Jealousy, greed marked 2016 murder trial of former South Dakota police chief Russell Bertram
Former Harrisburg police chief received life in prison for 2009 murder of girlfriend
GREGORY, S.D. — The 911 call came in on Oct. 24, 2009.
“911, what is your emergency?” the operator asked.
“Yes, my, ah, friend just got accidentally shot in the, I’m on the way to the Gregory Hospital, call them right away,” the caller said, according to a transcript of the 911 call.
The man on the other end of the line was Russell Bertram, a Sioux Falls resident and a former police chief of the Harrisburg Police Department. The person who had been shot was his girlfriend, Leonila Stickney, of Bridgewater, then-age 26.
She would die from the wounds she received, and that would set in motion a nearly seven-year process that eventually saw Bertram indicted, arrested, charged and convicted in Stickney’s murder. He remains in prison today on a life sentence.
The original investigation
The incident was originally thought to be an accident. Officials at the time said Stickney was a passenger in a vehicle driven by Bertram northwest of Gregory, a rural south-central South Dakota town. Bertram was allegedly entering the vehicle after shooting a pheasant when he fired his 12-gauge shotgun, which struck Stickney, an immigrant from the Philippines, in the chest, authorities said.
But the Gregory County Sheriff’s Office investigated the incident for a year-and-a-half, with some members of the agency expressing doubts as to the validity of Bertram’s story. Charlie Wolf, sheriff of Gregory County in 2009, told the Mitchell Republic in 2016 that he had doubts as to Bertram’s story and exactly what happened that day.
“I was always concerned this wasn’t what (Bertram) said it was,” said Wolf, who was the initial responder to the incident. “Then we became more concerned, and now there’s even more things that point to him being guilty about it.”
Wolf said there was little information to go on in the beginning. The incident lacked any witnesses, making it Bertram’s word against no one’s. But the sheriff pressed on with interviews, and suspicions grew that this was more than a hunting accident.
“We didn’t know a lot of things at the beginning, but a lot of things came out later through interviews,” Wolf said. “They did more interviews, and more people came forward.”
He said he questioned Bertram three times at the hospital and “wasn’t satisfied with the way he acted,” describing him as oddly emotionless. But he couldn’t prove enough to charge Bertram with anything.
“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 in 2016, adding that he was glad state investigators eventually got involved.
Sara Rabern, a former spokeswoman for the South Dakota Attorney General’s Office, said prior to the trial that the case was forwarded to the South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation’s special agent assigned to cold cases for further review, where additional evidence was discovered which led to his arrest.
Marty Jackley, then South Dakota attorney general, told the AP that the DCI investigation into the matter prompted prosecutors to put the case before a grand jury.
"The investigation reached a point that based upon the evidence we felt it was appropriate to present it to a grand jury,” Jackley said. “We certainly respect that the defendant is presumed innocent and the case will be proceeding forward accordingly.”
Bertram was indicted by a Gregory County grand jury on suspicion that he intentionally shot Stickney on that hunting trip. He was charged with one count of first-degree murder.
Preparing for trial
As court proceedings got underway in January of 2016, more details of the case emerged, as well as potential motives for the crime. One of the first details discussed at an evidentiary hearing prior to the trial revealed that Bertram may have been jealous due to Stickney being pregnant with a child he believed was not his.
According to court deposition, Bertram received a vasectomy prior to the shooting incident and knew he was not the father of Stickney’s child.
“He knows this child is not his. The question is, is that a motive to commit murder?” said Assistant Attorney General Paul Swedlund at the time.
Additional motives were outlined by relying on testimony from Bertram’s three ex-wives. The three were expected to testify about Bertram’s “violent, explosive jealousy,” Swedlund said, including alleged incidents when Bertram threw a butcher knife at one wife and held a shotgun threateningly toward another.
Defense attorneys in the case, Clint Sargent and Michael Butler, argued against some evidence being allowed at trial. They requested that the testimony of and statements made to South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation Agent Guy DiBenedetto be dismissed amid allegations that DiBenedetto's interview with Bertram on Jan. 14, 2014, did not follow professional rules and violated Bertram's right to be represented by an attorney.
The defense claimed that because DiBenedetto and then-Gregory County Sheriff Charlie Wolf met with Bertram and Sargent on Jan. 21, 2011, DiBenedetto was required to speak with Sargent before making contact with Bertram. The prosecution argued against that point, and Judge Kathleen Trandahl reserved ruling on the matter at the time.
Other key points brought up at the hearing included the fact that Bertram married Stickney’s sister, Melissa del Valle, after Stickney’s death. She had since filed for divorce, as well as accusations that Bertram had paid women for sex and sent romantic emails to women in other countries while he was in his relationship with Stickney. He had also been involved with purchasing $900,000 in life insurance for Stickney shortly before her death.
Trandahl ruled the incidents were admissible as a sign of Bertram’s alleged infidelity, but the exchange of money for such services could not be discussed, as it was unfairly prejudicial.
Attorneys with the defense and prosecution declined comment for this retrospective story included as part of Forum News Service's new cold-case series, “ The Vault. "
The prosecution laid out the points of their case on the opening day of the trial Sept. 14, 2016.
Swedlund and fellow assistant attorney general Mikal Hanson, along with Gregory County State’s Attorney Amy Bartling, suggested Bertram had killed his girlfriend to collect more than $900,000 in insurance money and was jealous over the unborn child that wasn’t his.
