 26, 2009.

At the time, she thought he was joking. But a hammer with Gattuso’s blood and hair on it was found inside the dentist’s stolen Porsche in an Oklahoma City storage unit Nakvinda had rented, and Gattuso’s head injuries were consistent with hammer blows.

In four hours on the witness stand, Nakvinda denied what Baker and many other witnesses have told jurors he’s said or done.

Nakvinda said he’s never discussed killing Gattuso with Gene Kirkpatrick, the former father-in-law of the dentist accused of orchestrating his murder.

“Nah, I’d remember that,” Nakvinda said.

Though Kirkpatrick said they talked about it often, Nakvinda said Wednesday that he was never told about Kirkpatrick’s issues with his son-in-law because they didn’t talk about personal matters.

“I just didn’t get too far into detail,” he said. “I call it sissy talk.”

Kirkpatrick, who’d hired Nakvinda as a handyman for years, is accused of paying him to kill Gattuso to get custody of his 3-year-old daughter after the girl’s mother – Kirkpatrick’s daughter – had died seven months before the killing.

On Monday, Kirkpatrick testified that he’d talked with Nakvinda about a murder-for-hire. But he says they never had an agreement, and the $3,000 he told police he gave him for expenses was actually for contracting work.

Kirkpatrick is charged with conspiracy to commit murder and is set to stand trial next spring.

Nakvinda claims he’s being framed by Kirkpatrick and says he picked up the dentist’s stolen Porsche after spending the night of Oct. 25 in Wahpeton, N.D. He said he was told by Kirkpatrick to contact a man over citizens band radio, and when he did, he arranged to follow a truck from Interstate 29 to a Wahpeton residence.

The next morning when he woke up, the truck and trailer were already loaded with the car he’d been told he was to pick up, he said.

Nakvinda couldn’t give a detailed description of the man whom he spoke with in Wahpeton or recall the man’s name – other than it might have been Robbie.

“I was paid to transport a car, and that’s all I did,” he said.

Fargo police Detective Paula Ternes said investigators found no evidence to suggest there was a third person involved in Gattuso’s death.

Nakvinda said he hadn’t wanted to rent the storage unit where the car was found for six months, but the owner said that’s what he had requested.

He denied telling the site manager of another storage unit – one he’d rented for several years – that he was going up to North Dakota to get a car from a doctor.

No physical evidence was found at Gattuso’s home to link Nakvinda to the crime scene, and no witnesses can identify having seen Nakvinda in Fargo.

But prosecutors take issue with the time it would take to get from Fargo to Wahpeton to a rest stop just south of the South Dakota border along Interstate 29. Surveillance video time-stamps show 70 minutes passed from when a truck and trailer were seen leaving The Bowler in south Fargo to when they pulled into the rest stop.

Witnesses for the defense and the state have said it would take at least 15 minutes longer than that if the trip included a stop in Wahpeton – excluding how long it would take to exchange drivers.

Younggren drilled Nakvinda on the details of his story in cross-examination, asking him why police weren’t able to find a number of items he’d have little reason to trash or hide if his North Dakota trip happened the way he claims.

Those items include:

He said he’d left the keys on top of a tire when he left the Porsche in the storage space, the license plates in his pickup and the paper-work in a bin in his garage.

There were no job re-cords for Kirkpatrick be-cause he paid cash, Nak-vinda said. As for the cloth-ing, he said he often throws out clothes after wearing them once if they’re dirty.

Asked how many times he talked on the phone with Kirkpatrick in the two months before the murder, he estimated five. It was 27, Younggren said.

Younggren questioned why Nakvinda bought new license plates for his truck after returning to Okla-homa, signing an affidavit saying his old plates were stolen though they weren’t.

At the end of Nakvinda’s cross-examination, he said the hammer with Gattuso’s blood on it wasn’t his. He said he prefers a nail gun due to shoulder trouble, and when he does use hammers, he buys higher-quality tools. The hammer is believed to be a model only available at Lowe’s.

When Younggren handed Nakvinda the alleged mur-der weapon and asked him to describe it, he noted that it was weighted incorrectly for construction work. It was more of a mechanic’s hammer, he said.

“If a man’s going to kill somebody, it seems like he’d use something he’s more comfortable with,” Nakvinda said.


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