Jonathan Ellis digs into Richard Benda's personal life in today's Sioux Falls paper. Ellis paints a man of high ambition and intensity—"really high strung," says Watertown lawyer Lee Schoenbeck—with mounting personal troubles.
Wind power promoter Steve Wegman says Benda came back from ten years in Schenectady, New York, from 1989 to 1998, a different, "harder" man "who didn't want to talk about his personal life."
Ellis reports that Benda's return to Pierre in 2006 coincided with his divorce from his wife Cathryn, who accused him in an affidavit of bruising her in an altercation over documents that she said showed "questionable practices with regard to reimbursements" in Benda's work for Watertown's economic development corporation. Cathryn wrote in that affidavit "I simply couldn’t take his gambling, drinking and womanizing any longer." Richard's pals in Watertown and Pierre say they saw no signs of improper conduct in 2006 or prior.
Off-and-on girlfriend Kenna Bridwell tells Ellis that Benda attacked her in a boozy rage in 2011, an incident over which she filed for a restraining order and Benda pleaded to disorderly conduct (hey! how did Pat Powers and I not hear about that?).
Benda didn't talk much about his personal life online. His Facebook account, lingering now like an electronic tombstone, reveals little about the man. He posted a February 2012 Aberdeen American News story about the long-delayed but impending completion of the doomed Northern Beef Packers plant. In May 2013 he posted a photo of himself at the Rough Creek Lodge in Texas. And that's about it.
But take a look at Benda's Facebook Friends page. Amidst a few relatives and economic development business associates and his daughter's female friends from Watertown High School, out of the blue, we find an assortment of relatively young (remember: Benda was 59) Native American and Filipina women. Kenna Bridwell (32), does not appear on that friends roster, but her sister Stephanie Bridwell does. If we are trying to put Benda's officially declared suicide into psychological context, his Facebook Friends roster offers a rather stereotypical picture of a lonely middle-aged white man seeking easy online companionship.
Whatever Benda's personal interactions with these young women, business appears to have always come first. Benda announced that he was engaged on September 20, 2012. After one congratulatory note, the conversation turned to a discussion of an upcoming meeting and economic development in Minnehaha and Lincoln counties. And he keeps a lid on the name of his impending betrothed. Neither his obituary nor any other press has mentioned the status of that engagement.
Richard Benda's personal life has some parallels with that of his partner in EB-5 visa peddling, Joop (pronounced yope) Bollen. Bollen is about a decade younger than Benda. But apparently the strains of promoting economic development in South Dakota and dealing with EB-5 visa investors have worn on him, too. He split with his wife of 21 years, Anita Marie Bollen, in 2011. The divorce decree was recorded on November 11, 2011; by December 20 (if the dates on the camera are to be trusted), Bollen was enjoying an amorous Yuletime tour of Paris with Charisse Oliveros, who now lists her name on Facebook as Charisse Bollen. She's from the Philippines, and she's at least a decade younger than Joop.
Love whom you want: Benda's and Bollen's miss-handlings are far less important than their possible mishandlings of state money and EB-5 investment dollars. But as Mr. Ellis has opened the door into the personal lives of the GOED/EB-5 scandal players, this odd international parallel in their personal pursuits underscores the need for investigators to look closely at the connection between Richard Benda and Joop Bollen.