BURKE, S.D. — Prosecutors in the murder trial of a former South Dakota police chief said he killed his fiancee to collect more than $900,000 in insurance money and was jealous that she was pregnant by another man.
Russell Bertram, 64, is charged with first-degree murder in the October 2009 death of 26-year-old Leonila Stickney, who was pregnant at the time. Prosecutors argued in opening statements at his trial on Wednesday that aside from money, jealousy played a role because Bertram had undergone a vasectomy and knew the child couldn’t be his, the Daily Republic (http://bit.ly/2cAeK3c ) reported.
“After being shot, Leonila never regained consciousness, was never able to tell anyone what happened,” Assistant Attorney General Mikal Hanson said.
Bertram and Stickney began a relationship in 2009. Soon after, a $750,000 life insurance policy was taken out on Stickney, followed by a smaller policy with a $150,000 accidental death benefit, with Bertram as the beneficiary.
Bertram was not charged until late last year. 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. He then contacted the South Dakota attorney general’s office criminal division, setting in motion an investigation that led to a murder charge last fall.
Hanson told the jury Bertram changed his story during different interviews, including giving different accounts about how the gun was triggered, when he found out that Stickney was pregnant and what Stickney’s last words were.
Bertram maintains 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.
Bertram’s defense team on Wednesday argued the case has nothing to do with jealousy and that the insurance policy was Stickney’s idea to provide for her family in the Philippines if anything happened to her.
Defense attorney Mike Butler told the court Bertram had sent money periodically to Stickney’s family before he was arrested. He said the case was thoroughly investigated at the time and that authorities decided against arresting Bertram.
After Stickney’s death, Bertram traveled to the Philippines and married Stickney’s sister Melissa del Valle, who has filed for divorce, citing “extreme cruelty,” according to court records.
Butler said that there is no evidence that he abused either woman. Bertram did use Stickney’s cellphone after her death to send text messages to the man that he suspected had impregnated her, Butler said. But that should have no bearing on the case, the defense lawyer said.
“As for evidence of moral conduct, I suppose some would argue as inappropriate,” Butler said. “I’m not here defending a morals case. I’m defending a murder case.”
Information from: The Daily Republic, http://www.mitchellrepublic.com