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Deaths dominate local, area news during 2013

Former state Cabinet official Richard Benda, pictured in 2007, committed suicide in October near Lake Andes. (AP photo) 1 / 4
Ronald Fischer Jr., charged with driving drunk and killing two pedestrians in Pickstown, attends a court proceeding in October. (Daily Republic photo)2 / 4
Donika Gonzales, accused of beating a young boy to death near Gann Valley, attends a court proceeding in March. (Daily Republic photo)3 / 4
Kent Davidson, accused of killing his fiance in rural Chamberlain, attends a court proceeding in April. (Daily Republic photo) 4 / 4

Tragedies, and the lives lost when they unfolded, made a number of significant local and area headlines in 2013.

The stories included murders, fatal traffic crashes and a suicide. Collectively, they’ve been named the top local/area story of 2013 by The Daily Republic’s newsroom staff.

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The string of newsworthy deaths began in February, when a 23-year-old Gann Valley woman was arrested for allegedly beating a 4-year-old child to death because he wet his pants. Donika Rae Gonzales later pleaded not guilty to multiple charges, including second-degree murder in connection with the child’s death. She has yet to stand trial.

A missing 26-year-old Mitchell woman, Crystal Schulz, was found dead in March in a shed in rural Chamberlain. Schulz’s fiancé, 37-year-old Kent Davidson, allegedly lured Schulz to the shed and shot her twice in the head with a shotgun. Davidson has pleaded not guilty to multiple charges, including first-degree murder. He has yet to stand trial.

Two U.S. Fish and Wildlife employees were killed in a vehiclepedestrian crash in Pickstown when 28-year-old Ronald Fischer Jr. allegedly drove drunk through a stop sign at the T-intersection of Highway 46 and traveled into the Dakota Inn parking lot. The vehicle, a minivan, hit and killed Robert Klumb, 46, of Pierre, and Maegen Spindler, 25, of Cazenovia, N.Y. Fischer is still being prosecuted.

In September, a fiery head-on crash south of Mitchell claimed the lives of 23-year-old Sara Claggett, of Tripp, and 82-year-old Donald Geidel, of Dimock. Claggett caused the crash when she swerved into Geidel’s lane. Claggett’s daughter, 2-year-old Lauryn Rene Claggett, survived. She was pulled from the wreckage by three Mitchell Technical Institute students moments before the vehicle went up in flames.

In October, the death of Richard Benda, the former state secretary of tourism and economic development, triggered a far-reaching story involving international investors, the struggling Northern Beef Packers plant in Aberdeen and, potentially, the U.S. Senate candidacy of former Gov. Mike Rounds.

Benda, whose Oct. 20 death authorities ruled a suicide following a lengthy investigation, was found dead Oct. 22 near Lake Andes. Benda left state government at the end of Rounds’ term in early 2011 but not before arranging for himself to later be paid $550,000 in loan monitoring fees for the Northern Beef plant. State officials reported that the fees were inappropriately diverted from a $1 million state grant.

Following are the rest of the top 10 local/area stories of 2013 as voted on by employees in The Daily Republic’s newsroom.

2. Corn Palace plan adopted.

The Mitchell City Council approved on July 15 a $7.175 million plan to renovate and expand the Corn Palace.

The first of the two-phase plan, which is expected to cost about $4.2 million, includes new light-up domes with the ability to change colors, larger murals with improved lighting and large windows that open to a walk-out balcony above the marquee.

The second phase will include renovating the existing and attached City Hall building to include tourist exhibits, which is expected to cost about $3 million. A new city hall is expected to be built in southern downtown Mitchell.

The city has set aside $6.5 million in bonds to help pay for the Corn Palace project.

3. Pheasant numbers decline statewide.

In August, the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department released the results of its annual survey of the state’s pheasant population, which showed the number of birds spotted fell 64 percent compared to last year.

As a result, Gov. Dennis Daugaard held the first-ever Governor’s Pheasant Habitat Summit earlier this month in Huron, where he announced the formation of a task force to find a balance between modern agricultural practices and wildlife-oriented land conservation.

4. Changes in southern downtown Mitchell.

The look of southern downtown Mitchell changed with the demolition of the old Longhorn Bar, which was believed to be the oldest surviving building in the city.

Demolition of the old Longhorn began May 14 but was halted two days later when it was discovered the building’s shared wall with the Veterans of Foreign Wars building was unstable. The VFW was forced to close for more than a month due to the danger of the situation.

The city agreed to buy the VFW building for $175,000 and intends to demolish the building, which is located near the proposed site of a new city hall.

