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Dave Roepke, Published December 10 2010

UPDATED: Nakvinda found guilty, could face life sentence without parole

FARGO – A jury has found Michael Nakvinda guilty of killing Fargo dentist Philip Gattuso.

The nine women and three men handed down the verdicts shortly after 11 a.m., convicting Nakvinda of murder, robbery, burglary and theft.

He could face a lifetime prison term with no chance for parole when sentenced at a later date, tentatively scheduled for Jan. 28.

Roy Gattuso, the brother of Philip, pumped his fist and mouthed the words “thank you” as the court clerk read the first verdict, the murder conviction.

As he did throughout the trial, Nakvinda showed no emotion, appearing to stare straight ahead as he heard he’d been found guilty in the bloody beating on Oct. 26, 2009.

The dentist’s brother said his family was elated by the outcome. He said while he believed the state’s case was strong, it was still a relief when he heard the jury had reached a decision after deliberating for just short of six hours.

Cass County State’s Attorney Birch Burdick gave credit to the Fargo Police Department and the many witnesses who assisted the investigation.

“We don’t, thankfully, see many murders in our community,” he said. “I think everyone feels a little bit safer when they feel confident you’ve caught somebody who’s committed a heinous crime, and you can bring that person to justice.”

Defense attorney Steve Mottinger said he thought the verdicts could have gone either way, given there was no physical evidence or witnesses that could place Nakvinda at the crime scene or even in Fargo.

Asked if his client had steeled himself for a possible conviction, he said, “I don’t know if anybody can ever be prepared for something like this.”

Mottinger said an appeal would most likely be filed.

Burdick wouldn’t say what he would recommend for sentencing, but Mottinger said he assumed that prosecutors would ask Cass County District Court Judge Frank Racek for a lifetime prison term.

In the trial lasting nine days, Nakvinda, a 42-year-old handyman from Oklahoma City, didn’t dispute he hauled Gattuso’s stolen Porsche from North Dakota back to Oklahoma, where it was found in a storage unit he had rented.

Nor did he deny that a hammer suspected of being the murder weapon and items stolen from Gattuso’s home were inside the convertible he’d stored away.

That’s part of the reason Burdick said he understood why Nakvinda chose to take the stand to testify.

“Somebody had to explain the things our evidence was otherwise proving,” the prosecutor said.

Despite the strong circumstantial evidence, Nakvinda claimed he wasn’t the person who beat Gattuso to death with at least 10 blows to the head, leaving him to die on his own bedroom floor. He said he was being framed by the man accused of hiring him to kill Gattuso.

Gene Kirkpatrick, the dentist’s former father-in-law, Gene Kirkpatrick, is accused of paying Nakvinda $3,000 in expenses with the promise of $10,000 more in a murder-for-hire plot. He’s told police he wanted Gattuso dead so he could get custody of the dentist’s 3-year-old daughter. Valerie Gattuso, Kirkpatrick’s daughter and Gattuso’s wife, died months before the murder.

Charged in Cass County with conspiracy to commit murder, Kirkpatrick is set to stand trial in March.

Mottinger said that with Kirkpatrick testifying in the trial – as well as another former employer who said Nakvinda told her weeks before the murder that he’d use a hammer to kill the dentist – he figured he had no choice but to put the defendant on the stand.

Nakvinda claimed he took the car from Wahpeton, N.D., after being told by Kirkpatrick that he’d bought the car on eBay and needed it delivered back to Oklahoma City.

Kirkpatrick testified on Monday, saying the $3,000 payment was for building projects, not a murder-fore-hire, and insisted though he had discussed killing the father of his granddaughter with Nakvinda and many others, he never reached an agreement with his handyman.

He didn’t deny his prior statement to police that he recorded a video tape of Gattuso’s Fargo condominium at Nakvinda’s request on a visit to see his granddaughter several weeks before the murder.

Burdick declined to talk about how Kirkpatrick’s testimony might affect his case, other than saying it will be studied by prosecutors with keen interest.

“We will certainly have available to us every word he uttered in this trial, and we’ll review it closely,” he said.

For the full story, read The Forum on Saturday.