SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — The wife of a former South Dakota police chief said Tuesday she is pleased a jury convicted her husband in the death of her sister, to whom he was engaged at the time of the slaying nearly seven years ago.
The remarks from Melliza Del Balle to The Associated Press came a day after a jury convicted Russell Bertram of first-degree murder in the slaying of Del Balle’s pregnant sister, Leonila Stickney. The two-week trial against the 64-year-old Bertram centered on the then-26-year-old Stickney’s shooting in October 2009. Prosecutors said it stemmed from jealousy and an interest in $900,000 in insurance benefits, but that defense attorneys argued was simply an accident.
“He deserves it,” said Del Balle, who married Bertram after her sister’s death but before he was charged in the case that involved tangled relationships and families in two countries. “… We are so happy. Finally, we already have justice. I think he did it on purpose for money.”
Soon after Bertram and Stickney began a relationship in 2009, a $750,000 life insurance policy was taken out on Stickney, followed by a smaller policy with a $150,000 accidental death benefit, with Bertram as the beneficiary. In October of that year, Bertram told authorities he was putting his 12-gauge shotgun back into his truck after shooting pheasants in Gregory County, when it went off accidentally, striking Stickney in the abdomen.
County authorities initially ruled the death an accident. But that changed when Bertram, who had served as the police chief in the small city of Harrisburg, was charged in December, years after the victim’s estranged husband, David Stickney, contacted state authorities when he received a letter from a life insurance company that was processing a claim for Bertram.
After Stickney’s death, Bertram traveled to the Philippines and married Del Balle, who has filed for divorce, citing “extreme cruelty,” according to court records. Del Balle on Tuesday said her divorce has not been finalized.
“It was difficult for me because, of course, he was my husband … but he was lying to us,” she said. Del Balle’s divorce complaint states that she and Bertram have a 1-year-old child.
Bertram’s sentencing hearing is expected to take place in November. His attorneys did not return requests for comment Tuesday. He faces a mandatory penalty of life in prison.
Bertram’s defense team during the trial maintained that the incident was an accident. One of his attorneys told the court that Bertram had continued to send money periodically to Stickney’s family in the Philippines before he was arrested and that the insurance policy was Stickney’s idea to provide for her family if anything happened to her.
Follow Regina Garcia Cano on Twitter at https://twitter.com/reginagarciakNO