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Former police chief sentenced to life in prison for murder

WINNER -- Leonila now can have peace. That's according to Melissa del Valle, sister to Leonila Stickney, who was killed by Russell Bertram, 64, of Sioux Falls, in 2009. During a sentencing hearing Tuesday at the Tripp County Courthouse in Winner,...

Russell Bertram, 64, of Sioux Falls, right, is escorted from Thursday from the Tripp County Courthouse by Gregory County Deputy Chelsea Biehl following an evidentiary hearing. (Jake Shama/Republic)
Russell Bertram, 64, of Sioux Falls, right, is escorted from Thursday from the Tripp County Courthouse by Gregory County Deputy Chelsea Biehl following an evidentiary hearing. (Jake Shama/Republic)

WINNER - Leonila now can have peace.

That’s according to Melissa del Valle, sister to Leonila Stickney, who was killed by Russell Bertram, 64, of Sioux Falls, in 2009.

During a sentencing hearing Tuesday at the Tripp County Courthouse in Winner, Bertram - who later married del Valle - was sentenced to life in prison for first-degree murder without the possibility of parole.

“Justice prevailed, but I’m also saddened to find out that my ex-husband is responsible for her death,” said del Valle.

Bertram was found guilty of murder on Sept. 26 after a two-week jury trial in Burke. He was convicted of killing his pregnant fiancee, Stickney, then-26, of Bridgewater, on Oct. 24, 2009, during a hunting trip near Gregory. According to court disposition, another man impregnated Stickney, and prosecutors said jealousy was one of Bertram’s motives for murder.

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“I would just like to thank you for running a smooth court,” Bertram said to Judge Kathleen Trandahl, who recently retired. “I feel that they (the jurors) were wrong, but I want to wish you a happy retirement.”

Bertram, a former Colome police officer and Harrisburg police chief, was first charged with the crime in December 2015. The incident was initially deemed a hunting accident until Stickney’s estranged husband, David Stickney, asked the South Dakota Attorney General’s Office to reopen the case during a legal suit surrounding $920,000 in life insurance policies, which named Bertram as the beneficiary and were taken out a few months before Leonila’s death.

Clint Sargent, Bertram’s attorney, said Bertram is “of course” upset with the jury and maintains his innocence, and Sargent believes the jury made a mistake, too.

Bertram may appeal his sentence or any part of the case within 30 days, but Sargent said no decision has been made regarding an appeal.

Although first-degree murder carries a mandatory penalty of life in prison, Assistant Attorney General Paul Swedlund took time to argue the sentence was not only mandatory but appropriate.

Swedlund mentioned Bertram’s three ex-wives - whom he divorced before he was engaged to Stickney - saying he was jealous and abusive to each of them and used his status as a police officer to show he was above the law.

“He was an officer of the law, and his badge became a shield,” Swedlund said. “It’s no surprise he developed a sense of impunity that led him to believe he could commit and get away with murder.”

None of Bertram’s ex-wives were allowed to testify during trial, and Sargent reminded the court that only one brief protection order was issued against Bertram. The other claims of domestic abuse were tossed out or ruled to be unsubstantiated.

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Judge Trandahl said Bertram has never been convicted of a felony or misdemeanor, except for a few traffic offenses, which means he is a first-time offender. Despite this and other mitigating factors, as well as a few aggravating factors, Bertram was still given the mandatory life prison sentence.

Bertram was also ordered to pay $104 in court costs and nearly $22,000 in expert witness fees, including the fees for a gun expert, a pathologist and a fingerprint expert. The fees accumulated by a law enforcement training expert who did not testify at trial were determined to be unnecessary, so Bertram was not ordered to repay $13,000 in fees the prosecution accumulated regarding that expert.

A person convicted of a Class A felony can be sentenced to death in some cases, but Sargent said that was never an option in Bertram's case. In death penalty cases, the jury decides the penalty, Sargent said, but the prosecution decided against pursuing the death penalty early on in the proceedings.

Related Topics: CRIME
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