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.”