Democrat Out of Race for State Senate

A New England man who planned to oppose Republican state Sen. Kelly Armstrong in November’s election has withdrawn his name from the ballot.

Democrat John D.W. Fielding said Thursday that his job as an employee of the Transportation Service Administration prohibits him from pursuing political office.

Fielding was nominated by his party to challenge Armstrong in District 36 last spring. The party chose not to put up a challenger in his place after he dropped out, said Dean Meyer, chairman of the District 36 Democrats who is running for state House of Representatives.

“It was a pretty close deadline,” Meyer said. “We’d had a hard time finding the first line of candidates, so there really wasn’t much we could do with that short time.”

Fielding said he learned he couldn’t pursue public office in an email he received from the TSA about election rules for employees. Federal government employees are prohibited from holding partisan political office, a law that dates back to the Hatch Act of 1939.

“I kinda need my job,” Fielding said with a laugh.

Fielding said he was working as a geologist in the oilfield before the drop in oil prices caused the Bakken’s significant slowdown. He said he wants to stay in the area because his children want to graduate from New England High School.

… I knew it would have been an uphill battle, but I thought there was information that should be out there and voters should know instead of voting the party line like most people do.”

“Family has got to come first,” Fielding said.

Fielding admitted he faced an uphill battle against Armstrong, who isn’t just a state senator but also chairman of the North Dakota GOP. He said, however, that he has had the opportunity to bring attention to issues faced by voters and added that he believes Armstrong hasn’t represented his constituents well.

“I had issues with the way the state handles the oil industry in general, basically from a position of weakness rather than strength,” Fielding said. “… I knew it would have been an uphill battle, but I thought there was information that should be out there and voters should know instead of voting the party line like most people do.”

Meyer said Fielding dropping out of the race creates more of an uphill battle for he and fellow House candidate Linda Kittilson, who face incumbent Republican Rep. Mike Schatz and newcomer Luke Simons.

Simons beat out incumbent Rep. Alan Fehr in the District 36 GOP nominating process.

“It does make the race a little tougher for the other two of us to not have anyone else ahead of us on the Senate side of it,” Meyer said. Armstrong said Thursday that despite running unopposed, he’s still putting in the campaign legwork for not only himself but Schatz, Simons and other Republican nominees he represents as party chair. “Even though I’m running unopposed, I think I’ll be working just as hard,” he said.

Murder or Accident? Beach Man’s Attorney Claims Shooting of Friend Was Accidental

BEACH — A late-night combination of “doing tricks” with a pistol and drinking whiskey turned deadly for a Beach man, according to testimony during a preliminary hearing Thursday in Southwest District Court.

Richard Young, 24, of Beach, died on June 10, four days after his friend, Gabriel Castro, 23, also of Beach, allegedly shot him in the head with a 1911 .45-caliber pistol on or around June 6 at Young’s residence.

After initially telling Golden Valley County Sheriff’s officials that Young shot himself, Castro confessed to an agent with the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation on June 24 that he had pointed the gun at Young and fired it, claiming it was part of Young’s coercing him to perform a “trick” with the pistol. Castro was then charged with murder, hindering law enforcement and providing false information to law enforcement.

Castro’s court-appointed attorney, Kevin McCabe, argued his client stated in his confession that the shooting was accidental and, because of that, the murder charge should be dismissed.

Golden Valley County state’s attorney Christina Wenko, however, argued there was intent, as Castro had admitted in his confession that he handled the gun, pointed it at Young and pulled the trigger moments after Young called Castro a derogatory term.

“When he was called a (expletive) your honor, he decided to take other action,” Wenko said. “That’s when he rose up, he pointed that weapon, he pulled the trigger and then he was left with the consequences of his actions, which he attempted to conceal from law enforcement.”

Judge Dann Greenwood upheld the murder charge, a Class AA felony, and moved the case forward to further hearings following a short back-and-forth between McCabe and Wenko over the state’s definition of murder.

