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MDR: Benda Goes Pheasant Hunting, Dies with Bullet Hole in Side

The Mitchell Daily Republic makes up for yesterday's sheerly speculative coverage of the shooting death of former state economic development and tourism secretary Richard Benda with an interview with the man who found Benda's body, his brother-in-law Jim Johanneson. Reporter Luke Hagen gets details about what Jim saw from Jim himself and from his brother Ray.

The article oddly does not establish a timeline of what day Benda spoke to Johanneson or when Johanneson found the body. Here are the details Hagen does write:

  • Jim Johanneson says Benda told him he was going pheasant hunting.
  • Jim found the body "in a grove of trees near an abandoned farmstead about 1.5 miles north of Jim Johanneson’s house."
  • Ray says Benda never told Jim he was going out hunting with anyone else.
  • Ray says Jim says that "his [Benda's] gun was lying against a tree and he was lying alongside the tree or whatever."
  • Jim told Ray he saw no blood and thought Benda had had a heart attack.
  • Jim said the police told him there was a gunshot wound.
  • Ray said that Jim said that the sheriff said (yup, three deep) that the sheriff turned the body a found "a bullet hole in his side."

If we take words for exactly what they are, "pheasant hunting" and "bullet hole" don't go together. The eyewitness account speaks of only one gun on the scene. If Benda was pheasant hunting, that gun was a shotgun. That gun would not put a "bullet hole in his side."

If we take words for exactly what they mean, this eyewitness account suggests the authorities are looking for someone who, on accident or not, shot Benda.

Folks are asking why Richard Benda's shooting death is any of our business, how knowing the details will have any impact on the life of the polis. Indeed, I usually shun the death/tragedy/crime-of-the-week stories that lead the local news exactly because they are more emotional than instructive.

But the details above suggest we have a case in which a former state official integrally involved in multi-million-dollar financial deals, one of which just happens to be going through a spectacular bankruptcy, goes out hunting and doesn't come back. And this first substantive report from any reporter offers details that suggest that someone else shot him. That possibility moves us from sad story to public concern.


  1. sid 2013.10.25

    You forgot to mention that the story also said the US Marshal's Service is investigating. Homocide on private property is not a Federal matter unless someone involved is a Federal Officeholder or a person of interest or witness in an ongoing Federal investigation or case. So, this IS a matter of public concern.

  2. Rorschach 2013.10.25

    Was this on the res? If so, that's what the marshals are for.

  3. sid 2013.10.25

    That is the point. The news article stated that the body was found on the brother-in-law's property by the brother-in-law. There is no indication it was on the reservation.

  4. Hammerhead 2013.10.25

    There is a good part of Charles Mix county that is on the Yankton Sioux Reservation. So, depending on where the brother in law lived, it could have happened on federal land which would explain the US Marshals. Here is a map of the Yankton Sioux Reservation.

  5. Joe 2013.10.25

    I like the Mitchell paper, probably for all the wrong reasons, but this is getting to the point where they just need to not publish this, or publish it in a different way, explain the facts, explain who the guy is, and why it might be our business, but when you start talking to people and they start talking about other people and so on it gets to the point where what is going on.

  6. Cranky Old Dude 2013.10.25

    Shotgun wound at very close range will produce a "bullet hole" but this all sounds like there is some concern over the actual cause at this point.
    I think the news bidness goes on and on, breathlessly, about what they don't know, might know and will never know in an attempt to get the "story" out before someone else does. It is often very annoying.

  7. Seth Tupper 2013.10.25

    Geez, Cory. Give us a break. We made up for yesterday's "speculative" coverage? We knew it wasn't speculative when we ran it. That's why we ran it (numerous off-the-record sources independently verified the information from the on-the-record source who said Benda had been hunting). Then we bolster it with a follow up, and somehow, in your mind, the original story is still speculative? We spoke directly to the guy who found the body, who confirmed what we reported in the first story and then some. I'm not sure how much more non-speculative we can get at this point in the investigation, when authorities aren't talking.