Another set of nearby buildings, the Mimi’s Attic building at 124 W. First Ave. and the Brenda’s Sew and So building at 116 W. First Ave., were demolished by the city in October. Another city-owned property near the demolition site, the Garden of Eden at 214 W. First Ave., is also slated for demolition.

5. Plankinton teen shoots friend.

At around 11 a.m. June 22, 18-year-old Logan Evans was driving on Interstate 90 between Mitchell and Alexandria when he pointed a 9 mm pistol at Nick Lawson, who was in the backseat. Thinking the gun was not loaded, Evans pulled the trigger and shot Lawson in the chest.

The bullet entered the right side of Lawson’s chest just below his nipple at a downward angle. It exited through his back after tearing a hole in his liver. Lawson spent three weeks recovering in a hospital bed in Sioux Falls.

Evans later pleaded guilty to aggravated assault, a felony, and received a suspended five-year prison sentence, was ordered to serve 150 days in jail and pay $202,155 in restitution. The restitution is the current portion of medical bills for the Lawson family not covered by insurance.

Lawson has since recovered enough to participate in varsity boys’ basketball.

6. Craig Guymon votes twice.

Craig Guymon, a vocal critic of school officials and other community leaders for years, was convicted of voting twice in the June election.

Officials found Guymon voted once by absentee ballot at the Davison County Courthouse and later in the day by regular ballot at the polling place, the Mitchell Career and Technical Education Academy. Absentee votes were still being accepted on Election Day.

Guymon’s past escapades include sending mass mailers to Mitchell residents in which he claimed a Catholic conspiracy ring was manipulating the city; calling his opponents in a local election “spineless jellyfish,” and maintaining a website called the Book of Guymon, where he wrote long criticisms of public officials.

Guymon eventually pleaded guilty to voting twice and was sentenced to 30 days in jail and two years of probation. He has since moved to Platte.

Guymon supported Mitchell school board candidates Rod Hall and Tara Volesky. The winning candidates in the race for two seats were Deb Olson and Rick Johnson.

7. Second indoor ice rink built.

The city’s second indoor ice rink at the Mitchell Activities Center opened in early December after months of construction.

The $2.8 million project was carried out with the hope that a second sheet of ice will mean more tournaments in the city, bringing more people and more sales taxes. It’s also hoped the ice sheet will ease scheduling for the city’s hockey and skating programs.

The project is being paid for with $2 million of the $13.9 million in bonds the city sold in December and January for various projects, along with $500,000 pledged by the Mitchell Skating and Hockey Association, and about $400,000 the city expects to generate through a recently passed business improvement district tax on the city’s hotels and motels.

8. New buildings open at DWU, MTI.

Dakota Wesleyan University opened the Glenda K. Corrigan Health Sciences Center in August on its campus in Mitchell.

The $11.5 million, 48,000-square-foot facility contains chemistry, biology and physics labs; two undergraduate research labs equipped with state-of-the-art equipment for student use; four nursing simulation labs; classrooms for nursing, athletic training, the sciences and mathematics; and faculty offices.

Just a month later, Mitchell Technical Institute opened its Trades Center on its campus.

The 150,000-square-foot, twostory building cost $18.5 million and houses nine of MTI’s programs. With the completion of the Trades Center, MTI was, for the first time, situated entirely south of Interstate 90 in the southeast corner of Mitchell. The campus for years had been split between that location and the traditional location across from Mitchell High School.

9. April ice storm knocks out power.

A spring storm that slammed much of the region with nearly a foot of snow and ice in mid-April left tens of thousands of people without power for days, shut down schools and businesses, and made travel all but impossible.

At least 90,000 Xcel Energy customers experienced power outages from the three-day storm, including 1,075 customers in Alexandria, Bridgewater, Emery and Fulton. At least 250 electrical poles in the region were knocked down by the storm.

Between 8 to 10 inches of snow piled up in the Mitchell area as a result of the three-day storm, according to the National Weather Service.

10. Drive-in theater closes.

Mitchell’s Starlite Drive-in closed for good in September, with hundreds of movie-goers attending the drive-in’s last showing.

Jeff Logan, the drive-in’s owner, had announced Mitchell’s drive-in would close rather than undergo the expense of upgrading to digital projection technology. By the end of the 2013, Logan said, movie studios will likely switch from film prints to digital, forcing theaters to convert, a process estimated to cost $70,000 per screen.

Starlite Drive-in first opened in Mitchell in 1949, before it closed in 1986. The drive-in, located near Lake Mitchell on the city’s northern edge, stayed closed until 1993.

The last film played at the drivein was “Despicable Me 2,” a computer-animated comedy starring the voice of Steve Carell.