Prosecutors had accused Russell Bertram, 64, of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, of murdering Leonila Stickney, 26, in 2009 to collect more than $900,000 in insurance money

By K.C. Baker
Updated September 27, 2016 06:25 PM
Jake Shama/The Daily Republic/AP

At first, South Dakota authorities believed former police chief Russell Bertram killed his 26-year-old pregnant fiancée by accident during a 2009 hunting trip.

He’d said his shotgun went off accidentally as he loaded it into his truck, hitting Leonila Stickney in her stomach, according to the Associated Press.

But on Monday, seven years after Stickney’s death, a Gregory County, South Dakota, jury found the 64-year-old Bertram guilty of first-degree murder, state Attorney General Marty Jackley and Gregory County State’s Attorney Amy Bartling announced.

“The jury returned a verdict in a case that could have likely gone unsolved but for the hard work of investigators and prosecutors,” Jackley said in a statement obtained by PEOPLE.

Bertram, who had once served as police chief in Harrisburg, South Dakota, “took the life of his fiancée while claiming the death was a result of an accidental shooting with the hopes of collecting over $900,000 worth of insurance money,” prosecutors said in their statement.

Prosecutors also said they believed Bertram murdered Stickney because he had learned she was pregnant with another man’s child, according to The Daily Republic, which covered the trial.

According to prosecutors, Bertram knew the child wasn’t his because he’d had a vasectomy, the Republic reports.

The South Dakota Attorney General’s Office began investigating Bertram in 2010, after Leonila’s then-estranged husband, David Stickney, contacted authorities, according to the AP. David said that after Leonila’s death, he received a letter from a life insurance company that was processing a claim from Bertram.

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Months before Leonila died, Bertram bought two life insurance policies for her, according to the Republic. Bertram said he planned on sending the money to Leonila’s family in the Philippines, but prosecutors said he only sent a small portion to her relatives.

Bertram’s attorneys, however, said their client continued to give Leonila’s family money until his arrest, according to the Republic.

His attorneys also said that no one questioned if Bertram allegedly murdered Leonila until her estranged husband and his lawyer took him to court in a civil suit to gain a portion of the insurance money, according to the paper. David was ultimately awarded about $600,000 of the insurance money.

During Bertram’s trial, his defense argued to jurors that then-Gregory County Sheriff Charlie Wolf did not believe he had enough evidence to bring charges.

Bertram maintained the shooting was accidental.

In a further twist, he married Leonila’s sister after her death, according to the AP.

Melliza Del Balle – his wife and Leonila’s sister – told the AP she was pleased by the verdict: “He deserves it. … We are so happy. Finally, we already have justice. I think he did it on purpose for money.”

She has filed for divorce, citing “extreme cruelty,” according to the AP.

Del Balle married Bertram after he traveled to the Philippines in the wake of Leonila’s shooting but before he was charged with murder, according to the AP. The two have a young child.

Bertram faces life in prison and is expected to be sentenced in November.

His attorney did not immediately return calls for comment.