Crime continues to gush in oil-rich Bakken

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SIDNEY — One cold morning last year, a math teacher jogging through her hometown in eastern Montana was abducted, strangled and buried in a shallow grave. Charged in her death were two drifters from Colorado, drawn to the region by the allure of easy money in the oil fields.

One-hundred fifty miles away, in a bustling oil town in North Dakota, a 30-year-old man disappeared one afternoon from the street where he had been putting in water and sewer pipes, leaving behind a lunchbox with his paycheck inside, and a family grasping for answers. After months of searching, his mother said she now believes her son is gone, buried somewhere on the high plains.

Stories like these, once rare, have become as common as drilling rigs in rural towns at the heart of one of the nation’s richest oil booms. Crime has soared as thousands of workers and rivers of cash have flowed into towns, straining police departments and shattering residents’ sense of safety.

“It just feels like the modern-day Wild West,” said Sgt. Kylan Klauzer, an investigator in Dickinson, in western North Dakota. The Dickinson police handled 41 violent crimes last year, up from seven only five years ago.

To the police and residents, the violence shows how a modern-day gold rush is transforming the rolling plains and farm towns where people once fretted about a population drain. Today, four-story chain hotels are rising, and small apartments rent for $2,000 a month. Two-lane roads are jammed with tractor-trailers. Fast-food restaurants offer $300 signing bonuses for new employees, and jobs as gas-station attendants can pay $50,000 a year. Workers flush with cash are snapping up ATVs, and hotel menus offer crab-artichoke dip and bacon-wrapped dates.

Amid all of that new money, reports of assault and theft have doubled or even tripled, and police say they are rushing from call to call, grappling with everything from bar brawls and shoplifting to kidnappings and attempted murders. Traffic stops for drunken or reckless driving have skyrocketed; local jails are spilling over with drug suspects.

Last year, a study by officials in Montana and North Dakota found that crime had risen by 32 percent since 2005 in communities at the center of the boom. In Watford City, N.D., where mile-long chains of tractor-trailers stack up at the town’s main traffic light, arrests increased 565 percent during that time. In Roosevelt County in Montana, arrests were up 855 percent, and the sheriff, Freedom Crawford, said his jail was so full that he was ticketing and releasing offenders for minor crimes like disorderly conduct.

“I don’t have nowhere to put them,” Crawford said.

Officials say most of new arrivals are hard workers who are simply looking for better lives, and that much of the increase in crime has resulted from population growth: Waves of new residents inevitably mean more traffic crashes and calls to 911.

Police and sheriff’s departments are responding by hiring more officers, in part with new tax revenue, but often not fast enough to keep pace with their booming populations. In Dickinson, for example, the population has surged to an estimated 25,000 from 16,000 in 2000, with new hotels, condominiums and extended-stay inns being built every week. The city’s police department has 38 officers, but Klauzer said it would need to add 12 more to keep up with the growth. Each detective’s caseload has doubled.

‘Living nightmare’

Once a month, Klauzer receives a phone call from a mother looking for news about her son, Eric Haider, a 30-year-old pipe layer who vanished in May 2012, one of several disappearances in the region. Haider hated the tiring three-hour commute to his job in Dickinson, but the town’s breakneck growth meant steady work and money to support his daughter, said his mother, Maryellen Suchan.

The family has made buttons and printed fliers with Haider’s brown-bearded face, and silk-screened T-shirts with the words “Have You Seen My Son?” The police dug up the streets and searched with dogs. As hopes dimmed, Haider’s family began asking hunters and oil workers to look out for shallow graves. Not a trace has been found.

“It’s a living nightmare,” Suchan said. “There isn’t a single day that we don’t think of him, talk of him. I don’t have an end.”

Drug trafficking

Federal prosecutors say the boom’s riches have attracted opportunists and criminals. Mexican cartels and regional methamphetamine and heroin traffickers have proliferated, hoping to tap the same sources of wealth that have turned farmers into millionaires and shaved unemployment rates to as low as 0.7 percent.

“It’s following the money,” said Michael W. Cotter, the U.S. attorney for Montana. “I hate to call the cartels entrepreneurs, but they’re in the business to make money. There’s a lot of money flying around that part of Montana and North Dakota.”

Over the last year, the police and prosecutors in North Dakota, Montana and Canada have tried to crack down on drug traffickers and the most violent offenders systematically with an effort they call Project Safe Bakken, named for the rich oil formation under the plains. The FBI is adding a handful of agents to the region. Federal officials have charged more than two-dozen people they say were trafficking drugs into the Bakken region.

Domestic violence

As more families arrive, domestic-violence shelters are also filling up, often with similar stories of troubled migrations: Families arrived hoping for $20-an-hour jobs, but discovered that modest homes rent for $2,000 and everything from gasoline to dinner costs more. The stresses of life piled up. Alcohol and drugs added to the problem. Old patterns of domestic abuse crossed state lines.

In Dickinson, mothers in the shelter sleep on couches with their children. In Williston, the small Family Crisis Shelter has added four sets of bunk beds and turned its living room into a bedroom to accommodate more people. The executive director, Lana Bonnet, said 83 percent of her clients were from out of town, and many had sought refuge after being choked, threatened with a gun or beaten up until bones broke or teeth fell out.

Rape, murder

While the raw numbers of murders and rapes remain low, every few months seem to bring an act of violence that flares like a gas flame on the dark prairie, shaking a community and underscoring how much life here is changing.

In Dickinson, it was the rape of an 83-year-old woman, who police say was attacked inside her home by a 24-year-old man who had come to town looking for work. In Culbertson, Mont., it was a man who was beaten with brass knuckles by a group of drug dealers and left for dead along the side of a road. In Sidney, it was the January 2012 murder of Sherry Arnold, the 43-year-old schoolteacher abducted during her Sunday morning jog.

Hundreds of people searched for Arnold in frozen fields, residential neighborhoods and ditches until her body was found in North Dakota, near a line of trees planted as a windbreak by farmers. After receiving a tip, the police arrested two men, Lester Van Waters Jr. and Michael Spell. Van Waters has pleaded guilty, and Spell is expected to go to trial in January. His lawyer has said that Spell is mentally disabled.

After Arnold’s killing, there was a run on pepper spray and stun guns in Sidney, and the town offered martial arts classes to women. Mayor Bret Smelser, who attended the same Lutheran church as Arnold, said his wife had bought a small handgun to feel safer when he was away.

“Nobody knew anybody anymore,” he said. “We were a community that never locked our doors. That’s all changed.”