State’s witness backs up Kirkpatrick’s defenseFARGO — A witness prosecutors considered crucial in the first trial connected to Philip Gattuso’s murder cut the other way Monday. In a frequently emotional day of testimony in the murder conspiracy trial for Gene Kirkpatrick, Debbie Baker, a fellow client of the handyman Kirkpatrick has been accused of hiring to kill Philip Gattuso, claimed she is positive Kirkpatrick couldn’t have conspired in the murder of Gattuso, his former son-in-law.
By: By Dave Roepke, Forum Communications Co., The Jamestown Sun
FARGO — A witness prosecutors considered crucial in the first trial connected to Philip Gattuso’s murder cut the other way Monday.
In a frequently emotional day of testimony in the murder conspiracy trial for Gene Kirkpatrick, Debbie Baker, a fellow client of the handyman Kirkpatrick has been accused of hiring to kill Philip Gattuso, claimed she is positive Kirkpatrick couldn’t have conspired in the murder of Gattuso, his former son-in-law.
“I don’t find it just difficult to believe,” said Baker, who first met Kirkpatrick in 1984 when he taught Sunday school classes at their church. “I find it impossible to believe.”
Baker had also testified in December in the trial for Nakvinda — the handyman who Kirkpatrick is accused of hiring for $3,000 to kill the Fargo dentist — about a conversation she had with him a few weeks before the Oct. 26, 2009, murder. She says Nakvinda told her he could kill Gattuso, and he’d do it with a hammer. Nakvinda was convicted of murder, a bloody hammer discovered inside Gattuso’s stolen Porsche in a storage unit Nakvinda rented.
Recalling that same conversation Monday, Baker said Nakvinda told her he could get rid of Gattuso without Kirkpatrick ever knowing and that the 64-year-old grandfather didn’t have the “guts” to do it.
The defense is arguing no agreement was ever struck by Kirkpatrick with Nakvinda, who they say was a rogue acting on his own. A conspiracy charge requires an agreement, although it can be just an implied one.
Prosecutors allege Kirkpatrick was so unsettled by Gattuso’s parenting skills after his wife Valerie Gattuso, the younger of Kirkpatrick’s two daughters, died March 30, 2009, that he conspired in the murder in part to gain custody of the couple’s 3-year-old daughter, Kennedy Gattuso. He was also upset by what he saw as a detached reaction by Gattuso to her 19-month battle for survival, which turned to a stem cell treatment as a last-gasp hope.
While Baker was on the stand, the jury saw several graphic photos of Valerie hospitalized as she tried to recover from heart surgery complications forcing a leg to be partially amputated and requiring 177 blood transfusions — so many she later could not qualify for a needed heart transplant.
When the photos were shown, the mothers of both Valerie and Philip audibly sobbed. It was the first day of testimony Philip’s mother has attended in either of the two trials. Gene Kirkpatrick also appeared to be shaken by the images.
Assistant State’s Attorney Mark Boening challenged Baker’s claim that Kirkpatrick’s high morals wouldn’t allow him to take part in a murder Boening referred to as an execution, noting in a question that “you haven’t seen your own daughter cut to pieces before your own eyes.”
Nick Kjonaas, a Fargo detective who interviewed Kirkpatrick after the murder but before the Oct. 31 interview in which Kirkpatrick told police he’d discussed a paid hit with his handyman, said he was told by Kirkpatrick that Gattuso, when Valerie was hospitalized, often told her he was worried medical bills could bankrupt them.
Kjonaas said Kirkpatrick claimed the conversations upset Valerie so much, he had a social worker talk to Philip about not bringing up financial ramifications.
“He told me Valerie was his best friend,” he said of Kirkpatrick, adding that he had called Kennedy “our little Valerie.”
Roy Gattuso, the brother of Philip, testified Monday, breaking down while looking at a photo of Philip and Kennedy from May 2009, choking out through tears, “He loved her so much.”
Philip’s brother, who has custody of Kennedy, was not allowed by Judge Steven Marquart to tell jurors about the outcome of the lawsuit filed over Valerie’s surgery, which Cass County State’s Attorney Birch Burdick said was resolved by a confidential settlement in Kennedy’s favor.
Fargo police Sgt. Mat Sanders testified that from Aug. 25 to Oct. 19 in 2009, 27 phone calls were placed between the cellphones of Kirkpatrick and Nakvinda. Defense attorney Mack Martin noted 12 of those calls were only one minute long or less. No calls were made between the phones after Oct. 19, Sanders said.
The state’s case in chief is expected to finish up by today. Defense testimony is set to start Wednesday and will take no more than two days, Martin said, meaning the jury should be able to begin deliberating yet this week, Thursday or Friday.
Dave Roepke is a reporter at The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.