Ex-SD police chief gets life term in fiancee’s 2009 killing

FILE- In this Sept. 14, 2016, photo, Russell Bertram, a former police chief in South Dakota, is escorted into the Gregory County Courthouse in Burke, S.D., by Deputy Chelsea Biehl for the first day of oral arguments in his murder trial. Bertram was sentenced on Tuesday, Nov. 22, to life in prison without parole in the death of his pregnant fiancee in 2009. (Jake Shama/The Daily Republic via AP)

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) – A former South Dakota police chief was sentenced to life in prison without parole Tuesday in the 2009 death of his pregnant fiancee.

The sentence against Russell Bertram, the one-time police chief of Harrisburg, came almost two months after a jury in Burke found him guilty of first-degree murder. Bertram, 64, was accused of fatally shooting 26-year-old Leonila Stickney out of jealousy and to collect more than $900,000 in insurance benefits. Defense attorneys argued it was an accidental shooting.

At the time of the incident, Bertram told authorities that he was putting his shotgun into his truck after a hunting trip in Gregory County when the weapon fired accidentally, striking Stickney in the abdomen. County authorities ruled the death an accident after a brief investigation.

Authorities, however, revisited the case after Stickney’s estranged husband, David Stickney, received a letter from a life insurance company that was processing a claim from Bertram. David Stickney contacted the South Dakota attorney general’s office after getting the letter, setting in motion an investigation that led to a murder charge against the police chief-turned-construction worker on September 2015.

Court records show that a $750,000 life insurance policy had been taken out on Stickney months before her death, followed by a smaller policy with a $150,000 accidental death benefit, with Bertram as the beneficiary. But Bertram’s defense team argued during the trial that the insurance policy was Leonila Stickney’s idea to provide for her family in the Philippines if anything happened to her.

Bertram’s attorney, Michael Butler, said Tuesday that an appeal will be filed with the South Dakota Supreme Court.

During the two-week trial in Burke, prosecutors argued jealousy was a factor in the killing because Bertram had undergone a vasectomy and knew the child Stickney was expecting couldn’t be his.

After Stickney’s death, Bertram traveled to the Philippines and married her sister, Melliza Del Balle. But the marriage collapsed after his arrest, and she filed for divorce citing “extreme cruelty,” according to court records. Court filings also show that Del Balle and Bertram have one child.

Del Balle told The Associated Press after Bertram was found guilty in September that her family was “happy” with the verdict.

“He deserves it,” Del Balle said. “… We are so happy. Finally, we already have justice. I think he did it on purpose for money.”

NBC4i.com provides commenting to allow for constructive discussion on the stories we cover. In order to comment here, you acknowledge you have read and agreed to our Terms of Service. Commenters who violate these terms, including use of vulgar language or racial slurs, will be banned. Please be respectful of the opinions of others and keep the conversation on topic and civil. If you see an inappropriate comment, please flag it for our moderators to review.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s