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Phone call to child's school at issue in murder-for-hire case

While out of jail on $1 million bail, a man accused of arranging the death of his former son-in-law to get custody of his granddaughter might have attempted to contact the girl, officials said in court Thursday.

Prosecutors divulged the unconfirmed attempt to try to contact the 3-year-old in a hearing in Cass County District Court, saying they investigated a suspicious call to the girl's school - which would be a violation of bail conditions - but they couldn't prove it came from the 63-year-old defendant, Gene Kirkpatrick.

Kirkpatrick is charged in Cass County with conspiracy to commit murder, and police think he paid his handyman $3,000 to kill Fargo dentist Philip Gattuso. Police believe gaining custody of Kennedy Gattuso, the dentist's daughter, was Kirkpatrick's aim.

Mark Boening, assistant Cass County state's attorney, said if prosecutors did have evidence that Kirkpatrick initiated the phone call, they would ask the judge to revoke his bail.

Roy Gattuso, brother of Philip, said the phone call was made in mid- to late-February and authorities who investigated traced the call to a cell phone registered to Kirkpatrick.

Gattuso said a female caller said she had a package to drop off for Kennedy but refused to leave her name, which made school officials suspicious.

The school notified the Gattuso family, which has temporary custody of the girl that's being contested by a maternal aunt, Regan Williams. Like Philip Gattuso's late wife, Valerie, Williams is the daughter of Kirkpatrick, who is from Jones, Okla.

The 3-year-old was kept out of school for a week, and Roy's daughter has a bodyguard with her when she picks up and drops off Kennedy at the school, Roy Gattuso said Thursday.

"As long as he's out of jail, our family's extremely scared for our safety," he said of Kirkpatrick.

The incident did prompt prosecutors to ask Judge Steven Marquart to clarify conditions of Kirkpatrick's $1 million cash bail, which he posted on Feb. 11.

Bail conditions already stipulated that Kirkpatrick can't contact any member of the Gattuso family either directly or indirectly, the granddaughter included.

Marquart added another condition explicitly stating that he also can't attempt to contact a Gattuso.

Mack Martin, a defense attorney, said Kirkpatrick doesn't oppose the new bail condition but didn't say if his client initiated the call.

Gattuso died of a fatal hammer beating on Oct. 26. Michael Nakvinda, the handyman Kirkpatrick is accused of hiring, is also charged with murder in connection with the death.

The hearing Thursday would have forced prosecutors to establish probable cause, but Martin successfully argued for a delay to April 5. He said he didn't have enough time to review the case.

Marquart had originally denied the same request in an order issued Tuesday. He said in granting a continuance Feb. 16 that he'd allow no further delays of the preliminary hearing.

Martin told Marquart that Kirkpatrick fired his former attorney because he wasn't satisfied with his ability to defend him in an appropriate manner. The judge said that changed his mind, as the initial motion by the defense didn't spell out why Kirkpatrick had retained new counsel.

"I do believe there were valid reasons," Marquart said.

Prosecutors didn't object to the delay, but Boening said they were just pleased Kirkpatrick showed up. He appeared with his counsel, and his wife, Sharon, was in the courtroom crowd.

"Frankly, we're happy to see the defendant is here today," Boening said.

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