WDAY: The News Leader

Published December 07, 2010, 08:09 AM

Defendant takes stand in ND murder-for-hire case

FARGO, N.D. (AP) — An Oklahoma City handyman revered by clients for his attention to detail took the witness stand Tuesday to defend himself against charges he bludgeoned a North Dakota dentist to death with a hammer.

Michael Nakvinda is on trial in North Dakota for the October 2009 slaying of Philip Gattuso in Fargo. Authorities believe Gattuso's father-in-law, Gene Kirkpatrick, paid Nakvinda $3,000 for the hit because Kirkpatrick didn't want Gattuso raising his granddaughter.

Investigators have not found any DNA or fingerprint evidence linking Nakvinda to the crime scene. Defense attorneys say Nakvinda was framed by Kirkpatrick and wasn't in Fargo at the time of Gattuso's death.

Nakvinda, whose trial began last week, has pleaded not guilty to four charges including intentional homicide. Kirkpatrick is facing a murder conspiracy charge and is scheduled to go on trial in March.

Nakvinda testified for about 30 minutes before court adjourned Tuesday, telling jurors that he briefly met Gattuso, but didn't remember the conversation, while working on a table for the Kirkpatrick family. Nakvinda said he hadn't realized the person he met was Gattuso until after he was arrested.

"I don't remember him," Nakvinda testified.

Nakvinda spent most of the time talking and gesturing about his building projects, including several for the Kirkpatrick family. At one point he smiled and referred to the Kirkpatricks as "tightwads." He smiled again when he said Gene Kirkpatrick, who lives just outside Oklahoma City, "didn't comprehend" his quality of work until he checked out other projects.

"It was a joke. We made a joke of it," Nakvinda said.

His testimony is expected to continue Wednesday.

On Monday, Kirkpatrick testified that he and Nakvinda talked about what it would take to kill Gattuso but no plan was ever finalized. Gattuso's wife died in March 2009 after an extended illness.

Deborah Baker, another friend and client of Nakvinda's from Oklahoma City, testified that Nakvinda once mentioned a plan to kill Gattuso with a hammer, but said she didn't think he was serious. Both she and Kirkpatrick testified that they liked Nakvinda personally and raved about his handy work, calling him an "artist" and "craftsman."

Defense attorney Steven Mottinger told jurors during last week's opening statements that Nakvinda wasn't even in Fargo when Gattuso was killed. Mottinger said Kirkpatrick had asked Nakvinda to travel to Wahpeton, about 50 miles south of Fargo, at that time to pick up a Porsche he bought on the Internet.

Mottinger said Nakvinda spent one night at a house in Wahpeton before someone else brought him the Porsche, which he took back to Oklahoma City. Nakvinda didn't know the car actually belong to Gattuso, his attorney said.

Prosecutors wrapped up their case Tuesday afternoon by talking about a U-Haul trailer and garage allegedly rented by Nakvinda. Investigators believe Nakvinda used the trailer to tow Gattuso's Porsche from Fargo to Oklahoma City, where the car was recovered along with a hammer that contained Gattuso's hair and blood.

The final prosecution witness was Nakvinda's mother, Edith Wade. She testified that at the time Gattuso was killed, Nakvinda told her he was going to Louisiana to work on a house that was damaged in Hurricane Katrina. Nakvinda, she said, planned to visit his sister in Texas but said he missed a turn.

"He's 42 years old and I didn't question him," she said.

Wade, 72, said she had never heard of Fargo, "other than Western movies."

Mottinger opened defense witness testimony by calling Dean Wawers, a longtime county detective in Fargo hired by the defense as a private investigator.

Wawers testified that Nakvinda gave him a detailed summary of the house where he stayed overnight in Wahpeton, including windows, patio, garage and a bush in the front yard. Wawers said he found a house that matched the description, but didn't provide the address for prosecutors.

Nakvinda's testimony is scheduled to resume Wednesday morning. Judge Frank Racek told jurors that closing arguments will likely begin Wednesday afternoon or Thursday morning.