FARGO — Julie Willert will never get over the shock of seeing her friend, Philip Gattuso, lying on the floor in his south Fargo condominium, his head resting in a puddle of blood.
Willert, who had met the dentist and his wife, Valerie, five years prior, was among several people who discovered Gattuso’s body the evening of Oct. 26, 2009.
“Still remember it as if it was yesterday,” said Willert, as she sat for an interview in her home just blocks from where Gattuso once lived.
The Forum is looking back on the murder-for-hire crime and the families impacted by it, as the 10-year mark draws near.
The killing of Gattuso left the couple’s 3-year-old daughter, Kennedy, orphaned just months after her mother died from a series of devastating complications resulting from heart surgery.
It put Gattuso’s father-in-law, Gene Kirkpatrick, and Kirkpatrick’s handyman, Michael Nakvinda, in prison for life with no chance for parole, for a scheme aimed at giving custody of Kennedy to her mother’s side of the family.
Instead, the crime had the opposite effect — a permanent restraining order that keeps the Kirkpatricks from having contact with the now 13-year-old Kennedy, who lives with Philip Gattuso’s niece in the New Orleans area.
Neither Gattuso’s brother Roy, nor daughter Molly and her husband, Adam Massey, wanted to speak on the record about the case or Kennedy.
However, Willert agreed to talk publicly about the crime and her friendship with the Gattuso family, for the first time since testifying at the trials of Kirkpatrick and Nakvinda.
Willert works as a residential appraiser, and her husband, Meryl Willert, is a child and adolescent clinical psychologist in Fargo. She said they first met Philip and Valerie Gattuso in 2004, after hearing about them through a mutual friend.
Philip had purchased the Fargo practice of longtime periodontist Robert Kline after his death, but Philip and Valerie hadn’t made many friends their age since moving here from Oklahoma City, Okla.
Willert got on the phone the next day and invited the Gattusos over for dinner.
She described the couple as “a lot of fun,” and that Valerie was very witty and friendly. Valerie was never one to talk about herself, Willert said, and always steered the focus of conversation to others.
Sometime after Valerie became pregnant, she began having heart troubles. She gave birth to daughter Kennedy in the spring of 2006, and in August 2007 was scheduled for surgery to repair a mitral valve in her heart.
Willert said the Gattusos came to the house a few days before the surgery. While Valerie seemed concerned about it, her friends tried to assure her.
After the procedure, Valerie suffered a severe complication, which led to a 20-month struggle on a heart machine before her death on March 30, 2009.
Only seven months later, her husband was dead, from multiple blows to the head with a hammer.
The phone call
In her final months, while attempting to rehabilitate, Valerie lived with parents Gene and Sharon Kirkpatrick at their home in Jones, Okla., along with Kennedy.
After his wife’s death, Philip Gattuso brought his daughter back to Fargo.
The relationship between Gattuso and the Kirkpatricks was contentious before Valerie’s death. “There was one point where he said, ‘My in-laws hate me,’” Willert said.
She said Philip often vented to her about Sharon being controlling and trying to pit his wife against him.
According to Willert, the animosity only grew after Valerie died and the Kirkpatricks weren’t able to see their granddaughter as often, living hundreds of miles away.
Willert and her husband maintained their friendship with Gattuso, and she was among several people listed with Kennedy’s child care center as emergency contacts.
Just before 7 p.m. on Oct. 26, 2009, came the day care's phone call that touched off a murder investigation. “They said Philip hadn't picked up Kennedy, which was odd,” Willert said.
She offered to come get the girl but didn’t have a car seat, so while other arrangements were made to bring Kennedy home, Willert called one of Gattuso’s neighbors to check on him.
The neighbor went over to find locked doors and, after climbing a fence, saw through a garage window that Gattuso’s car, a silver 1999 Porsche Boxster, was missing.
'I just shut the curtains'
When Willert arrived at the condo, she wondered if Gattuso was inside and might have suffered a medical problem.
The neighbor went back over the fence, opened the garage service door and the overhead door for his wife and Willert, and the three of them went inside. Immediately, they noticed Gattuso’s condo was in disarray, with drawers opened and furniture overturned.
Willert called Philip’s name, walking toward the island table in the kitchen. She looked into the master bedroom nearby and stopped cold.
“I saw him on the floor with this big halo of blood,” Willert said.
She didn’t go any farther, describing a sort of out-of-body experience where she could see herself from above, doubled over in panic.
Willert said she knew her friend was dead.
“Sorry,” she said, her voice choking with emotion, as she stood up from the interview and went to find a tissue.
She remembers someone calling 911, with police, ambulances and the news media arriving not long after. In shock and disbelief at what she’d witnessed, she retreated to the neighbor’s home.
“I just shut the curtains,” Willert said.
'That's just wrong'
Gattuso's daughter stayed at Willert's home that night, and Willert said she and her kids made a slumber party out of it in an attempt to keep things light for Kennedy.
She remembers the girl looking at her watch repeatedly, as if to wonder when her dad might be picking her up, and that it was at least 3 a.m. before Kennedy finally fell asleep.
Gene and Sharon Kirkpatrick, along with their other daughter, Regan Williams, and her family, arrived from Oklahoma that afternoon. Willert said Sharon called her from a nearby restaurant to say they intended to pick up Kennedy and leave.
“I’m like, ‘Well, maybe not so fast. You know, the cops might want to talk to you,’” she recalled.
She made lunch for the Kirkpatricks and Williams families at her home, and found it curious that no one asked about Philip — what happened, how he died.
Willert said Sharon Kirkpatrick did say the family had been “praying for this” and that her daughter wanted more children, but not this way. After talking with police, the family was able to take Kennedy to Oklahoma with them, as Williams was given temporary custody.
But that soon changed as the pieces of the puzzle began to come together, and it appeared Gene Kirkpatrick was involved in trying to get his granddaughter away from Gattuso by having him killed. Williams lost custody and Kennedy went to Philip’s brother, Roy.
Willert remembers a Fargo police detective asking her if she thought Kirkpatrick was behind the scheme.
“I mean, that's evil hate. That's not just, you don’t like someone. That’s, that's just wrong,” she said.
Still close with family
With the help of surveillance video from a business near Gattuso’s condo, and from a rest area along Interstate 29 in South Dakota, police quickly traced a pickup truck and trailer carrying Gattuso’s stolen Porsche to Michael Nakvinda in the Oklahoma City area.
From there, the dots were connected to Kirkpatrick, who prosecutors said paid Nakvinda $3,000 to kill Gattuso, with a promise to pay $10,000 more, and provided him with video of Gattuso’s condo and Porsche.
While he acknowledged talking with Nakvinda about a murder-for-hire, Kirkpatrick maintained at trial they never had a formal agreement, that Nakvinda acted on his own and that the money he gave him was for upcoming work unrelated to the killing.
Willert was asked about Kirkpatrick’s level of culpability, even though he wasn’t the one who wielded the hammer. “Life in prison without parole. To me, that says it all,” she said.
Willert said she remains close to the Gattuso family, and planned a trip to Louisiana to visit the now-teenage Kennedy, whom she last saw in April 2018.
“Yeah. She's doing very well,” Willert said. “She's turning into a beautiful young lady.”
In the next installment, Regan Williams, Gene and Sharon Kirkpatrick's daughter, gives her take on how events unfolded 10 years ago.