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Murder, conspiracy case moved to trial; deputy details love triangle, life insurance policy

Murder, conspiracy case moved to trial; deputy details love triangle, life insurance policy

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Two people charged in the January death of a Bismarck man started planning his demise a month before it happened, a sheriff’s deputy testified Friday in describing an apparent love triangle and plans to cash in on a life insurance policy.

Earl Howard, 41, and Nikki Entzel, 38, pleaded not guilty to charges filed against them in the death of Chad Entzel, 42. His body was found Jan. 2 after authorities responded to a call of a fire at a northeast Bismarck home. Chad Entzel’s body was in the early stages of decomposition. An autopsy showed he died of gunshot wounds.

Howard is charged with murder, arson, and three counts of conspiracy. The Belwood, Ontario, man has dual U.S. and Canada citizenship. He turned himself in and was arrested Jan. 9 on the Blue Water Bridge connecting Port Huron, Mich., with Ontario, Canada. 

Nikki Entzel is charged with three counts of conspiracy. Each faces the possibility of life in prison if convicted.

Nikki Entzel initially told police that she had moved out of the home because of Chad Entzel’s drinking and abuse and due to the home being cold from a poorly functioning furnace, Burleigh County Deputy Sheriff Brian Thompson testified. She also said that the day of her husband's death, Howard and Chad Entzel struggled when an argument between Chad Entzel and Nikki Entzel escalated. The two men went into the back bedroom, and when Howard came out he said Chad Entzel was dead and that the heater should start a fire, the deputy said.

She later told investigators she and Howard saw the furnace issue as an opportunity to carry out their plan, which included starting a fire to cover up his cause of death. They made preparations to carry out their plan while Chad Entzel was out of the home, placing a shotgun and a propane heater in the basement. Later, after they verified that Chad Entzel was asleep, Howard shot him twice, Thompson said. They then placed the propane heater near his bed to start a fire, the deputy said.  

The two returned to the home several times -- which Thompson said is verified through video and security company event log activity -- in attempts to get a fire going, Thompson testified. Nikki Entzel reported the fire, which Thompson said covered much of the home with soot.

Thompson said Nikki Entzel’s story to investigators changed several times but one piece of information -- that Howard shot Chad Entzel -- never changed.

Howard was not willing to answer questions without an attorney present during the investigation, Thompson said.

Nikki Entzel took out a $26,000 life insurance policy on Chad Entzel in the days before his death, Thompson said, adding that she tried to collect on the policy soon after he died. Howard and Nikki Entzel were in a romantic relationship, verified by video and photos provided to law enforcement, and may have had plans to move to Texas, the deputy said.

Howard’s attorney, Rick Sand, said in cross-examining Thompson that Nikki Entzel has had “issues with truthfulness” on a number of things when talking to police. He asked South Central District Judge Douglas Bahr to dismiss the murder charge against Howard, saying “there’s no physical evidence and very little circumstantial evidence” to show he committed murder. The only evidence the state had, he said, came from a co-defendant who had a history of telling lies.

Todd Ewell, defense attorney for Nikki Entzel, asked Thompson about cellphone images and statements from others that might have backed up her claims of abuse. Thompson said he didn’t think the comments were consistent with what he saw in the photos.

“If law enforcement did not find evidence of abuse, then they are not looking,” Ewell said after the hearing.

Bahr found there was probable cause to move the case forward. He scheduled a 10-day trial to start Aug. 10.

The two suspects appeared as co-defendants at Friday's preliminary hearing, though Sand indicated he may move to split the case.

Howard is being held on $1 million bail. Nikki Entzel is in jail in lieu of $500,000 bail.

Reach Travis Svihovec at 701-250-8260 or Travis.Svihovec@bismarcktribune.com

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