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YEAR IN REVIEW: October: Suicide, investigation dominate news

In this file photo from June 13, 2007, in Elk Point, South Dakota Tourism and State Development Secretary Richard Benda talks about a company's plan to build an oil refinery in southeastern South Dakota. Benda, who served in the position until 2011, was found dead Oct. 22 this year in a grove of trees near Lake Andes with a shotgun wound. The state attorney general ruled the death a suicide. (AP Photo)

A story that broke in the news with a few paragraphs noting the untimely death of a former state official quickly ballooned into a story of intrigue involving international investors, the struggling Northern Beef Packers plant in Aberdeen and potentially the U.S. Senate candidacy of former Gov. Mike Rounds.

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Richard Benda, who was tourism and economic development secretary when Rounds was governor, was found dead Oct. 22 near Lake Andes where he had reportedly gone to hunt. Officials would later rule his death a suicide, saying he propped a shotgun against a tree and used a stick to pull the trigger. Family members and Benda’s attorney have publicly doubted it was a suicide.

The story has been the subject of an avalanche of news reports, revealing that 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.

Meanwhile, the use of foreign investments made under the federal EB-5 program at Northern Beef is the subject of an ongoing federal investigation. Benda had been questioned by federal investigators before his death. Under the EB-5 program, foreign investors can obtain green cards by investing $500,000 in American business ventures. It’s unclear what wrongdoing federal officials are investigating.

South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley has said he is limited in what details he can reveal publicly about Benda’s tenure with state government and economic development aid to Northern Beef while the federal grand jury continues to review the case.

Following are summaries of other local and area news from October editions of The Daily Republic.

Oct. 1: Lawyers in the murder case against Mexican national Maricela Diaz argued that she was either a frightened and confused abuse victim or a savvy murder mastermind when, at age 15, she confessed in the 2009 killing of Jasmine Guevara. The South Dakota Supreme Court had not yet ruled whether her confession can be used as evidence at her trial.

Oct. 2: Two staffers for the Davison County Conservation District relocate to the district’s conservation shed because their office in the USDA Agriculture Service Center building is closed due to the federal government shutdown.

Oct. 3: Neighbors, friends and family gathered to help harvest about 500 acres of Alan and Julie Greenway’s soybeans northeast of Mount Vernon. Alan, father of Minnesota Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway, had been fighting leukemia — a form of cancer — since early last year.

Oct. 3: Mitchell waitress Loretta Blindauer retired from a 50-year career that supplemented her family’s farm income, put her kids through college and that she loved.

Oct. 4: Petty Officer 1st Class Gerald “Jerry” Axsom surprised his two sons with an unexpected appearance at a school assembly at John Paul II Elementary School in Mitchell. Kaden, 10, and Xavier, 5, expressed stunned disbelief that gave way to hugs and cheers.

Oct. 5: The city of Mitchell’s debt climbed $3.2 million over 2012, to $37.62 million due to a series of capital projects — renovation of the Corn Palace, construction of a new city hall, renovation of the Mitchell Public Library and construction of a second ice sheet at the Mitchell Activities Center.

Oct. 7: Mitchell Mayor Ken Tracy asked the Mitchell City Council to consider potential for a city administrator, who would serve directly under the mayor and handle some of the day-to-day operations of the city.

Oct. 8: News reports began to document that thousands of cattle had died during the storm Atlas that dumped 4 feet of snow on western South Dakota in early October. The tragedy prompted the creation of the Ranchers Relief Fund and other charities seeking to help ranchers, some of whom lost substantial percentages of their herds.

Oct. 9: South Dakota Secretary of Education Melody Schopp and Dusty Johnson, chief of staff to Gov. Dennis Daugaard, visited Gertie Bell Rogers Elementary School to celebrate its distinction as one of 286 National Blue Ribbon Schools in the country.

Oct. 10: Logan Evans, 18, of Plankinton, pleaded guilty to one count of aggravated assault in the June 22 shooting of Nick Lawson, 17. Evans pointed the gun at Lawson, thinking it was not loaded, and pulled the trigger.

Oct. 11: Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., told reporters she expected to be named to the farm bill conference committee. The official announcement was made the following day.

Oct. 12: Former Mitchell High School girls’ basketball standout Erin Olson was announced as coach for the sophomore varsity boys’ basketball team.

Oct. 13: 3-year-old Brogun Broders, of Freeman, received a Rainbow Play System thanks to Make-A-Wish and the parent company of Blue Bunny Ice Cream. Broders suffers from a rare heart condition and has had five surgeries.

Oct. 16: Demolition began on two city-owned buildings downtown: the Mimi’s Attic building at 124 W. First Ave., and Brenda’s Sew and So structure at 116 W. First Ave.

Oct. 17: “Twilight” actor and tribal member Chaske Spencer visited students at Wagner High School.

Oct. 18: Mitchell’s Pheasants Forever chapter prepared for the largest such membership banquet in the country, a crowd of about 600 at the Corn Palace.

Oct. 19: A second state survey of pheasants found even fewer than the initial survey, which found a 64 percent population drop from 2012.

Oct. 22: Residents objected to plans to close a portion of Capital Street near Mitchell High School, and members of the Mitchell City Council said they have heard virtually no public support for a proposal to permanently close the street. Schools Superintendent Joe Graves sought the closure and creation of a green space to keep students safe as they cross from the high school to the Mitchell Career and Technical Education Academy building.

Oct. 23: Mitchell was selected by the Intelligent Community Forum as one of the world’s Smart21 Communities for the second year in a row.

Oct. 24: Oacoma city officials formally objected to a casino proposed by the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, saying that, at 451 people, the community is too small to handle the project, lacking the needed workforce, housing and water system.

Oct. 25: Lake Andes defense attorney Tim Whalen argued that his client, Ronald Fischer Jr., could not be charged criminally with DUI because a change in a related set of state laws rendered the DUI criminal laws moot. Fischer is accused of killing two pedestrians — U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees Robert Klumb and Maegan Spindler — in July when his vehicle ran into them in a Pickstown parking lot. A judge later rejected Whalen’s argument.

Oct. 26: Mitchell police reported that seven people have been cited or warned for texting while driving since the city banned the practice in May.

Oct. 29: The Abbot House celebrated the opening of its Bridges home, a 3,500-square-foot, seven-bedroom intensive foster care facility at 1808 N. Minnesota Ave. Its first six residents, girls between the ages of 12 and 18, moved in later that week. The facility also has apartments for 18- to 21-year-olds learning to live independently.