FINDLAY -Why are people in a small town in South Dakota scouring the Internet and poring over Hancock County electronic property records looking for information about Richard E. White?
Because many people in Elk Point, S.D., believe that the retired Marathon Oil Corp. executive is involved in a massive land hunt that could turn out to be part of one of the largest economic development projects in South Dakota history.
It has been nicknamed "the gorilla."
People who know, including the state's governor, aren't talking. Many have been required to sign confidentiality agreements.
And Mr. White didn't return messages left at his home in Allen Township near Van Buren, Ohio.
But Elk Point residents trying to find information about the secret project, whose value is estimated at up to $8 billion, found him after launching an Internet search into a man named R.E. White who signed purchase options on land in the largely rural area along the Missouri River.
Developers are said to be assembling 5,000 acres in two separate sections near Elk Point, which is just north of Sioux City, Iowa. The facility, rumored to be an auto plant or oil refinery, could eventually employ 2,000, local people have heard.
Mr. White's link to the oil industry is apparently what attracted sleuths looking into the project. Before retiring from Marathon in 1999 as marketing vice president, his duties at one point included real estate sales and acquisition.
Marathon, which has offices in Houston and Findlay, is not involved in the project, said Linda Casey, a spokesman.
Mr. White, who is in his early 70s, is a trustee of the University of Findlay.
He spent 44 years at Marathon and predecessor companies. While there, his accomplishments included consolidation of six retail store brands into the Speedway chain, according to material distributed by the university.
For a time, he was assigned to the firm's operations in Geneva, Switzerland, according to a Marathon news release issued when he retired.
He joined the company in 1955 after graduating from Indiana University, where he was a member of the school's NCAA championship basketball team.
He also was active in the American Petroleum Institute and other industry groups.
Some people in Elk Point have speculated that he is working as a consultant for an unidentified oil company.
However, it is possible that the Hancock County man is not the R.E. White who has signed land purchase options.
But people in Elk Point think they have found their man.
Replying to a report about the project on the Web site of the Sioux City Journal, a reader named Scott wrote: "Found an interesting article on Mr. Richard White... Seems Mr. White has been in the petroleum industry his whole life."
He received national attention late last month when the Wall Street Journal published a front-page story reporting local speculation about the mysterious project and mentioning the Findlay man.
Jim Cody, a restaurant owner in Elk Point who has been trying to find out about the project, said he has new evidence confirming the identity.
"I talked to one of these farmers who optioned out his land," Mr. Cody said. "He said he personally met with the man and he is the person from Findlay, Ohio who played on the 1953 Indiana University championship basketball team."
"We have no DNA, but now we have an eyewitness," Mr. Cody added.
Contact Gary Pakulski at: