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Former South Dakota Police Chief Murdered Pregnant Fiancée And Blamed It On An Accident
Leonila Stickey had just found out she was pregnant by a man who likely wasn't her fiancé when she was killed in a hunting accident.
On October 24, 2009, Russell Bertram, a former Sioux Falls, South Dakota police chief, called 911. He reported that while pheasant hunting his had shotgun accidentally went off as he loaded it back into his truck.
The blast had hit his 26-year-old fiancée, Leonila “Nila” Stickney, in her chest. Bertram claimed that Leonila had “grabbed the shotgun,” investigators told “Accident, Suicide or Murder,” airing Saturdays at 8/7c on Oxygen. Leonila was rushed to the hospital, where she died from her injuries.
Pheasants in Bertram’s truck backed up his hunting alibi. But police questioned how an experienced hunter like Bertram would have been holding the gun in a way that could lead to such a tragic mishap.
Investigators learned that Leonila grew up in the Philippines. In 2004, after meeting South Dakota resident David Stickney, she returned to the U.S. with him. The couple married and had a son. She worked in a nursing home and sent money to support her family in the Philippines. But the Stickney marriage soured by 2008. Around the same time, Leonila met Bertram.
An autopsy revealed that Leonila had no defensive wounds and that she had been shot at very close range.
“The survivability of this type of injury is essentially zero,” said Dr. Brad Randall, former coroner for Minnehaha County, South Dakota.
The forensic pathologist determined that the cause of death was the gunshot but could not distinguish if the shooting was an accident or a homicide. The autopsy also revealed that Leonila was a few weeks pregnant at the time of her death. Could her pregnancy have been a motive for the death?
“Bertram told law enforcement that he didn't know Nila was pregnant when she died,” Daily Republic journalist Jack Shama explained to "Accident, Suicide Or Murder."
On October 27, investigators collected Bertram’s shotgun to examine it for fingerprints. If Leonila’s prints were on the barrel, that would support Bertram’s account. But no fingerprints were found on the gun barrel.
On November 30, though, the manner of Leonila’s death was listed as an accident.That was a plausible manner of death, according to Randall. “On the other hand,” he said, “there is a saying in South Dakota that if you want to murder someone, you take them hunting.”
Despite that determination of the death as an accident, the case remained ongoing, according to Sheriff Tim Drey, of the Gregory County Sheriff’s Office.
In December 2009, David Stickney contacted investigators. He told them he discovered that life insurance policies worth more than $900,000 had been taken out on Leonila. Neither he nor their son was the beneficiary. Bertram was the sole beneficiary.
Bertram told law enforcement that Leonila took out the policies because she was a bad driver. He was made the beneficiary so that he could distribute money to Leonila’s family in the Philippines.
The case stood at a standstill until detectives reinterviewed Stickney. He told them that besides Bertram, Leonila had another boyfriend: Nathan Meeter.
On January 16, 2010, detectives interviewed Meeter, who said he’d met Leonila three months earlier. Meeter said he was unaware that Leonila had died. He also told police that while he knew she was going through a divorce, he didn’t know she was seeing Bertram. On October 22, two days before her death, Nila told Nathan that she was pregnant and that she believed he was the father, according to DiBenedetto.
Meeter also told investigators the reason why he didn’t know Leonila was dead — the two exchanged text messages two weeks after the day she was shot.
On November 5, Meeter texted Leonila, asking if they could get together.
“Someone pretending to be Nila texted Nathan saying that she can't see him anymore,” said Guy DiBenedetto, special agent, South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation.
At this point, investigators dug deeper into Bertram’s background. They found that he had filed for bankruptcy and was currently in debt for $86,000.
“He has a very strong motive to try and get some money quickly,” said Paul Swedlund, South Dakota Asst. Attorney General.
Detectives also learned that Bertram had married and divorced three times. Former wives told investigators that Bertram was obsessively jealous and suspicious and that he went through their phone records. Each woman had taken out restraining orders, the Associated Press reported.
Investigators reasoned that if Bertram went through Leonila’s phone log he would have known about Meeter. The case looked less like an accident to detectives.
On January 21, 2011, police questioned Bertram and raised the subject that Leonila thought she might be pregnant. He said that because he’d had a vasectomy he couldn’t be the father. Bertram also admitted sending texts to Meeter because he wanted to know for sure that Leonila was seeing another man.
On October 17, 2011, a civil suit filed in regard to Leonila’s $900,000 life insurance policy was settled. A third of the money went to Bertram, and the remainder went to Stickney and his son.
According to Bertram, that insurance money was to benefit Leonila’s family in the Philippines. If he paid that money to her family, it would decrease investigators’ suspicions, they said. Detectives waited to observe what happened.
In September 2013, DiBenedetto went to Bertram’s home in Sioux Falls. He was stunned to find that Bertram had actually married Leonila’s older sister, Melliza Del Valle. The investigator decided to wait to do the interview.
DiBenedetto returned four months later. Del Valle explained that during their conversations about Leonila, a relationship grew between her and Bertram. They wed in July 2013, and she moved to South Dakota with her daughter.
More time passed. In January 2014, Bertram changed his story when questioned again by investigators. He admitted he had looked at Leonila’s phone records and that he knew she thought she was pregnant three or four days before her death.
Investigators theorized that Bertram may have feared that Leonila would change the life insurance beneficiary. They needed to determine if Bertram had given the insurance payout to Leonila’s family. In August 2014, they spoke with Del Valle, who said the family had received just $200 a month. He had told them he hadn’t gotten any insurance payout. That wasn't the only information he failed to give her family.
“Russell Bertram told her family that Nila was handling the gun wrong and shot herself,” said Swedlund. “He didn’t tell them that he had any role in it.”
Del Valle made the difficult choice to testify against Bertram.
“I don't want to see his face again,” she told producers. “But I have to be strong for my sister. Because I want to give her justice and also for my family.”
On September 8, 2015, Bertram, was arrested and charged with first degree murder.
In September 2016, the case went to trial. Bertram, 64, was found guilty of first-degree murder, the Associated Press reported. He was automatically sentenced to life in prison without parole.
To learn more about the case, watch Accident, Suicide or Murder,” airing Saturdays at 8/7c on Oxygen.