BURKE, S.D. — The murder trial of a former South Dakota police chief begins this week, years after he claimed his young fiancee was fatally shot in a tragic hunting accident.

Russell Bertram, once the chief of police in Harrisburg, is scheduled to stand trial on a first-degree murder charge starting Monday in Burke, the Argus Leader (http://argusne.ws/2ceaagI ) reported. Prosecutors have suggested that the case involves money, jealousy and tangled relationships, while Bertram’s defense, according to court filings, could hinge on the design of the shotgun that killed 26-year-old Leonila Stickney.

After the incident happened in October 2009, Bertram told authorities he was putting his 12-gauge shotgun back into his truck after shooting pheasants in Gregory County, when it went off accidentally, striking Stickney in the abdomen. An autopsy found she was pregnant when she died. County authorities ruled the death an accident after a brief investigation.

The newspaper reported that critics of Bertram’s shotgun say one of its mechanisms is flawed. An Arizona-based arms designer and gunsmith, David Lauck, inspected Bertram’s Remington Model 870 pump shotgun for the defense.

Records show that when Lauck disassembled the shotgun, he found debris in its trigger mechanism, known as the common fire control, which is known to cause weapons to suddenly fire if bumped.

“Jar off (unexpected firing),” Lauck wrote in his report, “can occur with the safety in the on or off position, and without pulling the trigger.”

A former Remington engineer, who has testified on behalf of the company in other lawsuits, has also examined Bertram’s shotgun.

Court filings suggest prosecutors will attempt to portray the 64-year-old police officer-turned-construction worker as a man who was jealous and abusive toward his ex-wives and who needed money.

The victim’s estranged husband, David Stickney, received a letter months after her death from a life insurance company that was processing a claim from Bertram, court records show. A $750,000 life insurance policy had been taken out on Leonila Stickney, followed by a smaller policy with a $150,000 accidental death benefit, with Bertram as the beneficiary.

David Stickney contacted the South Dakota attorney general’s office’s criminal division after getting the letter, setting in motion an investigation that led to a murder charge last fall.


Information from: Argus Leader, http://www.argusleader.com