By Ivy Brown
BISMARCK (Court TV) — A North Dakota woman accused of conspiring to murder her husband has been found guilty on all counts.
Prosecutors argued Nikkie Sue Entzel plotted Chad Entzel’s death to continue a love affair and collect an insurance payout.
She was found guilty of conspiracy to commit murder, conspiracy to commit arson and conspiracy to tamper with physical evidence. Sentencing has been scheduled for Jan. 4, 2023, according to Entzel’s attorney.
The body of Chad Entzel, 42, was discovered in his burning home on Jan. 2, 2020. A propane heater was near the foot of the bed where his body was found, according to an affidavit.
The defendant, who claimed she had been staying in a hotel the past three days, called 911 to report the fire. It was later determined she had been staying at the hotel with her lover, Earl Howard.
An autopsy revealed Chad Entzel died from two gunshot wounds. His body appeared to be in the early stages of decomposition when the home caught fire.
Investigators used surveillance footage and cell phone records to tie Nikki Entzel and Howard to the murder. Nikki Entzel was taken into custody five days after placing the 911 call.
According to an affidavit, Nikki Entzel claimed Howard killed her husband during an argument on Dec. 30. She also claimed she wasn’t in the room when the killing happened. The pair then allegedly spent 3 days trying to cover up the crime.
In Feb. 2022, Howard accepted a plea deal and was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
DAILY TRIAL HIGHLIGHTS
DAY 6 – 10/4/22
- Former Burleigh County Sgt. Aaron Silbernagle introduced a recorded interview he did with the defendant on January 9, 2020, two days after her arrest.
- In the interview, Entzel said she sat in the car while her lover Earl Howard shot Chad and returned later in the day to set the house on fire.
- According to Silbernagle, Nikki said it was Earl’s idea to kill Chad and set the house on fire because “people who beat women don’t deserve to live.”
- The defendant’s responses in the interview were mostly incomprehensible.
- The state rested after calling 45 witnesses.
- Entzel’s defense rested without calling any witnesses, which meant they could forego an opening statement (which they reserved at the trial’s start) and go straight into closings.
- The defense’s 10-minute closing argument focused squarely on Earl Howard, saying there was no evidence of an agreement between them to commit murder.
- The verdicts capped a dramatic day of closing arguments and testimony from the state’s last witness.
DAY 5 – 10/3/22
- Nikki Entzel’s friend, Michell Mundy, described the defendant’s plans to divorce her husband and move to Texas with Earl Howard.
- Mundy said the defendant accused her husband of physical abuse –texting Mundy pictures of herself– as well as infidelity, and accruing gambling debts that made his wife the target of creditors.
- Using photos, emails, online searches, surveillance video and bank card activity, the lead case investigator from Burleigh County tried to fill in holes in the state’s timeline and narrative.
DAY 4 – 9/30/22
- The prosecution introduced more surveillance video from different sources to piece together its timeline of the alleged conspiracy to kill Chad Entzel.
- A Staybridge Suites employee went through billing records detailing various stays of the defendant’s lover, Earl Howard, going back to October 2019, two months before Chad’s death. Witness also said the defendant asked her if the hotel had cameras.
- Along those lines, before moving into their home in November 2019, the defendant asked the property manager if the propety had a security system. When she learned it didn’t, she had one installed.
- The defendant’s brother, Matthew Heinz, said his sister accused Chad of abuse when they met in a McDonald’s on December 29, 2019, where Earl Howard was present.
- Two HVAC service technicians and the owner of the home where the Entzels were staying described responding to Nikki’s complaints about the furnace and finding nothing wrong.
- Security footage from a jewelry store and Walmart show the accused conspirators hugging and holding hands.
DAY 3 – 9/29/22
- Another jam-packed day of testimony in Nikki Sue Entzel’s murder trial brought the jury through the crime scene, the hotel and into Earl Howard’s car before a parade of witnesses offered glimpses into Chad Entzel’s personality and his relationship with Nikki Entzel.
- The prosecution called friends, coworkers and the victim’s ex-wife to dispel the defendant’s claim to investigators that her husband was an abusive drunk who stayed out late with his bowling buddies and took out his anger over a bad game on her.
- Susan Entzel was among those who testified that her ex-husband was a social drinker who rarely drank to excess. When he was inebriated, he became happy and easygoing and not violent as the defendant claimed in police interviews — describing Chad Entzel as a Jekyll and Hyde figure who concealed his dark side from others. Susan Entzel said there was no violence in their relationship, though she acknowledged on cross that she had not seen or spoken to Chad for five years before he died. Susan Entzel’s reason for the divorce overlapped with the defendant’s accusation that Chad Entzel spent too much money on his hobbies and not enough time with his family because his hobbies took precedence.
- The jury heard from two of Chad’s bowling buddies, including the friend who helped him take out a $600,000 life insurance policy more than a year before his death with his wife as the primary beneficiary. Kent Heinle got choked up describing Chad as one of the most “likable people” you’d ever meet. Heinle said he was happy for Chad when he got together with the defendant because she made him happy. Heinle even let Chad propose to her at their wedding on the dance floor.
