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Suspect in Fargo dentist's slaying enters not guilty plea

Michael Nakvinda, left, the man accused of murdering Fargo dentist Philip Gattuso, appears Wednesday in Cass County District Court with one of his two public defenders, Nicholas Thornton. (Photo by Forum Communications Company)

The man accused of killing Philip Gattuso pleaded not guilty Wednesday, just after the chief prosecutor warned that media coverage of the case could force an eventual trial to move.

Michael Allen Nakvinda, 41, of Oklahoma City, pleaded not guilty to all four felonies he's charged with in connection with the Oct. 26 killing of the Fargo dentist: murder, robbery, burglary and theft of property.

Nakvinda showed little outward emotion, addressing Judge Frank Racek as "sir" and locking his eyes on State's Attorney Birch Burdick as the prosecutor read the charges he faces.

Police believe Nakvinda was paid $3,000 to murder Gattuso, a contract killing allegedly paid for by Gene Kirkpatrick, the father of Gattuso's late wife. Nakvinda, who once worked as Kirkpatrick's handyman, is also accused of stealing Gattuso's Porsche and a variety of electronics.

Kirkpatrick allegedly ordered Gattuso's murder in order to gain custody of his granddaughter. He's been charged with conspiracy to commit murder.

The preliminary hearing, which requires the state to establish probable cause, was waived by one of Nakvinda's two public defenders, Nicholas Thornton.


The Forum and the Echo Press are both owned by Forum Communications Company.

The hearing was initially scheduled to be held today, but attorneys for both sides agreed to hold it Wednesday, immediately after a hearing in which local news organizations successfully sought expanded media coverage of the case.

Typically, cameras and recording devices aren't allowed in court. Racek ruled that photographs as well as video and audio recording will be allowed in the courtroom for proceedings involving Nakvinda.

The judge established some exceptions, including a ban on photographs and video of Nakvinda outside of the courtroom. Pretrial hearings on evidence issues are also exempt from expanded coverage.

Burdick argued against allowing expanded coverage for pretrial hearings, saying it could complicate jury selection and force a change of venue.

He compared the situation to a farmer who has a horse inside a barn with an open door. While it isn't yet loose, Burdick said, "the horse is looking at that door and walking in that direction."

"I'm trying to stop something from happening that I don't want to happen," he said.

An attorney representing local media, Jack McDonald of the North Dakota Newspaper Association, said the additional coverage wouldn't automatically lead to moving the case out of the area.

"Right now, we're arguing a change of venue motion that isn't even before the court," he said.

Thornton said he had no objection to the expanded coverage,

"It's not going to make a difference if we're in Fargo or Williston, from our standpoint," he said.

Thornton said defense attorneys are considering a motion requesting a venue change, but haven't made a final decision.

He requested that Nakvinda be allowed to wear civilian clothes instead of an orange jail jumpsuit at any hearings where cameras are allowed. Racek said that was OK, as long as jail officials approved.

The next step in the case is a dispositional hearing, meant to assess whether the case will go to trial. It is set for Feb. 10, but Burdick said the prosecution might ask for more time to allow for evidence processing.