The Bakken oil boom may be over, but people on the front lines of fighting crime in western North Dakota say drug trafficking here is worse than ever.
The price of drugs is dropping and an influx of out-of-state gangs are intensifying the problem, a lead agent with the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation says.
“Because the oil industry has slowed down, people automatically assume the drug world has slowed down. What we’ve found out is that’s absolutely not the case,” said Rob Fontenot, a BCI agent and member of the Southwest Narcotics Task Force. “There’s more dope here now than there ever has been.”
There’s been a 75 percent drop in the price drug traffickers are getting for methamphetamine, Fontenot said. Plus, deadly fentanyl-laced heroin has spread from eastern North Dakota to the Bakken.
The plummeting price of meth because of its prevalence in western North Dakota has led to it being trafficked and sold in greater quantities. Fontenot said meth that was going for $3,300 an ounce in the height of the oil boom is now worth about $800 an ounce on the street.
“I never imagined in my law enforcement career — and I’ve been working dope for 14 years — that I would see meth for $800 an ounce,” he said.
U.S. Attorney for North Dakota Chris Myers said it’s obvious by his office’s caseload that drug cases in the Bakken aren’t slowing down.
“There’s a myth outside of our state,” Myers said. “People believe that because oil activity has slowed, that the criminal activity has stopped. That’s just not true. It definitely has not slowed down and there’s a good argument to be made that it’s continuing to increase.”
Gangs at the center
Dickinson Police Capt. David Wilkie said the known gang activity in the city isn’t stereotypical of what most people think it would be.
While there are gang members in Dickinson, he said — notably, the Country Boy Crips out of Bakersfield, Calif. — they’re not here in droves.
“The gang is down in (California) and they’ve got a couple guys up here that are accepting packages for when they send dope up here. These guys are using the local guys, or doing it themselves, to sell drugs,” Wilkie said. “They’re not out recruiting, they’re not taking up turf and they’re not embezzling or asking for protection money from people. But they’re definitely here.”
Fontenot said many one-percenter motorcycle gangs — the clubs who self-identify as outlaws and criminals — have a presence in western North Dakota as well.
He said the Hells Angels have an interest in the state, and the Bandidos and the Outlaws are already here. Wilkie added that the Prairie Rattlers gang has also taken up shop in western North Dakota. The Chicago-based Gangster Disciples street gang is also in the state, Fontenot said.
“They’re not out flying their colors, but they are here,” Wilkie said. “Anytime they are here, they have the potential to do gang activity or be the front for the club.”
The Country Boy Crips have had a presence in the area since the summer of 2013, according to federal court documents. Many with that gang affiliation were indicted on drug-related crimes during an Bakken Organized Crime Strike Force sweep of 29 defendants in August 2015, Myers said.
Gang-related gun crimes also consistently happen in western North Dakota, though they rarely lead to arrests.
There was a brief shootout on April 30 between multiple African-American men with alleged gang ties in a Dickinson mobile home park. The incident left a 59-year-old man, who was in his home during the shootout, injured by stray bullet. Dickinson police say while they continue to investigate and search for the suspects, they’ve made no arrests in the case and have encountered several uncooperative witnesses.
In November 2015, 30-year-old Roger Falana — who Minot police say had gang ties in Florida — was shot and killed. The murder suspect, 26-year-old Johnny Cleveland Norwood Jr., was finally arrested Friday in Las Vegas.
The most public gang-related crime in Dickinson history — the drive-by shooting murder of 37-year-old David Porter outside of Century Apartments on Nov. 16, 2014 — has still not been solved.
“A lot of times, this stuff is retaliation over a business dealing they had or a disrespect,” Wilkie said.
North Dakota Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, a Dickinson Republican, said he’s encouraging local law enforcement and the BCI to be transparent about incidents like these because, he said, “the community needs to know.”
“We have to work with the law enforcement to know what we can share with the public,” Wardner said.
Myers, who was appointed as the U.S. Attorney for North Dakota last October, said the Bakken Organized Crime Strike Force — a collaborative law enforcement program in North Dakota and Montana between federal, state and tribal law enforcement agencies — has been successful in prosecuting drug traffickers and other crimes in western North Dakota since it was formed last June.
“We’re planning to have meetings this summer in Bismarck and revisit where we’re at, where we’re headed and what we’ve achieved,” Myers said.
In June alone, three people were sentenced in federal court for crimes involving meth trafficking in western North Dakota.
Two Dickinson men — Rocky Laurence Fowler and Laquan Andre Thomas — are in the process of being indicted by a federal grand jury after their March arrests for the possession, distribution and intent to distribute heroin containing both fentanyl and furanyl fentanyl, a designer version of the powerful opioid.
Myers said every prosecutor in his office — including himself — carries a large caseload. The U.S. attorney’s office has prosecutors in Minot, Williston and Dickinson — the Bakken’s three largest cities — as well as in Bismarck. Bakken Strike Force supervisor Rick Volk is the prosecutor in Williston and works alongside the Federal Bureau of Investigation at its office there.
Myers said while he doesn’t have concrete figures, his office has prosecuted or is currently prosecuting “many large-scale, multi-defendant drug trafficking cases.” He believes when they compile figures later this summer, they’ll see an increase in cases involving transnational organizations doing business in North Dakota.
Wilkie said Dickinson police are trying to be more proactive in thwarting drug trafficking alongside the Southwest Narcotics Task Force, but is “just trying to keep our head above water with these issues.”
Wardner said he and other legislators are hoping that despite across-the-board cuts to state agencies, the BCI can maintain its current budget.
He and other legislators met with BCI agents on Thursday to discuss funding and learn more about crimes the agency is investigating.
“They’re concerned about losing people,” Wardner said. “They are now finally in a position where they can confront this stuff. So if we can keep the BCI and local (law enforcement) — and the FBI is here now — and we can keep all those people working together, it’s going to help.”