"Ex-South Dakota police officer faces trial in fiancee’s 2009 death" by Regina Garcia Cano and Tammy Webber Associated Press January 16, 2016
COLOME, S.D. — Everybody knows Russell Bertram, but the truth was far more sinister:
It’s a bizarre, made-for-tabloid case with overzealous prosecutors.
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....
UPDATE: Ex-prosecutor on trial in wife’s 2006 death