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Prosecutor: Evidence will show North Dakota woman conspired with lover to kill husband

Nikki Entzel, 41, and Earl Howard, 43, were accused in early 2020 of plotting the death of Chad Entzel, 42, and attempting to cover it up. They were charged with three conspiracy felonies: murder,

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Nikki Entzel, right, talks with her attorney, Thomas Glass, during the second day of her murder conspiracy trial on Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022, at the Burleigh County Courthouse. She's charged in the 2020 death of her husband, Chad Entzel, in northeast Bismarck.
Mike McCleary / Bismarck Tribune
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BISMARCK — Jurors hearing the case of a Bismarck woman accused in the 2019 death of her husband will be able to piece together physical and technical evidence that shows she conspired with a lover to plot and cover up the killing, a prosecutor told jurors Tuesday, Sept. 27.

Evidence “will show Nikki Sue Entzel and Earl Howard agreed to kill Chad Entzel, agreed to set the house on fire to collect the insurance benefits and to cover up the murder, and agreed to tamper with evidence by destroying or disposing of (a) second shotgun shell and setting a fire to cover up the evidence of the murder,” Burleigh County State’s Attorney Julie Lawyer said.

Defense attorney Thomas Glass reserved his opening statement for later in the trial, which is scheduled for two weeks.

Nikki Entzel, 41, and Howard, 43, were accused in early 2020 of plotting the death of Chad Entzel, 42, and attempting to cover it up. They were charged with three conspiracy felonies: murder, arson and evidence tampering.

Howard about a year ago pleaded guilty to four felonies under a deal with prosecutors. South Central District Judge Douglas Bahr, who is overseeing Entzel’s trial, in February sentenced Howard to 50 years in prison with 25 years suspended on the most serious charge of murder conspiracy. Howard will have to serve about 21 years before he's eligible for parole. He is on the prosecution’s witness list for Nikki Entzel’s trial.

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She has pleaded not guilty. She could face life in prison if convicted.

Emergency workers found Chad Entzel's body when they responded to a call of a house fire in northeast Bismarck on Jan. 2, 2020.

Emergency responders to the home thought at first that his death might have been by suicide. Further investigation showed several factors — the distance of the shotgun from his body, and simultaneous fires in the bedroom and furnace room — “were too much of a coincidence” for that to be true, Lawyer told jurors. An autopsy later showed Chad Entzel had been shot twice.

“You can’t commit suicide shooting yourself twice with a shotgun,” Lawyer said.

The prosecution will present evidence showing Nikki Entzel and Howard plotted Chad Entzel’s death and that they returned to the home after their initial attempt at starting a fire was unsuccessful, according to the prosecutor. The two took one of the empty shotgun shells and left an unfired round in the gun, Lawyer said, adding that the two placed liquor bottles and other items in the room to make it look like Chad Entzel’s death was not a murder.

Nikki Entzel called her husband’s workplace to say he was sick, and told officials she had moved out of the home she shared with him and into a motel. That room was registered in Howard’s name, Lawyer said.

“What you will ultimately hear is that Nikki Entzel was having an affair with Earl Howard,” Lawyer said. “Chad Entzel was shot twice with a shotgun, left dead … and a fire was started.”

Nikki Entzel in the days after Chad Entzel’s death inquired with an insurance company about widow benefits and claims to renter and life insurance policies, Lawyer said. The renter policy was only a few days old and worth up to $31,000; the life insurance policy was worth $600,000 and was two years old, the prosecutor said.

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Nikki Entzel called her insurance company on Jan. 3, 2020 — the day after her husband’s body was found — to start the claims process. The rental insurance policy went into effect at 12:01 a.m. on Dec. 27, 2019, after she called a salesman on Dec. 26. — seven days before Chad Entzel’s body was found. His name was not on any of the insurance documents obtained by investigators, according to Derek Hill, a special agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who testified Tuesday.

Hill also testified that several items in the room where Chad Entzel’s body was found led officials to believe his death wasn’t suicide. The body was on the floor and the shotgun was on the bed. Both left an outline in the soot from the fires, indicating they were there before the fire started, according to Hill. The fire on the bed was “spotty in nature,” which the agent said indicated an ignitable liquid was used to accelerate the blaze.

The amount of soot in the house is evidence of a fire that’s starving for oxygen, Hill said, adding that the door to the bedroom where Entzel died was closed or only partially open. The only signs of fires originating were in the bedroom and the furnace, and evidence of an accelerant was found at both locations, the agent said.

There were two areas of trauma on Chad Entzel’s body, according to Hill, which from his experience as an investigator “didn’t fit” the pattern of a suicide, he said.

People in seats reserved for family cried and comforted each other as autopsy photos were displayed on courtroom monitors.

Dr. William Massello, who was the state medical examiner in 2020, explained that Chad Entzel died of gunshot wounds that were “devastating.” One entered below and behind his left ear and “caused multiple fractures of the skull and … severely injured the brain,” the doctor said.

Another entered Entzel’s left tricep, exited through his shoulder and entered his head. It likely would have been lethal, and if not would have left Chad Entzel “neurologically disabled,” Massello said, adding that the shots were fired from a maximum of 3 feet away.

Massello said if Chad Entzel had died while the fire was burning the same soot present on his body would have been present in his windpipe and lungs.

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Glass, the defense attorney, objected to some of the autopsy photos being shown to the jury, saying they were unnecessary and that diagrams shown by Massello would have served the same purpose. Bahr overruled the objection and allowed the photos into evidence.

Prosecutors earlier said Nikki Entzel told law officers that Howard shot her husband, but that an evaluation of the gun didn’t conclude who pulled the trigger.

Bahr last May dismissed a murder charge against Howard at the request of Lawyer.

Attorneys on Monday chose a jury of 12 women and four men in Entzel’s trial. Four of them will serve as alternates.

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