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Brother-in-law describes finding Benda's body

Pictured here is the abandoned farmstead where Jim Johanneson said he found Richard Benda's body Tuesday in rural Lake Andes. (Luke Hagen/The Daily Republic)

LAKE ANDES — The man who found Richard Benda’s body said he believes Benda was killed in a hunting accident.

Jim Johanneson said Thursday in an interview with The Daily Republic that he found the body of his brother-in-law, Benda, the former top tourism and development official in South Dakota. Johanneson said Benda had been hunting pheasants.

“He was lying on the ground,” said Jim Johanneson, who is married to Benda’s sister Carol and farms northwest of Lake Andes.

Richard BendaThe governor’s office announced Tuesday that Benda was found dead near Lake Andes, but authorities have provided few other details.

According to Ray Johanneson, Jim’s older brother, Benda’s body was found in Charles Mix County’s West Goose Lake Township in a grove of trees near an abandoned farmstead about 1.5 miles north of Jim Johanneson’s house. Ray Johanneson said he does not know for sure if Benda was hunting alone, but he said Benda never told Jim Johanneson that anybody else was with him.

During the interview with The Daily Republic, Jim Johanneson described finding Benda.

“When I found him, I thought he had a heart attack. But then it was later the police told me he had a gunshot wound. It was a hunting accident. That’s the only thing it could be. I don’t know what the big deal is. It looks to me like it was just a hunting accident. Everybody is making is such a big deal of it.”

After talking for nearly three minutes about Benda, Jim Johanneson declined further comment.

Benda, a Kimball native, was the state secretary of tourism and development under former Gov. Mike Rounds from 2006 to 2010. The state attorney general’s office declined to offer any new information of Benda’s death when contacted Thursday morning. The Charles Mix County Sheriff’s Office also has declined comment on the situation. Tuesday, the attorney general’s office said the site where Benda was found will be treated as a crime scene until the investigation is complete, per the office’s protocol.

Thursday, Ray Johanneson said Benda had come to Jim Johanneson’s property Sunday to hunt while Jim and Carol were in Iowa.

Ray Johanneson described the conversation he had with Jim earlier in the week about finding Benda.

“All he told me was he found him and his gun was lying against a tree and he was lying alongside the tree or whatever,” Ray Johanneson said. “The way it looked, you couldn’t see any blood, no nothing. It looked like he had a heart attack, and (Jim) called the sheriff. When he rolled him over, he had a bullet hole in his side, so I don’t know where or what. I haven’t had a chance to visit with my brother again, so I don’t know if they found any more out or not.”

Ray Johanneson said the U.S. Marshals Service and state attorney general’s office have been involved with investigation. Though his brother said the cause of death was likely a hunting accident, Ray Johanneson declined to speculate on the cause.

“We’ll let the police decide and figure out what happened there,” he said.

According to information posted to a state website during Rounds’ administration, Benda oversaw the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, the Office of Tourism, the Arts Council, the Office of Tribal Government Relations, the State Historical Society and the Housing Development Authority while working for the Rounds administration. Earlier this month, Heartland Consumers Power District, of Madison, announced it had hired Benda as director of economic development.

Rounds — who served two four-year terms as governor and is now running for U.S. Senate — said the thing he remembers most about Benda is the love he had for his daughter Claire. He said Benda was persistent and worked hard to bring businesses to the state.

“For those of us working in government, you recognize when people were working at their job a lot,” Rounds told The Daily Republic. “Richard put in his time getting the job done. He had lots of energy, and he cared about South Dakota and loved what he was doing.”

Rounds said the last time he saw Benda was about a year and a half ago when they met at Aberdeen’s Northern Beef Packers plant, when it was nearing completion. 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 but has since declared bankruptcy.

Rounds, who had hunted with Benda before during the annual governor’s pheasant hunts, said he learned of Benda’s death via a phone call from the governor’s office.