However, the judge dismissed the Class C felony charge of hindering law enforcement because of wording in the North Dakota Century Code that states the charge can only be levied against a person if they’re hindering law enforcement’s efforts involving another person. Greenwood upheld Castro’s charge of providing false information to law enforcement, a Class A misdemeanor.

BCI Special Agent Timothy Helmer said Castro and his girlfriend, Brenna Miller, initially gave false information to Golden Valley County Sheriff’s offi- cials about the circumstances of Young’s shooting and eventual death as he described the events of the case during nearly an hour of testimony.

Helmer was brought into the case by the Golden Valley County Sheriff’s Office about two weeks after the shooting and about 10 days after Young’s death. From there, he said he began to piece together evidence — including findings supported by the state Medical Examiner’s Office — that showed Young’s death was not from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, as Castro and Miller initially told authorities.

An autopsy showed the trajectory of the bullet and its point of impact in Young’s head were not consistent with a self-inflicted wound, Helmer said. He also said there was evidence of bullet slugs and skull fragments in the home’s kitchen, where Young was allegedly standing when he was shot.

Helmer said, according to Castro’s confession and his interview with Miller, that the night started off innocently as Castro and Young drank whiskey and the three watched the movie “Deadpool.” He said the scene was described as “relaxed” and “joyous.”

But shortly after Castro and Miller arrived, Young began brandishing the .45-caliber pistol

— which he’d eventually be shot with — and began showing the couple “tricks” with the gun, including one where the gun user can “give the perception to someone that the gun is loaded but it’s not loaded.”

Castro allegedly said in his confession that he was attempting to perform that trick when he shot Young, but he also said Young coerced him into firing the pistol and that he was conflicted about pulling the trigger in that the moment. Castro’s confession stated he pulled the trigger and included details about seeing Young in the gun’s sights about three to five feet away from Young — information that was consistent with the state Medical Examiner’s Office findings.

While the minutes following Young’s shooting remain unclear, Helmer said, he said Miller stated in an affidavit that after shooting Young “Castro dropped the gun, grabbed a black T-shirt and attempted to wipe his prints off the gun. After he attempted to wipe his prints off the gun, he also attempted to collect the three drinking glasses that were present in further attempts to conceal the prints on the glasses.”

Castro and Miller then allegedly left Young’s residence, got in Miller’s vehicle that was parked on the street “and that’s all the further they got,” Helmer said.

Helmer said Miller eventually called 911, and law enforcement and first responders arrived. Helmer said authorities reported finding Castro attempting to “render aid” to Young, who was taken to a Bismarck hospital by medical helicopter.

Wenko argued that the charge should be murder because Castro “caused the death of another human being under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life” when he shot Young. McCabe argued that Castro did care.

“There’s nothing extreme about this,” McCabe said. “They were two friends who were playing with a gun. This simply was an accident. It went off. He didn’t expect it to go off. He was purely hoping and praying that it didn’t go off. That’s not extreme indifference to the value of human life. That’s an accident.”

The next hearing in the case has not been scheduled.

‘Critical’ Witness in DSU Foundation Case to Plead Fifth Amendment

A key witness in the state’s case against the Dickinson State University Foundation is invoking his Fifth Amendment right by refusing to testify. Parrell Grossman, attorney with the North Dakota Attorney General’s Office told Southwest District Judge William Herauf.

Grossman, representing the state Thursday during a request for summary judgement hearing, said the “very critical” witness “has a lot of key information” and could incriminate himself through testimony. However, he did not name him.

The announcement caught Judge Herauf off guard, and he expressed surprise at the news.

“He knows more about anything that went on here than anyone else,” Grossman added. “He’s certainly entitled to do that to the extent that what he might say could result in criminal charges.”

Grossman added there are other witnesses beyond the man invoking the Fifth Amendment who have also given the state “some resistance” in request for testimony.

The announcement came after Herauf denied a motion for summary judgement requested by First International Bank and Trust of Watford City, an intervener in the case, regarding the validity and priority of debts owed to it by the DSU Foundation.

Herauf’s denial pushed all further arguments in the case to a scheduled two-day hearing Oct. 31 and Nov. 1, though Jon Brakke — the attorney for First International Bank and Trust — expressed concern. Grossman agreed that it wouldn’t be enough time for Herauf to sufficiently hear the entire case and that it could require more than a week.

