A Canadian man facing the possibility of life in prison for the death of a Bismarck man two years ago has entered into a plea agreement that would send him to prison for 25 years and leave decades more time over his head if he violates probation.
Earl Howard, 43, on Friday morning pleaded guilty to arson and three conspiracy charges -- murder, arson and tampering with evidence. If a judge accepts the agreement, Howard will be sentenced before the co-defendant in the case, Nikkisue Entzel, 40, goes to trial.
Howard, of Bellwood, Ontario, and Nikkisue Entzel were arrested nearly two years ago in connection with the late 2019 death of Chad Entzel, 42, Nikkisue's husband. His body was found Jan. 2, 2020, after emergency workers responded to a call of a house fire in northeast Bismarck. An autopsy showed he died of a gunshot wound to the head.
Investigators say the killing stemmed from a love triangle and involved plans to cash in on a life insurance policy. The two suspects are accused of plotting Chad Entzel’s death and trying to start the house on fire in an attempted cover-up. Howard has dual citizenship in the U.S. and Canada. He turned himself in and was arrested Jan. 9, 2020, on the Blue Water Bridge connecting Port Huron, Michigan, with Ontario, Canada.
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Howard, shackled and in a prison jumpsuit, entered the pleas just three days before his and Nikkisue Entzel’s joint trial was scheduled to start Monday. South Central District Judge Douglas Bahr at Friday's hearing tentatively accepted the pleas pending the outcome of a presentence investigation. He noted the timing of the pleas so close to the trial date, which left him little time to consider further information. Howard, his attorney Richard Sand and Burleigh County State’s Attorney Julie Lawyer agreed to the tentative acceptance.
Lawyer at an afternoon hearing asked Bahr to reschedule Nikkisue Entzel's trial after Howard is sentenced. Howard in the past has requested that the two be tried separately, and though Howard's attorneys have assured her that his guilty plea is not a ploy to get his own trial, Lawyer is being cautious.
"The state still has reservations regarding coming to the sentencing hearing after Ms. Entzel has had her trial, and then Mr. Howard withdrawing his plea, which he is allowed to do, and then having to have that separate trial with Mr. Howard," she said.
Lawyer said she also needs more time, in light of Howard's plea, to update the state's witness list and prepare for trial with a single defendant. Nikkiesue Entzel is charged with murder conspiracy, arson conspiracy and evidence tampering conspiracy charges.
Her attorney, Justin Balzer, said he reluctantly would not oppose the motion for a continuance. His client wants to proceed to trial.
"Obviously our focus would change as well as far as how to prepare for trial," he said.
The judge granted the continuance "with great reluctance," noting Nikkisue Entzel had been in custody for 22 months.
The agreement by Lawyer and Howard’s attorneys calls for a 50-year prison sentence with 25 years suspended on the murder conspiracy charge; 10-year suspended sentences on the arson and arson conspiracy charges; and a five-year suspended sentence for evidence tampering conspiracy.
It wasn't immediately clear if the deal requires Howard to testify in Nikkiesue Entzel's trial. Bahr earlier denied a request that would have allowed Howard to introduce evidence of Nikkisue Entzel’s alleged criminal past.
The judge on Friday gave members of Chad Entzel’s family -- about 10 were present in the courtroom -- time to object to the plea agreement for Howard. None did.
If Bahr doesn’t accept the plea agreement, Howard could withdraw the guilty pleas and proceed to trial. Should that happen, the information from the presentence investigation could not be presented at trial. The agreement also stipulates that Howard spend five years on supervised probation. Bahr cautioned him that a probation violation could send him back to prison for the full terms outlined in the agreement.
Bahr in May dismissed a Class AA murder charge against Howard. Lawyer asked the court to drop the charge, saying in a motion that an evaluation of the firearm did not show evidence as to which defendant allegedly shot Chad Entzel. Without that the state couldn’t corroborate Nikkisue Entzel’s statements to law enforcement that Howard shot Chad Entzel, Lawyer said.
Class AA murder and murder conspiracy both carry the possibility of life in prison without parole.
A joint trial, had it been held, would have proceeded differently than most because “it’s two trials combined into one,” Lawyer said. Each defense attorney would have had the opportunity to cross-examine prosecution witnesses. Likewise, when a defense attorney called a witness to the stand, the prosecution and the other defense attorney would have been allowed to cross-examine.
Bismarck attorney Jackson Lofgren, whom the Tribune interviewed for an independent analysis of joint trials, said it’s possible a jury could find one defendant guilty and one not guilty but “it’s tougher with a conspiracy.”
Conspiracy "means they agreed and one took a substantial step to complete it,” he said. The jury could convict the one who took that step and acquit the other, but generally “it’s both or neither," said Lofgren, 41, who has worked as both a prosecution and defense attorney.
North Dakota is no stranger to murder conspiracies. Chase Swanson and Madison West, both of Bowman, in 2016 were accused of conspiring to kill Nicholas Johnson, who was found dead in a Bowman motel room. Swanson is serving a life sentence with a chance of parole. West was given a 50-year sentence with 15 years suspended.
Cynthia Wilder and Richie Wilder were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in the 2015 murder of Richie Wilder’s ex-wife in Minot.
Reach Travis Svihovec at 701-250-8260 or Travis.Svihovec@bismarcktribune.com