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Nikki Entzel found guilty of conspiring to murder husband

Jurors returned guilty verdicts on charges of conspiracy to commit murder, conspiracy to commit arson and conspiring to tamper with evidence in connection with the death of Chad Entzel.

Nikki Entzel.jpg
Nikki Entzel watches court proceedings in the Burleigh County Courthouse in Bismarck on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022. Entzel is charged with murder conspiracy in the 2019 death of her husband, Chad Entzel.
Tom Stromme/Bismarck Tribune
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BISMARCK — Jurors on Tuesday found Nikki Entzel guilty of plotting and attempting to cover up her husband’s death in 2019 in a case prosecutors said involved a love triangle and attempt to cash in on insurance policies.

It took about two hours for jurors to return guilty verdicts on three conspiracy charges -- murder, arson and evidence tampering -- in the death of Chad Entzel.

Burleigh County State's Attorney Julie Lawyer said the evidence in the case "was just overwhelming."

"With all the evidence as it was put together, that made a very compelling case for the jury," Lawyer said after the verdict.

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. Howard about a year ago pleaded guilty and was sentenced to serve 25 years in prison. He was listed as a prosecution witness but was not called to testify.

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Chad Entzel 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.

Evidence in the trial showed Nikki Entzel in the days after her husband’s death inquired with insurance companies about widow benefits and claims on 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.

Lori Kraus, Chad Entzel's sister, said she was glad jurors did not believe Nikki Entzel's characterization of her brother.

"We hoped and prayed the jury would see Chad for the guy he was and not for who she said he was," Kraus said. "Obviously that came through loud and clear."

Lawyer in her closing argument said there was no doubt Chad Entzel was killed and attempts were made to burn his home to hide evidence. A number of factors pointed to an agreement between Nikki Entzel and Earl Howard to pull that off, she said. One example was Nikki Entzel's use of fake furnace problems as a reason to buy renter’s insurance just days before the fire. She shared those documents with Howard by email.

“If you don’t have a plan to kill the husband and set the house on fire, why does he need a copy of her renter’s insurance?” Lawyer said. The only reason he would need it, Lawyer said, was if “she needed to show him, hey it’s in place, the plans are done.” She purchased the insurance using a bank account held jointly with Howard, the prosecutor said.

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The logs from the Entzels’ security system showed Nikki Entzel made several changes to the system on the night Chad Entzel died, Lawyer said. Nikki Entzel told prosecutors she went to the house at 1 p.m. on Dec. 31 to look for medications, a claim Lawyer said was not supported by evidence.

“They were there to kill Chad,” Lawyer said.

Lawyer concluded her case Tuesday morning after calling 44 witnesses in six days of testimony. The defense did not call any witnesses. It was never established who pulled the trigger or who set the fires to cover up the death.

In his closing argument, defense attorney Thomas Glass said the prosecution’s case was based on innuendo and speculation and questioned why jurors didn’t get to hear from Howard.

“Where is Earl Howard?” Glass said. “I've never seen him take the stand. Why not? Why is a big question, and it’s unanswered. Unanswered questions raise doubt.”

After the verdict, Glass said it was an "extraordinarily tough case to try."

"The evidence the state had and her interviews without counsel were tough to overcome," Glass said.

South Central District Judge Douglas Bahr ordered a presentence investigation. She could face up to life in prison. Nikki Entzel has 30 days after sentencing to file a notice of appeal. Glass said he and his client haven't discussed further steps beyond sentencing. Glass said he would encourage her to speak at sentencing.

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Lawyer and Chad Entzel's family members shared hugs outside the courtroom after the verdict.

"My son got his justice," his mother, Deb Entzel, told Lawyer.

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