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Source: Dead official might have been hunting

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LAKE ANDES — A colleague of Richard Benda’s said he may have been hunting in the Lake Andes area before he was found dead there Tuesday.

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Benda, who died of a gunshot wound and was found at a grove of trees, was the state secretary of tourism and state development from 2006 to 2010. He worked in the Cabinet of Gov. Mike Rounds, who served two four-year terms and is now running for U.S. Senate.

Julie Johnson said she had a “long working relationship” with Benda. She is the executive director for Absolutely Aberdeen, where she coordinates economic development for the city. She worked with Benda, a Kimball native, on economic initiatives including the development of the Northern Beef Packers Plant, which filed for bankruptcy in July.

Richard Benda  From 2010 to 2013, Benda was a loan administrator for the South Dakota Investment Fund and was the loan monitor for the beef plant, which opened in 2012 with plans to employee hundreds of workers. Johnson said she had talked to Benda since the beef plant closed.

“I never got the impression he was depressed about it,” she said. “I think he still was very proud about their work. As always, start-up projects stumble into financial issues along the way. We didn’t talk about feelings about it. We talked about the reality of it and the process.”

When asked if Johnson knew what Benda was doing Tuesday in Lake Andes, she replied, “It would only be hearsay from me. I understood he went down there to hunt. But that’s only hearsay.”

She added: “We loved working with him here and loved working with him even before working on the beef plant,” Johnson said. “He did a fine job for South Dakota when he was secretary of tourism and state development.

“He was very sensitive to the needs of communities, very skilled at economic development and all the peculiarities that come with that. He and his family can be very proud of building the only state-of-the-art beef processing plant in 50 years in the Northern Great Plains. We were delighted that he would devote more of his professional years to getting the Northern Beef Plant up and running, and we have every confidence that it will be up and running again.”

Benda was most recently working as Heartland Consumers Power District’s director of economic development, said Ann Hyland, communications manager at the business.

Heartland, a political subdivision of the state headquartered in Madison, provides power and energy services and community development programs to customers in South Dakota, Minnesota and Akron, Iowa.

Benda started at Heartland Consumers Power District Oct. 1, Hyland said. His duty was to work with the company’s customers to promote development and growth in communities.

Before Benda took his job with Heartland, Russell Olson held the job. Olson was appointed general manager and CEO of Heartland in August. He has worked with Heartland since 2005.

Olson — a former state legislator — did not accept interview requests Wednesday but issued this statement: “We were very excited to have Richard on board at Heartland. He was already immersed in the Madison community by playing an integral role in developing the soon-to-be constructed Lake Area Townhomes. Richard was ready to hit the ground running on several up-and-coming projects and his previous experiences made him a perfect fit for his role here. We are a small family at Heartland and although his tenure was brief, he was a friend and will be deeply missed.”

Hyland said the Lake Area Townhomes is a new housing development project in Madison. She declined to say if Benda was on vacation earlier this week or was in the Lake Andes area for business.

“We don’t have information, and we don’t want to speculate as to what was going on or what he was doing,” Hyland said.

Attorney General Marty Jackley told The Associated Press on Tuesday there will be an autopsy and investigators will collect evidence from the scene and interview any witnesses to determine if Benda’s death was an accident, a suicide or a crime.

Wednesday, representatives of the attorney general’s office and the Charles Mix County Sheriff’s Office both declined to release any further details about the investigation.

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