This frame grab from a video provided by KELOLAND shows Former South Dakota police chief Russell Bertram. Bertram claimed his young fiancee was shot and killed in a tragic 2009 hunting accident. But state prosecutors are saying the truth was far more sinister. Bertram is charged with first-degree murder in the death of 26-year-old Leonila Stickney and will stand trial in February 2016. (Anna Peters/KELOLAND TVvia AP)
COLOME, S.D. (AP) — Everybody knows Russell Bertram in this tiny prairie town of about 300, where the skyline is etched by a grain mill, city hall is the size of a one-bedroom apartment and there’s too little traffic to justify a stoplight. The three tables in the back of the only gas station are as good a gathering place as the two bars down the street.
Bertram grew up here, raised three children here and, for a while, was the town’s only law enforcement officer. Local phone books have included Bertrams for decades. And though he hasn’t lived here for years, seemingly everyone heard the story of how Bertram’s young fiancee was shot and killed in an unfortunate 2009 hunting accident the next county over.
But South Dakota prosecutors now claim the truth was far more sinister: that it was a murder, suggesting in court filings that it involved money, jealousy and tangled relationships spanning two countries. There was another odd twist: Four years after the shooting, he married the woman’s sister.
It’s a made-for-tabloid case so bizarre that few here, including many who know Bertram best, will talk openly about it as the 64-year-old police officer-turned-construction worker prepares to stand trial next month on first-degree murder charges.
“I’ve watched enough ’48 Hours’ and ‘Dateline’ to know how things get fixed,” said Larry Bertram, one of the defendant’s uncles, who’s convinced that Russell Bertram is the target of overzealous prosecutors. Others say they don’t know what to think, and don’t want to anger his family.
Bertram said he was putting his 12-gauge shotgun back into his truck after shooting pheasants in October 2009 in Gregory County, just east of Colome and about 160 miles west of his Sioux Falls home, when it went off accidentally, striking 26-year-old passenger Leonila Stickney in the abdomen. County authorities ruled the death an accident after a brief investigation.
But several months later, the victim’s estranged husband, David Stickney, received a startling letter: A life insurance company was processing a claim from Bertram, and wanted medical information.
Earlier that year, court records say, 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. Stickney contacted the South Dakota attorney general’s office’s criminal division, setting in motion an investigation that led to a murder charge last fall.
From the beginning, some things just didn’t seem right, said former Gregory County Sheriff Charlie Wolf. He said he questioned Bertram three times at the hospital and “wasn’t satisfied with the way he acted,” describing him as oddly emotionless. He said Bertram claimed Stickney had grabbed the barrel of the shotgun and said, ‘Kiss me,’ while pulling it toward her.
“But the only way I would feel comfortable charging him with anything other than a reckless discharge was if he admitted that he shot her on purpose,” Wolf told The Associated Press, adding that he’s glad state investigators got involved.
Prosecutors have said little about their case. But court filings suggest they’ll attempt to portray Bertram as a man who was jealous and abusive toward his ex-wives, someone who needed money. Defense attorneys declined to talk to the AP, but filed motions seeking to bar evidence involving life insurance or mortgages.
That leaves many unanswered questions, including about the victim, who moved to South Dakota from the Philippines 12 years ago, and her younger sister, Melissa, who became Bertram’s wife.
Leonila married David Stickney, then 66, in the Philippines in 2004 after the two had corresponded by mail, Stickney’s attorney said. He was 45 years older. The two had a young son before the marriage foundered. They were settling their divorce when she became engaged to Bertram, and an autopsy found she was pregnant when she died.
The relationship wasn’t well known among his family. Although the Bertram family gathers every year for Thanksgiving at the American Legion in Colome, even Bertram’s closest relatives never met her.
Bertram’s three previous wives all sought restraining orders before divorcing him, saying they were afraid. According to divorce records and interviews, he sometimes flew into rages and tried to use his law enforcement background to intimidate others. His third wife wrote that Bertram once told her that police wouldn’t do anything if she called them.
Bertram also had difficulties with neighbors and on the job. He was banned temporarily from the manager’s office at the trailer park after where he recently lived in Sioux Falls after disputes there.
“He came over to the office screaming and yelling, ‘I was chief of police!’ like it mattered,” said Vicky Foster, who manages the park.
Earlier, Bertram worked in Colome as a Tripp County sheriff’s deputy for three years, then as a police officer in the community of Parker before he was asked to resign over complaints that he was harassing some residents, said former Parker mayor Ron Nelson. Bertram went on to become police chief in Harrisburg, a Sioux Falls suburb, until the department was dissolved in 2004 for financial reasons.
Bertram’s latest marriage collapsed after his arrest last September. Melissa del Valle, Leonila’s sister, filed for divorce, citing “extreme cruelty,” according to court records.
But some Bertram family members describe a man who often helped others. Russell Bertram’s nephew, Cody Bertram, remembered a time his parents didn’t have a big enough vehicle to take him and his siblings to visit his grandfather at a hospital, so his uncle lent them a van and filled the tank.
“There was never a moment I felt unsafe with him,” Cody Bertram said.
Webber reported from Chicago. Associated Press writer James Nord in Pierre, South Dakota, contributed to this story.