Ex-police chief accused of killing fiance appears in court

AP News
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Posted: Sep 15, 2015 5:51 PM

BURKE, S.D. (AP) — A former police chief in South Dakota charged with killing his fiance in a shooting that had long appeared to be a hunting-related accident appeared briefly in court Tuesday, where a judge delayed much of the proceedings so the man can find an attorney.

Authorities have offered few details since announcing last week that Russell Ray Bertram, 63, had been indicted for the 2009 killing of Leonila Stickney, who was his 26-year-old fiance.

The Gregory County Sheriff's Office initially had said officials believed Stickney's death was the result of an accidental shooting. Charlie Wolf, who was the sheriff at the time, told The Associated Press that while he didn't find physical evidence that disputed Bertram's account, he had some concerns about Bertram's behavior after the shooting.

The South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation took over the inquiry as a cold case in December 2010. Sara Rabern, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Marty Jackley, has said the discovery of additional evidence by a cold case investigator led to Bertram's arrest, but she has declined to provide any details.

Bertram, who lived in Sioux Falls before his arrest, served as police chief in Harrisburg until 2004, the Argus Leader reported. He is charged with first-degree murder and faces the death penalty or a mandatory life sentence if convicted. He is expected to enter a plea later this month.

Wolf told the AP he interviewed Bertram at the hospital where Stickney died. Bertram told the sheriff that he was putting a gun into a vehicle when it went off and hit Stickney. Her death certificate says Stickney died on the afternoon of Oct. 24, 2009, and it lists the injury's location as a "rural road." She was killed by a close-range gunshot wound to her abdomen caused by a 12-gauge shotgun.

Wolf said he didn't think Bertram was acting right at the hospital — "not like you should if you just shot your girlfriend accidentally."

"I've done this a long time ... so I was a little concerned about it, and then we found a few more things within two or three months of that that sparked a little more interest," Wolf said, including inconsistencies in Bertram's story.

At Tuesday's hearing, Bertram appeared calm and offered mostly short, soft-spoken answers. Judge Kathleen Trandahl continued Bertram's arraignment until the end of the month so he can secure an attorney after the court denied his application for court-appointed counsel.