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News / Northwest

‘We were all suspicious’: Former Idaho State trooper trial debates whether wife’s death was suicide or murder

By Alexandra Duggan, The Spokesman-Review
Published: March 6, 2024, 7:44am

SPOKANE — For years, investigators questioned the circumstances surrounding the supposed suicide of Kendy Howard, a former Idaho State trooper’s wife. On Monday, Kootenai County prosecutors began trying her husband for murder.

Daniel Howard, 58, is accused of battering and killing Kendy Howard three years ago at their home in Athol. Until now, details of her death were not public.

The former trooper called police when he found Kendy Howard in the bathtub on Feb. 2, 2021, with a gunshot wound in her mouth. As Kootenai County Prosecutor Stanley Mortensen kept his eyes on the jury Monday, he explained the evidence shows Kendy Howard’s death was not a suicide. She had just decided to move into a new home in Kamiah, Idaho, she got her nails done that day, she was scheduling appointments to begin a body transformation and she was excitedly telling friends about the new job she got.

The motive to kill, Mortensen said, was driven by an affair and the split of possessions during a divorce.

When police initially responded, “red flags were going up,” Mortensen said — the bathwater was warm, there was less blood than expected for a gunshot wound, glass was found on the floor and clothes were turning in the dryer. Daniel Howard seemed devastated, but no tears were falling from his eyes, the prosecutor told jurors.

Kenneth Lallatin, a now-retired detective with the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office, responded to the scene that day, spending nearly nine hours inside the house collecting statements and evidence.

Daniel Howard “made little eye contact” and appeared to be frustrated, Lallatin testified. The former detective said on the stand that Daniel Howard told him the two were having problems and in the middle of signing off on a divorce. He hinted that Kendy Howard may have wanted to die by suicide because she had just made an offer on the house in Kamiah, and got “upset” since he wanted to include it as property in the divorce proceedings. While Daniel Howard was filling out the paperwork that night, he told Lallatin he “heard a thud.” Nearly two hours later, he found his wife dead in the tub, cold to the touch, but the water was still warm, Lallatin told the jury.

“We were all suspicious,” he said.

When investigators allowed Daniel Howard to notify family of his wife’s death, Kendy Howard’s daughter, Brooke Wilkins, immediately accused her stepfather of killing her mother. Lallatin overheard the entire conversation, he said. Daniel Howard was “visibly shaken” and denied the accusation.

On Feb. 3, 2021, former Spokane County Medical Examiner Dr. John Howard, no relation, performed an autopsy of Kendy Howard. He did not note the bruising on her chest she received before her death, a sign of cutting off someone’s airways, Mortensen said. He said Kendy Howard had a broken jaw and a second-degree burn on her arm in addition to signs she was asphyxiated.

John Howard was subject to a state investigation in 2018 after 14 cases of disputed manner-of-death rulings. A woman whose body was found in 2012 was cut in half with defensive wounds, according to previous reporting from The Spokesman-Review, but John Howard ruled her death as “undetermined.” This led to infighting between prosecutors and police on deciding whether to charge the suspect in the case, whose DNA was located on the woman’s body. The state ultimately decided John Howard followed the correct standard of care. Dr. Venna Singh was then hired as the new medical examiner in 2021.

“This was not a suicide,” Mortensen said. “She was shot after she was dead… (It) explains the lack of blood at the crime scene.”

Spokane’s Deputy Medical Examiner Makinzie Mott called Lallatin sometime after the report to tell him there were inconsistencies she observed, Lallatin said. The report was also sent to the Kootenai County Coroner’s Office, whose investigators didn’t see totally eye-to-eye with John Howard, either.

For two years following the autopsy, law enforcement continued their investigation and pondered the circumstances surrounding Kendy Howard’s death — until an arrest warrant was obtained, charging Daniel Howard with the murder of his wife. He turned himself in to the Kootenai County Jail on April 21, 2023.

The couple was having issues, Mortensen said, which was made apparent by a July 2020 911 call in which Kendy Howard claimed she heard a gunshot and that she was worried her husband had killed himself, but could not locate him. She sounded visibly distraught on the dispatch call as it was played in court. When she found him, he wouldn’t speak to her, she relayed to the operator. She also began sending photos of bruises on her body to her friends, Mortensen told the jury.

In January of 2021, Kendy Howard started making arrangements for divorce. She was going to get nearly $1 million after the value on their property was split, including some of his retirement benefits from the police force, Mortensen said. A month later, her brother and Daniel Howard were traveling three hours together to help out Kendy Howard’s father, and Daniel Howard asked if she was having an affair. Her brother confirmed she was.

“Dan doesn’t sleep that night, Brian hears him pacing,” Mortensen said. Daniel Howard drove recklessly the whole way home, he added.

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The next day, his wife was dead.

Daniel Howard’s defense attorney Jason Johnson tells a different story. He said Kendy Howard was suicidal. She “was living a double life,” he told the jury, “not confident in her body,” was drinking and just had a fight with her brother.

Johnson also disputed the prosecution’s narrative of the scene. He said the gun used only had Kendy Howard’s DNA on it, along with another unidentified male. There was no trace of Daniel Howard’s DNA, Johnson said.

The medical examiner found no signs of petechiae, which are the rupture of blood vessels within the eye caused by pressure from strangulation. Her hyoid bone, a bone in the throat, also remained undamaged, Johnson told the jury. He claimed the experts say the mechanics of the scene are consistent with suicide — blood caked onto her back, a wet towel in the bedroom and her purse in the bathroom where she kept her gun.

“A person who’s trying to break off from alcohol is susceptible to suicide,” Johnson said about Kendy Howard’s mental state.

Investigators also wanted gunshot residue tests, but Lallatin said when police were walking through the home, Daniel Howard was repeatedly shaking and rubbing his hands in his pockets. Johnson asked if Lallatin included this in his report, but he said he didn’t.

Johnson led into another train of thought: police also already had a belief in their minds that Daniel Howard was responsible for his wife’s death. Lallatin had accused Daniel Howard that very night of killing his wife.

“Is that when you made up your mind?” Johnson asked Lallatin.

“No,” he replied.

Kendy Howard, according to her obituary, is remembered as someone with a bubbly personality who “loved being outside, attending concerts, enjoying her many friendships and a good brewery.”

The trial is expected to last 15 days, court records show. If convicted, Daniel Howard could be sentenced to the maximum of life in prison under Idaho law.