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Deputy details how Entzel investigation shifted from suicide to murder conspiracy

“The way that things were laid out in the room, the location of Mr. Entzel, the location of the shotgun and then the multiple injuries to his body, we were not convinced it was a suicide at that point,” Deputy Brian Thompson said.

Nikki Entzel photo.jpg
Nikki Sue Entzel is on trial for murder conspiracy in Bismarck for the 2019 death of her husband, Chad Entzel.
Tom Stromme, Bismarck Tribune
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BISMARCK — Investigators first thought Chad Entzel's 2019 death was self-inflicted, but several factors pushed the investigation in another direction, a Burleigh County sheriff deputy told jurors Monday during Nikki Entzel’s conspiracy trial.

“The way that things were laid out in the room, the location of Mr. Entzel, the location of the shotgun and then the multiple injuries to his body, we were not convinced it was a suicide at that point,” Deputy Brian Thompson said.

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 through several means including starting two fires. They were charged with three conspiracy felonies -- murder, arson and evidence tampering. Howard about a year ago pleaded guilty and was sentenced to serve 25 years in prison.

Chad Entzel, 42, was shot twice with a shotgun in the Entzel home and died of his wounds in the bedroom, according to Dr. William Massello, who was the state medical examiner in 2020.

Thompson testified Monday that the shotgun found on the bed had a spent round in one of its two barrels.

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The sheriff’s department and investigators from the state’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation pieced together information – electronic communication, bank records, motel key card swipes and video surveillance – that Thompson said corroborates a timeline for Nikki Entzel and Howard going to the home and to their motel. The nature of some of the communication showed the two had a romantic relationship months before Chad Entzel’s death, the deputy said.

Defense attorney Thomas Glass called into question the reliability of cellphone records as being nonspecific about the caller.

“If I picked up your phone and used it, would it indicate that I used it or you used it?” Glass asked. “Would the record show that you had used it?”

“It would show that it’s associated with me,” Thompson said.

Jurors saw a YouTube video shared between Howard and Nikki Entzel that showed a woman yelling at her husband, then relenting when she saw the new car he got her for Christmas. The car exploded when she started it. Though fictitious, the sharing of the video by the two was “significant” because of the timing, Thompson said. Investigators also showed Nikki Entzel searched a local funeral home's website on Jan. 2, several hours before she made a 911 call to report the house fire.

Howard’s bank statement showed he’d purchased a gas welding torch kit on Dec. 30. A kit in the garage of the home was overlooked by investigators in January, Thompson said, but noticed later when they reviewed photos of the home. The tanks were empty when investigators got a search warrant and seized the kit in February. Witnesses last week testified that Howard purchased the kit, and one expert said a dog trained to detect fire accelerants noted the presence on the bed next to Chad Entzel’s body.

A Dickinson woman testified that Nikki Entzel shared her marital problems.

Nikki Entzel told Michell Mundy that she and Chad no longer shared a bedroom and that she had plans to divorce him and move to Texas with Howard. In one text string Mundy asks Nikki Entzel if it’s “just you and the boys” who moved into the home. Nikki responded “I wish he is with.”

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Authorities say Nikki Entzel and Howard were having an affair, and had plans to cash in on insurance after Chad Entzel's death.

Testimony during the first week of Nikki Entzel’s trial focused on surveillance video, fire investigation and insurance policies.

Jurors saw time-stamped surveillance camera video of a man and woman entering and leaving a Bismarck hotel on the day authorities say the two carried out a plan to kill Chad Entzel. Authorities say Nikki Entzel was staying in Howard’s hotel room at the time.

Entzel told investigators 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 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.

Surveillance video also showed Nikki Entzel and Howard at the Entzel home northeast of the city in the hours leading up to Chad Entzel’s death, according to trial testimony. Investigators maintain Nikki Entzel thought she had disabled the video surveillance at the home, but that her efforts had failed.

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

A portion of a cigarette package 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 the body was found. Mandan Fire Department Battalion Chief Shane Weltikol testified 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.

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Burleigh County State’s Attorney Julie Lawyer in her opening statement to the jury early in the trial 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. No benefits from the company’s basic life policy, which Schwartz said was worth between $113,000 and $120,000, were paid.

Jurors 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.

Jurors last week watched an hourslong 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 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. The rest of the week is set aside for the trial. The prosecution is expected to call its last witness Tuesday morning.

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