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Jury sees 'good cop-bad cop' interrogation in North Dakota murder conspiracy case

The back and forth between Nikki Entzel and two investigators ended with her telling then-Deputy Burleigh County Sheriff Aaron Silbernagel and Special Agent Joe Arenz of the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation that she felt a sort of relief that her husband, Chad Entzel, was dead.

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Nikki Entzel, right, talks with her attorney, Thomas Glass, during the third day of her murder conspiracy trial on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022, at the Burleigh County Courthouse in Bismarck.
Mike McCleary / Bismarck Tribune
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BISMARCK — Jurors in the trial of a Bismarck woman accused of plotting to kill her husband saw video Wednesday, Sept. 28, of her repeatedly denying that she had anything to do with his death as investigators bit-by-bit revealed information to her they said proved she was lying.

The back and forth between Nikki Entzel and two investigators ended with her telling then-Deputy Burleigh County Sheriff Aaron Silbernagel and Special Agent Joe Arenz of the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation that she felt a sort of relief that her husband, Chad Entzel, was dead.

Nikki Entzel earlier in the 6-hour videotaped interview that was cut by about half for the trial said she only returned to her home the day before her husband was found dead in an effort to find her medications. Silbernagel was on the witness stand as the video was shown during part of the prosecution’s case.

Arenz during the interview questioned why Nikki Entzel and Earl Howard — who authorities contend was her lover — would spend an hour and 40 minutes at the house that night, yet she found her meds in five minutes during another visit the next morning.

“Are we about done lying?” Arenz asked her.

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The two told Nikki Entzel that video surveillance at her home was not disabled as she thought, and that other video showed her and Howard at a hotel where she said she was staying to get out of a house that was cold because of furnace problems. She later acknowledged she and Howard were staying in the same room.

Authorities also contend that Nikki Entzel called her husband’s workplace the day his body was found to say he was sick.

Case background

Nikki Entzel, 41, and Howard, 43, a man with dual citizenship in the U.S. and Canada, were accused in early 2020 of plotting the death of Chad Entzel, 42, and trying to cover it up through several means, including starting two fires in the home. They were charged with three conspiracy felonies — murder, arson and evidence tampering. Howard about a year ago pleaded guilty under a deal with prosecutors and was sentenced to serve 25 years in prison.

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

Investigators found the home quite warm, between 80 and 90 degrees, Silbernagel testified Wednesday. Heavy soot was evident throughout the home, but the worst damage was in the bedroom where Chad Entzel’s body was found.

Dr. William Massello, who was the state medical examiner in 2020, testified Tuesday that Chad Entzel was shot twice with a shotgun and died of his wounds.

Derek Hill, a special agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, testified Tuesday that the body was on the floor and the shotgun was on the bed. He also said evidence indicated an ignitable liquid was used to accelerate the fire in the bedroom.

'Good cop-bad cop'

Nikki Entzel told the investigators during the videotaped interview shown Wednesday that she was in her car in the early morning hours of Dec. 30 when Howard and Chad Entzel argued. When Howard came out of the house he told her the two had struggled with a shotgun and it went off.

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“He said, ‘He’s not alive,’” Nikki Entzel said, adding that Howard returned the next morning to start a fire with a propane heater.

Authorities have previously said Nikki Entzel told law officers that Howard shot her husband, but that an evaluation of the gun didn’t conclude who pulled the trigger. South Central District Judge Douglas Bahr, who is overseeing Nikki Entzel’s trial, last May dismissed a murder charge against Howard at the request of prosecutors, leaving just the conspiracy charges against him.

Defense attorney Thomas Glass on Wednesday commented to Silbernagel in the courtroom that the video shown was “a pretty long interview.”

“How long did the good cop-bad cop routine go on?” Glass asked, referring to Silbernagel and Arenz questioning his client. “Is that kind of a technique you guys use to break people, more or less?”

Silbernagel responded that he and Arenz hadn’t worked together before that interview. He had developed rapport with Nikki Entzel, he said, while Arenz chose a firmer approach.

Glass observed that a defense attorney was not present during the interview.

“Did you ever ask her at any point if she wanted an attorney present?” Glass asked.

“Not to my knowledge, no,” Silbernagel said.

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'Erratic' demeanor

Silbernagel testified Wednesday that Nikki Entzel’s demeanor was “surprisingly calm” but changed quickly as he interviewed her after she learned her husband had died.

“I would describe it as erratic,” he said. “It was, one minute, bright, cheery, happy — not fitting the situation — and then it would be hysterical, forced or pressure breathing and kind of high-pitched crying and kind of squealing.”

Investigators when processing Nikki Entzel’s car on Jan. 2 found a box containing two cellphones addressed to Howard. Nikki Entzel on Jan. 6 told an investigator that Howard, whom she described as a friend of the family, previously had accompanied her to the home to pick up personal items.

Nikki Entzel pointed out to investigators an insurance policy dependent verification form she said she wanted her husband to sign, Silbernagel said. The form had Chad Entzel’s name near the top and designated Nikki Entzel and her son as beneficiaries. It had not been signed by him, though highlighted areas showed where he was to sign.

Burleigh County State’s Attorney Julie Lawyer in her opening statement to the jury on Tuesday 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 life insurance policy was worth $600,000 and was two years old, the prosecutor said.

Nikki Entzel could face life in prison if convicted. Wednesday was the third day of her trial, which is scheduled for two weeks.

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