The judge agreed and said the hearings will stretch out as long as they need to.

Herauf said he has found the case against the DSU Foundation to be entirely unique in North Dakota case law, as there are no true precedents.

“I’ve spent some sleepless nights on this and I’ve spent many hours reading the statutes,” Herauf said.

Herauf said while he wants the case to have an amicable conclusion in which both the defendants, plaintiffs and intervening parties can all reach reasonable outcomes, he’s doubtful that’ll happen.

“One side or the other is not going to be happy with how this comes out. That’s a concern I have,” he said.

He also expressed concern for the DSU Foundation donors, many of whose money cannot be accounted for by either the state-appointed receiver or Brady Martz accountants, saying they trusted their money to the foundation without any real ability to protect themselves.

“Then the DSU Foundation did a whole bunch of stuff that didn’t work out … and now we have this problem.”

Column: Time to Take Western ND Drug Crime Seriously

Over the past two months, I’ve been listening to and reporting on stories involving the rise in drug use and crime in western North Dakota — mostly here in Dickinson.

In early July, I reported that the rise in drug activity has coincided with the drop in drug prices in our area. Methamphetamine that was selling for $3,000 during the height of the Bakken oil boom is now going for $800 on the street, one of our area’s lead drug investigators says.

Meth, heroin and cocaine. It’s all out there, too. Every day.

Adding to the mix is the incredibly dangerous and deadly fentanyl, a drug so bad it has caught the attention of U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and other leaders in Washington who are proposing legislation that would make it illegal for the substance to enter the United States.

Along with that, I reported about how gang members — both street gangs and biker gangs — have made their presence felt in Dickinson and the surrounding areas, and are directly tied to the rise in drug crime. The Country Boy Crips, the Hells Angels, the Sons of Silence. They’re all here in some way, shape or form.

Most of us tend not to see any of this happening. This is the activity that lurks mostly in the shadows. Still, we need to be aware that it is indeed happening.

So much that we’ve even, often regrettably, stopped considering some of it news.

Cases in Southwest District Court involving meth, heroin and cocaine were once a big deal to our newspaper. When I first took over as editor more than three years ago and in years prior to that, when those type of cases came up, we reported on them. Now, they’re mostly relegated to our daily Police Blotter section and only the bigger drug crime cases are followed into court.

There’s simply too many drug crimes taking place in our area to justify complete coverage. Plus, most of the major drug arrests get bumped up to the federal level almost immediately, making them difficult to follow from arrest to conviction. Still others plead out for jail time.

Leaders of the Southwest Narcotics Task Force and the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation say drug crime here is worse than ever, and they’re constantly faced with new challenges on how to fight it.

Earlier this month, the leaders of our area’s task force introduced themselves to the Dickinson City Commission, who listened for 15 minutes to the stories of challenges faced by our law enforcement, and how the task force’s staff can only handle the worst of the worst problems coming through our area.

They’re on track to make fewer drug arrests this year because they’re focusing primarily on the big drug deals.

That means they’re less concerned about petty drug users, and are more concerned about catching dealers — many of whom have gang ties that often reach all the way to Mexico or Canada.

The task force is concerned that even when they are able to add more staff, the problems will keep stacking up. And it’s not just them. Our local police and sheriff’s departments, state attorney’s offices, and as far up as the U.S. District Attorney’s office are all slammed with problems related to drug crimes in some way, shape or form.

Next Tuesday, many of our city and legislative leaders and several behavioral and public health professionals who deal will attend a state-sponsored Opioid Symposiums being held Tuesday in Bismarck.

It’ll be a unique venue for them to network and to learn more about how to combat the rising drug use and crime.

Whether it’s marijuana, cocaine, meth, heroin or fentanyl, the point needs to be driven home that there’s a drug culture in western North Dakota that’s here to stay. It’s growing and it’s bringing a gang culture with it. It’s time we start looking at it seriously and do something about it.