One of the policies taken out on Stickney shortly after they entered into a relationship would pay Bertram $750,000 if Stickney died. The other would pay $20,000 with $150,000 additionally if she died in an accident, which Bertram thought was possible, according to Hanson, because Stickney was a bad driver.
“He took a bet with the insurance company that his fiancee would die in a car wreck,” Hanson said at the trial.
Bertram was also accused of changing his story from interview to interview, including giving conflicting reports about how the gun was triggered, when he learned Stickney was pregnant. The state also questioned why Bertram declined assistance from an ambulance, choosing instead to drive Stickney about six miles to a hospital in Gregory, as well as his “stoic” demeanor during the incident.
For the defense, Butler said some details of the case may point to Bertram being immoral, but that didn’t prove he was a killer. He noted Bertram cooperated every time someone asked to interview him, and the only reasons authorities know Stickney told Bertram she was pregnant was because Bertram voluntarily provided the information.
“As for evidence of moral conduct, I suppose some would argue as inappropriate,” Butler said during the trial. “I’m not here defending a morals case. I’m defending a murder case.”
Butler said the Gregory County Sheriff’s Office thoroughly investigated the incident and decided not to arrest Bertram. It wasn’t until Stickney’s estranged husband, David Stickney, and his attorney caught wind of the insurance policy that investigators reopened the case, leading to Berram’s indictment nearly six years after the shooting. David Stickney and his son, who was 4 when his mother died, were eventually awarded $600,000, Butler said. Bertram still received more than $300,000.
Bertram’s 15-year law enforcement career was also addressed. He served as a police officer in Colome from November of 1988 to August of 1991 and then became a police officer in Parker until December of 1996, which is when he became chief of police in Harrisburg, a Sioux Falls suburb, until May of 2004.
The jury made its decision Sept. 26, 2016.
Bertram was guilty of murdering Stickney.
“We’re satisfied that justice has been done for Leonila Stickney, and we appreciate the jury’s hard work,” Swedlund said at the conclusion of the trial.
The 12-day trial had brought to a close a nearly seven-year process that sought to find the answers in the death of Stickney. Prosecutors presented their view of the case as an incident of jealousy and greed, asking jurors in the case to return a verdict of guilty. In closing statements, prosecutors discussed Bertram’s 18-year law enforcement background. During his time in law enforcement, during which he continuously reviewed firearm safety procedures and followed them throughout his life. The day of the shooting, Bertram placed the loaded gun into the vehicle with the safety off. He also had a finger on the trigger and the barrell pointed up, according to Swedlund.
As for the insurance money, Swedlund said that only a small fraction of the $900,000 insurance policies, which were meant to benefit Stickney’s family in the Philippines, was actually sent overseas. Combined with the fact that Stickney was pregnant with another man’s child, were motives for murder, Swedlund said.
“Mr. Bertram had $900,000 and one reasons to kill,” Swedlund said in his closing statement, according to a report in the Mitchell Republic.
In his closing statements, Sargent urged jurors to find Bertram not guilty if they felt hesitation - as then-Gregory County Sheriff Wolf did when deciding not to bring charges initially.
"Mr. Bertram had $900,000 and one reasons to kill."
— South Dakota Assistant Attorney General Paul Swedlund
“Sheriff Wolf may be the only witness in this whole case who doesn’t have a horse in the race,” Sargent said. “What he said is, ‘All I care about is what I can prove.’”
In regards to Bertram repeatedly changing his story, Sargent noted that as many as 1,542 days passed from the day of the shooting to the date of a law enforcement interview, which was enough time for Bertram to forget details about the incident. He also suggested that the fact Bertram still lived in a trailer home and worked in construction indicated he had not intended to keep all the insurance money for himself.
He also repeated remarks made by Butler in opening statements a week-and-a-half before in regard to Bertram’s flawed behavior during and after the incident.
“This isn’t a morals case. This isn’t a negligence case. This is a murder case,” Sargent said.
The jury sided with the prosecution. Bertram was declared guilty in the murder of Leonila Stickney.
Sentencing and aftermath
Life without the possibility of parole. That was the sentence handed down by the jury, and Stickney’s sister, del Valle, said she was gratified and saddened by the results of the trial.
“Justice prevailed, but I’m also saddened to find out that my ex-husband is responsible for her death,” del Valle told the Mitchell Republic at the Nov. 22, 2016, hearing.
Trandahl said Bertram had never been convicted of a felony or misdemeanor, except for a few traffic offenses. That means he was a first-time offender. Despite this, and other mitigating factors, as well as few aggravating factors, Bertram was still given the mandatory life prison sentence. He was also ordered to pay $104 in court costs and nearly $22,000 in expert witness fees.
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, as the jury decides the penalty in death sentence cases, but the prosecution decided against pursuing the death penalty early on the process.
An appeal to the conviction was eventually filed with the South Dakota Supreme Court, but in January of 2018, the court upheld the murder conviction of the former police chief in the murder of his pregnant girlfriend.
The Supreme Court justices ruled the circuit court didn’t abuse its discretion by excluding polygraph evidence from Bertram or admitting prosecutors’ evidence of his sexual encounters with other women in the days before Stickney’s death.
He remains in prison on a life sentence without the possibility of parole.