- Heinle said he last saw Chad the Thursday before his death on one of two weekly bowling nights. When Heinle didn’t make it to Monday night bowling on December 30, 2019, he texted Chad the next day to ask how it went. He thought it strange that his friend never returned his text or subsequent call, and he later learned why. Another friend, Jason Hausauser, said Chad was in good spirits when he last saw him at Monday night bowling on December 30, hours before investigators say the defendant and her lover, Earl Howard, killed Chad in the couple’s home, then tried to conceal his death with two failed attempts to set the house on fire.
- Deputy fire marshal Levi Roline testified to the official cause of the fires: two separate incendiary (intentional) fires in the bedroom where Chad’s body was found and the basement. Both were ignited by a commercially available accelerant classified as a medium petroleum distillate.
- The jury also saw photos of the hotel room where the lovers were staying when Chad died. Inside, investigators found cell phones associated Texas phone numbers, the defendant’s medication in an unopened bag, and sneakers with a dark material on the soles that could resemble soot.
- Investigators found more evidence of the couple’s plans to start a new life in Howard’s car that can also be construed as evidence of a conspiracy. Such items included a bank deposit slip dated August 2019 from the defendant’s account, a black hat, sunglasses and a trench coat, and a brochure for Bismarck realty. Investigators also found a journal containing bank and phone accounts in her name plus diagrams of unspecified electrical wiring. On cross, Special Agent Michael Mees said he didn’t know what Howard did for a living, a question likely intended to suggest there could be legitimate reasons for the items found in Howard’s car.
- The day ended with testimony from Chad Entzel’s coworkers, who recounted their efforts to locate him when he didn’t show up for work on January 2, which included calling and texting the defendant, who said she was busy and would check on him after work. They beat her to it, visiting the home and finding his car in the driveway with a frozen water bottle in the console. Their call to police requesting a welfare check was played for the jury. When he didn’t show up for work on January 3, they called his mother, who broke the news of his death to them.
DAY 2 – 9/28/22
- The testimony of former Burleigh County Sgt. Aaron Silbernagle took up the entire day as the jury heard about three conversations he had with the defendant, starting with their first on the day she called 911 to report a fire in her home and culminating in her admission to being in the home the night her husband was shot to death.
- Silbernagle’s testimony walked the jury through the defendant’s evolution in the eyes of investigators from the grieving widow of an abusive husband to cheating spouse to alleged coconspirator. The defendant never wavered in her insistence that she had nothing to do with her husband’s death and did not know how it happened — even though she admitted that she was “kind of” relieved that her husband was gone.
- Other particulars of her account eventually unraveled under relentless questioning in her last interview before her arrest, a six-hour interrogation that was edited down to three hours for the jury. It started out slow — and difficult to hear — as the soft-spoken defendant stuck to her story under questioning by Silbernagle:
- She left the house after a fight with her husband over the furnace
- She picked up her belongings from the house the night of December 30 when Chad Entzel was out bowling
- Her friend and former catering client Earl Howard went with her but stayed outside
- She stayed in the hotel through New Year’s Day and went to work on January 2
- She went to check on the house after work on January 2, hours after her husband’s coworkers called her looking for him
- She was planning to move to Texas alone
- Chad Entzel’s death must have been a suicide
- Her resolve started to wither as another officer barged into the interview room and confronted her with purported evidence that allegedly undermined her account:
- She was staying in the same hotel room as Earl Howard
- They both entered the house around 1:10 a.m. the morning of December 31 and stayed there for an hour and 40 minutes
- She tried and failed to out the alarm system into privacy mode
- They returned to the house together around 6:30 a.m. and stayed for ten minutes
- Texts revealed that Howard planned to join her in Texas
- Gunshot wounds reveal Chad Entzel was shot to death
- Key points from the interview:
- She and Howard went to the house to pick up her meds and she got into a fight with Chad
- The men continued fighting after she left the house and sat in the car
- After a gunshot went off, Howard emerged from the home and said “he’s not alive”
- They returned later to set the house on fire. Earl did it.
- Finally, the jury was left with a stunning visual of the defendant trying to wrestle her written confession from Silbernagle’s hands.
DAY 1 – 9/27/22
- Prosecutor Julie Ann Lawyer laid out the state’s case in a succinct 16-minute opening statement. She accused Nikki Entzel of conspiring with her lover, Earl Howard, to kill her husband in a staged suicide and cover it up with two fires. The defense reserved theirs, meaning they will deliver their opening statement at the beginning of their case-in-chief.
- The jury heard from nine witnesses, including police and fire investigators, the victim’s family, and the medical examiner who performed the victim’s autopsy.
- ATF Special Agent Derek Hill offers first glimpse of fire investigation and the clues that pointed to an incendiary (deliberately set) fire.
- Entzel filed a renter’s insurance claim on January 3 in a tearful phone call with a customer service representative. She spoke with a claims adjuster on January 7, telling him that the furnace caused the fire and that she couldn’t bear to return to the home to see if any her items were salvageable. The jury heard all three phone calls and found out that Entzel received a $2,500 advance on her policy plus coverage of her hotel expenses.
- The victim’s mother and sister took the stand
Court TV field producer Emanuella Grinberg contributed to this report.