    Also, I think you're leaving out the "developing" part of this developing story. Of course we don't know all the details yet, and of course some aspects of the story are confusing, and of course we had to piece together information from numerous sources who were all nervous about talking and gave us incomplete information. If we knew everything, the investigation and the story would be over. This is what daily newspaper reporters do. They get as much of the story as they can today, and then they continue chipping away at it tomorrow. If we didn't do that, you wouldn't have had any material for your two blog posts on the issue.

  8. Seth Tupper 2013.10.25

    Forgot to mention I'm the editor of The Daily Republic.

  9. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.10.25

    Seth, Julie Johnson was speculating. She had no firsthand knowledge. Yesterday's story cited no other source. The story said, "may have been", not "had been". To the extent it matters, I stick by the word speculative. Today's story moves us nicely away from that word. Thank you for following up and continuing to investigate this developing story.

    While we have you here, did either Johanneson give a timeline? When did Richard Benda speak with Jim? When did Jim find the body? When did the sheriff arrive and find the bullet hole?

  10. sid 2013.10.25

    True, the problem is that such a result requires that the shotgund discharge within 30cm of the abdomin or thorax. The force of the discharge would be such at that range that the body (death is virtually instantaneous) would be propelled backward or in the direction of travel of the discharge. Such an event leaves it highly unlikely that the body would fall in the opposite direction in a manner so as to cover the wound. Also, there is the question of how (assuming it was an accident involving a self-inflicted wound) did the gun end up laying against the tree? Remember, when the brother-in-law found the body, he has reported that he thought it was a heart attack and only found out it was a gsw when the body was rolled over. If it was a shotgun wound from his own shotgun, at the range necessary to cause a "bullet hole" type wound, there would be blood and tissue on the shotgun from the impact and gas expansion.

  11. Seth Tupper 2013.10.25

    Julie Johnson knew Richard Benda well and thought he went to the Lake Andes area to hunt. Several others told us the same thing (perhaps we should have mentioned those off-the-record sources in the story, but again, it's not exactly an explosive revelation to say a South Dakota man was hunting in mid-October). Reporting that information is far from sticking our necks out on a "speculative" limb. We only reported that somebody who knew the guy well thought he had been hunting. We did not report or speculate in the first story that he had died while hunting, or anything of that nature. We only reported what he had apparently been doing just prior to his death, as a means of explaining what the heck a guy who works in Madison was doing near Lake Andes. Given the things we knew -- he died of a gunshot wound, he was found at a tree grove, he was in a rural area, it's hunting season, and a friend thought he went to the area for the purpose of hunting -- to report that he may have been hunting just prior to his death was not a speculative leap. It was a sound conclusion based on thorough reporting.

    As for the Johannesons, what we reported is what they said. Both were understandably nervous about talking and did not want to talk very long. When they decided they were done talking, that was it. We didn't have a chance to ask every follow up we wanted to ask. We got what we were able to get.

    The bullet/shotgun issue obviously does raise a lot of questions. We just don't have the answers at this point.

    I'd also like to point out that we've never insinuated anything about the cause of death. From our perspective, a dead body was found near a city where we have about 150 print subscribers. That's news, and it's our duty to investigate and report our findings. That's all we're doing.

  12. Roger Cornelius 2013.10.25

    I'm still puzzled about the U.S. Marshall's involvement.

    If the death occurred on the reservation, the FBI would have jurisdiction, not the Marshalls.

  13. Joe 2013.10.25

    Roger is correct, if the Marshall's are actually involved there is evidence that more is going on, or at least suspected to be going on.

  14. interested party 2013.10.25

    Horses have been shot in the area recently during a racial incident.

  15. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.10.25

    Alleged racial incident, Larry... involving Ray Johanneson, named above, as the shooter:

    Says Ray Johanneson, "I didn't shoot the horses. I shot at them. Guess I must have hit some of them."

  16. Mike Armstrong 2013.10.25

    Don't make too much of the bullet hole statement. Sounds like a typical lean your shotgun on a tree, it falls and goes off accident. It makes a hole at close range, and yes, the injured party can easily end up laying on that side. Someone else may have killed him, but that is always true when a body is found, isn't it?

