Furnace calls, life insurance highlight testimony in North Dakota murder conspiracy trial
Chad Entzel, 42, was shot twice with a shotgun and died of his wounds in a bedroom of his Bismarck home, according to Dr. William Massello, who was the state medical examiner in 2020.
BISMARCK — Jurors on Friday, Sept. 30, saw time-stamped surveillance camera video of a man and woman entering and leaving a Bismarck hotel and a home northeast of the city on the day authorities say the two carried out a plan to kill Chad Entzel.
Entzel’s wife, Nikki, 41, and Earl Howard, 43, a man with dual citizenship in the U.S. and Canada, were accused in early 2020 of plotting his death and attempting to cover it up through several means including starting fires in the Entzel home’s furnace room and bedroom.
Chad Entzel, 42, was shot twice with a shotgun and died of his wounds in the bedroom, according to Dr. William Massello, who was the state medical examiner in 2020.
Authorities say Nikki Entzel and Howard were having an affair, with plans to cash in on insurance. They were charged with three conspiracy felonies: murder, arson and evidence tampering.
Howard about a year ago pleaded guilty under a deal with prosecutors and was sentenced to serve 25 years in prison.
Matthew Heinz of Dickinson, Nikki Entzel’s brother, testified Friday in her trial that it appeared his sister was “pretty close” to being moved out of the home when he visited her hotel room the day Chad Entzel’s body was found on Jan. 2, 2020, by emergency crews who responded to the house fires. Nikki Entzel told him the next day that she had insurance plans in place, and Heinz testified that he told her to notify the companies handling the policies.
Heinz said he and his sister got along “OK” but didn’t see each other often. He met Earl Howard about a month before Chad Entzel’s death, when Nikki and Howard went to Dickinson to drop off Christmas gifts for Heinz’s children. Nikki Entzel sat next to Howard when they left, which Heinz said upset him “because she was married, and not to him.”
Authorities say Nikki Entzel was staying in the hotel room with Howard at the time of her husband’s death. Surveillance video showed them at the house in the hours leading up to his death, according to earlier trial testimony. Investigators maintain Nikki Entzel thought she had disabled the video surveillance at the home, but that her efforts had failed.
Nikki Entzel told investigators that she was tired of living in a house that was having furnace problems in the middle of winter.
Technicians from two furnace repair companies testified Friday that during service calls to the home in the weeks before Chad Entzel’s death, they found no issues or only minor ones with the home’s heating system. Anthony Ortega with H.A. Thompson and Sons in Bismarck said that during one call he found no gas was getting to the furnace because someone had turned off the valve at the tank.
Burleigh County State’s Attorney Julie Lawyer in her opening statement to the jury on Tuesday said Nikki Entzel in the days after her husband’s death inquired with an insurance company about widow benefits and claims to renter and life insurance policies. The renter policy was only a few days old and worth up to $31,000, the prosecutor said.
Nikki Entzel inquired about life insurance benefits through her husband’s employer the day after his body was found, Interstate Power Co. Benefits Specialist Heather Schwartz testified Friday. No benefits from the company’s basic life policy, which Schwartz said was worth between $113,000 and $120,000, were paid.
Jurors on Thursday heard testimony related to the two fires in the Entzel home.
A portion of a cigarette package found at the homicide scene matched the brand found in Howard’s pickup, and was a possible ignition source for a furnace fire, according to state Bureau of Criminal Investigation Special Agent Michael Mees.
Another fire was in the bedroom where Chad Entzel’s body was found. Mandan Fire Department Battalion Chief Shane Weltikol testified Thursday that a dog trained to detect fire accelerants signaled that the substances were present on the bed next to the body, which was on the bedroom floor. Weltikol is the dog’s handler.
Former Deputy State Fire Marshal Levi Roline testified that the two fires were set separately.
Jurors Thursday also heard testimony related to Nikki Entzel’s claims that her husband drank heavily and abused her. Friends, co-workers and Chad Entzel’s former wife, Susan Entzel, disputed that, describing him as a nonviolent man and a social drinker.
The jury earlier in the week watched an hours-long videotaped interview that then-Deputy Burleigh County Sheriff Aaron Silbernagel and state Bureau of Criminal Investigation Special Agent Joe Arenz conducted with Nikki Entzel in January 2020.
The investigators bit-by-bit revealed information to her they said proved she was lying, and the back and forth ended with Nikki Entzel telling them she felt a sort of relief that her husband was dead.
She also maintained that Howard shot and killed her husband. Authorities have said that an evaluation of the gun didn’t conclude who pulled the trigger.
Nikki Entzel could face life in prison if convicted. Friday was the fifth day of her trial, which is scheduled for two weeks. Twelve jurors ultimately will decide her fate.
Lawyer told South Central District Judge Douglas Bahr she expects to finish her case late Monday or early Tuesday. Defense attorney Thomas Glass at the start of the trial reserved his opening statement until he presented his case.