Hunting is a sport enjoyed by many people. No doubt it’s a fun hobby for these individuals, but today’s case concerns a man who went on a hunting trip and never returned. Let’s talk about Rick Bendele, who hasn’t been seen or heard from in almost 25 years.
Growing up, Rick was very much an outdoorsman, enjoying things like fishing, camping and hunting. But his life wasn’t always easy. Rick’s father died when he was still pretty young, and he took over the caretaker role for his mom and sister. He also struggled with drug and alcohol abuse at some point. Rick later got married and had two children, but the marriage eventually fell apart.
But by 1996, Rick seemed to be in a good place. He was clean and sober and had a job at a potato plant in Heyburn, just down the road from Burley. He was in the process of finalizing his divorce, and had a new girlfriend named Syndi Kowtiz. Rick’s children lived with his mom, and Rick lived with Syndi and her children in Burley.
On the morning of Sunday, November 17, 1996, 29-year-old Rick went to his mom’s house to borrow his dad’s shotgun. He was planning to hunt pheasants close to Laidlaw Park, which is at Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve, about 100 miles north of Burley. This is the last time Rick would officially be seen alive.
Around 6:00 that evening, Rick called his mom from a cell phone in his truck, saying the truck wouldn’t start. He sounded worried, like he was afraid someone had done something to the truck. He asked his mom if she could come get him, and said he would mark the road to help her find him.
Rick’s mom, Sandra Bendele, along with Syndi Kowitz, set out to look for him in Syndi’s truck. But on the way, they hit something on the road and had to turn back. Around 2 am on November 18, when they still hadn’t heard from Rick, they called the Minidoka County Sheriff’s Office to report him missing.
Investigators found Rick’s truck the next morning near Laidlaw Corral, in or near Craters of the Moon. Right away, there were several signs that something was wrong. A window was broken, the car battery had been taken out and turned upside down and, despite his coat, cell phone and dad’s shotgun being inside the truck, there was no sign of Rick. There were also beer cans and an empty beer case on the road, presumably used in an attempt to mark it, like Rick said he would do.
Because his truck had been found in Blaine County, the case was transferred to their sheriff’s department. Search teams, dogs and a helicopter were brought in, but all they found were two gloves from two separate pairs as well as one of Rick’s brand new sneakers. (One of the gloves was from a set similar to the gloves Rick would have used at his job.) The search ended five days after it had started.
Rick’s last paycheck was deposited into his account after he went missing, but the money there has never been spent. Seven years after he was last seen, he was declared legally dead by his estranged wife. The original case files were lost at some point, and later restored to the best of investigators’ abilities. There haven’t been any significant updates in the case since around 2014, but it is still active.
So, what happened to Rick Bendele? There are a couple of major theories I want to go over.
The first theory is that Rick got lost and succumbed to the elements. He may have been killed by a predatory animal and his remains were scattered to the point that not much could be found. Or he could have taken shelter under a lava fissure, a long fracture or crack in a rock filled with lava. Lava often also erupts from lava fissures, making them that much more dangerous. The area where Rick was was full of lava fissures, and he could have taken shelter in one but still died of exposure, and his body hasn’t been found yet because it’s in a narrow or hard to miss spot.
The next theory is the one police believe, that Rick was kidnapped and/or killed. The scene where his truck was found seems to have some evidence that suggests foul play, like the smashed glass and the truck battery being messed with. Rick’s jacket and his dad’s shotgun were also still in the truck — two things he probably would have taken with him if he left to get help. Sandra Bendele also insists Rick never would have borrowed his dad’s shotgun without returning it if he was able to.
But if foul play was involved, who’s responsible? Some people believe he may have been a victim of a hit and run and the driver hid his body. At least one person speculating about this case has mentioned his estranged wife and wondered if she was involved. And several people wondered if his disappearance had to do with his prior drug and alcohol abuse; maybe he was been killed in a drug deal gone wrong. One person also mentioned that he was reportedly sober at the time, but had a case of beer in his truck. Other people speculated that Rick had witnessed some sort of illegal activity or serious policy violations at work and was killed by people who were afraid he’d blow the whistle on them.
A Reddit user mentioned something else I found interesting. (Unfortunately I lost the link and can’t seem to find it again; it’s possible the thread was deleted. But I wanted to share the theory anyway because I thought it was interesting.)
This person wondered if Rick wasn’t actually going pheasant hunting. According to them, it’s unusual to hunt pheasants in the evening, when Rick was last heard from since most of them are asleep at that time. They wondered if the hunting trip was just a cover up, and Rick was going to meet up with someone who ended up hurting him. He might have not told his loved ones the truth because he was tangled up in something dangerous and didn’t want them to have any extra information that might put them in danger as well.
Whatever happened to Rick, it’s been almost a quarter of a century since he was last seen and we still don’t know what happened.
Richard Willis Bendele was 29 years old when he was last seen at Craters of the Moon in Idaho on November 17, 1996. Rick is a white male, 5 feet 11 inches tall with brown hair and green eyes. He may have had a mustache and would be 54 if alive today.
There’s obviously not a lot of information publically available on this case, but I still wanted to share what I could find. I do hope we found out what happened someday, but I’ll be transparent — it doesn’t look good. If Rick was kidnapped, I don’t know why his captors would keep him alive. If he succumbed to the elements, finding him now may be like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. I know that sounds depressing, but I can only hope and pray that the truth eventually comes out.
If you have any information about the disappearance of Rick Bendele, you can contact the Blaine County Sheriff's Office at 208-788-5555.