  17. Knew Richard 2013.10.25

    Richard died. Whether it was foul play, a suicide or an accident, he has a family...and I guess the most concerning is his daughter Claire. So whatever the cause of his death was is now done and over with because we don't have him any more. Did it ever occur to you that WHO he was may have given cause for more than local yokels doing the investigation? Good grief.
    A daughter no longer has her daddy, a brother no longer has his brother, a sister no longer has her brother. Let him rest in peace please.

  18. John 2013.10.25

    The Daily Republic is commended for tracking this challenging developing story. For too often the South Dakota media is content to sit idly by waiting to be handed a "press release" from a RP-person on what they think the news should be as opposed to digging up the developing story. Keep up the good, developing work, Daily Republic.

    The "incident" is in the context of hunting so it's a public interest and need-to-know. Hunting is a state licensed activity - regardless of being on private, state, or federal land. Hunters and the public have an express right and need to know about accidents and incidents to make hunting safer for hunters and the public. SDGFP annually publishes summaries of the hunting accidents and incidents. These become incorporated as appropriate in the program of instruction for hunting safety courses as institutional, systemic efforts to minimize the repetition of often deadly, and always dangerous errors.

    US Marshals may be involved for any number of actual or alleged federal nexus reasons - and soon we'll know.

  19. Becky Froehlich 2013.10.26

    To be honest, even if there is more information, I don't think anybody without professional involvement in this "case" should be making any speculation out loud. This analysis is conjecture just as much as the original Mitchell Republic article was and I'm not really sure it's appropriate...

  20. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.10.26

    To the unnecessarily nameless commenter whose purported authority in knowing Richard thus cannot be verified: "WHO he was" is why we're having this conversation. The U.S. Marshals, state Attorney General, and Mitchell Daily Republic don't rush out to every hunting accident. We're pretty clear on the fact that WHO he was makes this crime scene more newsworthy than others. WHO he was means the details of his life and death overlap more with the public sphere, an unpleasant fact that every public figure's family has to deal with.

  21. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.10.26

    "rest in peace"? Consider this comment from reporter Bob Mercer, a one-time drinking buddy of Richard Benda. He says the connections between Benda, Mike Rounds, Northern Beef Packers, and the EB-5 visa program will make this story big news:

    "With its ties to a national immigration program for wealthy investors, and with investors jilted, workers dumped, a formidable candidate for Senate involved, and a prominent man now dead, this story could become a focus of national, international and financial reporters."

  22. Douglas Wiken 2013.10.26

    Or if he Benda looked a bit like his brother-in-law, he might have been shot by a neighbor with dead horses.

    Or he might have driven off a road into a creek. South Dakota is small enough that everybody thinks they know some conspiracy theory is positively true, but probably really isn't. Stay tuned, there may actually be some real news on this whether they found a slug or birdshot in Benda.

  23. Friend of Claire and Cathy 2013.11.01

    I agree with "Knew Richard." Though I did not know Richard well, I know his daughter and former wife as well. I hope for the sake of Claire (only 16) that the media is as sensitive as possible. Yes, there will need to be an investigation, but as are all teens in this generation, she is media savvy and some of these comments are cruel and insensitive. Please put yourself in their position...if this were your brother, your father, your husband, etc. you would want the same decency. Let the facts be flushed out in due time....she adored her daddy and he adored her...let her have that memory and legacy.

  24. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.11.01

    The media is being unusually sensitive. After the above-linked article from MDR, we have heard nothing about the crime scene or the condition of the body. Preliminary autopsy results are usually available within a day or two after the release of the body for burial, but we have seen no such information.

    I also wonder why the folks who "knew Richard" and seem inclined to hide matters of public concern behind personal sensitivity are not inclined to put their names to their concern for Richard's loved ones.

    Frankly, if it were my brother, father, spouse, etc., I'd be having a terrible time, but I'd also realize there's no avoiding public scrutiny of a suspicious death of a public official... especially one associated with a public agency and private company under federal investigation.

  25. Jerry 2013.11.01

    I thought the same about the "concern" over the investigation CAH. After reading the timelines and the a lot of the rest of the reporting from the Aberdeen paper, we should be seeing more intense investigating of this. Clearly, there are way to many issues here that involve huge sums of unaccounted for money. It seems like a perfect scam that never seemed intended to work in the first place. We could have used that money to feed and provide medical attention to our needy rather than our greedy.

Comments are closed.