PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — A former police chief in South Dakota charged with killing his pregnant fiancee in a shooting that long appeared to be a hunting accident helped take out more than $750,000 in life insurance policies on her months before she died, according to prosecutors.
Prosecutors in Russell Bertram’s case want to present evidence of the policies and alleged past insurance fraud during the trial scheduled to begin in February. Bertram, 64, has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder.
He was indicted in September for the 2009 killing of Leonila Stickney, who was his 26-year-old fiancee. The Gregory County Sheriff’s office initially said officials believed Stickney’s death was the result of an accidental shooting. State authorities took over the inquiry as a cold case in 2010.
The attorney general’s office has been reluctant to discuss the case since announcing the indictment, but court documents filed this month offer a window into the case and what may have led authorities to believe Stickney’s death was a homicide, not an accident.
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Prosecutors want to introduce evidence that Bertram filed for bankruptcy in late 2008 and bought an insurance policy on Stickney with a $150,000 accidental death benefit in February 2009. A month earlier, they say he was involved in taking out a $750,000 life insurance policy on Stickney.
Bertram was the beneficiary on both policies, according to the court document.
Stickney was killed in October 2009 in Gregory County by a close-range gunshot wound to her abdomen from a 12-gauge shotgun. Bertram said at the time that he was putting a gun into a vehicle when it went off and hit Stickney, former Sheriff Charlie Wolf has said. Stickney’s death certificate lists it as an accident.
An expert is expected to testify that Stickney was pregnant when she died. Bertram would go on to marry Stickney’s sister.
Attorneys for Bertram weren’t available for comment on Wednesday. He has declined to speak to The Associated Press from jail.
Bertram served as police chief in Harrisburg until 2004 and previously worked as a police officer. Court documents suggest prosecutors plan on stressing Bertram’s knowledge of gun safety and his law enforcement experience.
Prosecutors plan to have two of Bertram’s former wives testify about allegations of domestic violence. One is expected to discuss alleged past insurance fraud, and the other is set to talk about “his life insurance purchases.”
The prosecution is also seeking to introduce evidence that Bertram paid women for sex and that he had sex with other women when he was engaged to Stickney.