Hoeven Backs Trump, Though They Don’t Agree on Everything

North Dakota’s Republican senator said Wednesday that he is maintaining his support of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

Sen. John Hoeven, following a roundtable with Dickinson business and city leaders, lived up to his promise to support his party’s presidential nominee despite being relatively quiet about Trump’s candidacy.

“I support Trump as our nominee for the party,” Hoeven said. “I don’t agree with everything he says, but I agree that he would be better for our state and our country than Secretary Clinton, who would continue the kind of big regulation, big government, big tax approach the current administration has.”

Hoeven has long been an opponent of the Obama administration’s regulatory policies and said he believes a Hillary Clinton presidency would mean more of the same.

Nonetheless, Hoeven has been tight-lipped about Trump since the New York businessman accepted the Republican nomination for president and was the state’s highest-ranking GOP official who didn’t attend Trump’s speech at the Williston Basin Petroleum Conference last May in Bismarck.

Hoeven, who is seeking re-election in November, also responded to criticisms by his opponent, current state Rep. Eliot Glassheim. On Tuesday, the Grand Forks Democrat called for Hoeven to withdraw his support of Trump following what he called the presidential candidate’s “demeaning insults” about Kazir Khan, a Muslim-American father of a fallen soldier.

Glassheim said Hoeven should condemn Trump’s statements.

“What’s more, Sen. Hoeven should explain to North Dakotans precisely why he continues to support Donald Trump while refusing to condemn, distance himself from, or even comment on, Trump’s outrageous behavior,” Glassheim stated in a release. “If Sen. Hoeven cannot honestly offer such an explanation to voters, he should have the courage to withdraw his support for Trump’s candidacy for president.”

Hoeven said he’s more focused on his own re-election campaign and issues pertaining to North Dakotans than the presidential election.

“I tell the people what I’m about, what I believe in, what I believe can help our state — a positive vision for the future of North Dakota, the vision of our country — and then it’s up to them,” Hoeven said. “It’s an honor to serve North Dakota, but people decide. That’s how I’ve always approached it. That’s how I’m approaching it now and as long as I’m in office, that’s how I will approach it. That’s what’s important.”

Hoeven did, however, say that “everyone should support Gold Star families,” the designation for families who have lost a member during military service in wartime.

The senator added that while he knows Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson well and considers him a friend, he won’t be backing his campaign.

Johnson was born in Hoeven’s hometown of Minot, and served as New Mexico’s governor at the same time as Hoeven was governor of North Dakota.

“He’s an interesting guy, a good guy,” Hoeven said. “I agree with him on some things but obviously not others. We’re good friends and it’s always interesting to see what he’s going to offer.”

Dickinson City Leaders, Sen. Hoeven Talk Drug Crime

Dickinson leaders told U.S. Sen. John Hoeven on Wednesday that a federal law enforcement presence in the city may be necessary to help address the state’s growing opioid epidemic.

Drug crime has become increasingly more complex and organized in western North Dakota in the past three years, Dickinson Mayor Scott Decker said, relaying information Southwest Narcotics Task Force leaders told the Dickinson City Commission on Monday at their regular meeting.

“For us, what would be nice is to have that federal presence,” Decker said. “A lot of this stuff is going to end up in federal jurisdiction.”

Task Force members said Monday that the city has become “the stop” for drug runners coming out of Denver, Chicago and as far away as Mexico.

Methamphetamine and heroin laced with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid shipped to the U.S. from countries like China, are the top concerns of drug task force leaders in western North Dakota.

Hoeven, a North Dakota Republican, said this week he introduced new legislation that would close a loophole that currently allows synthetic drugs to enter the U.S.

The Illegal Synthetic Drug Safety Act of 2016, which Hoeven co-sponsored with Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., would change a law that allows overseas companies to sell the drugs in the U.S. by labeling the products as “not safe for human consumption.”

Hoeven said the legislation has been endorsed by the National Law Enforcement Association and drug companies.

“Our laws have to catch up with the new types of drugs that are out there on the market,” he said.

Decker also pressed for more law enforcement funding, and spoke about the Southwest Narcotics Task Force’s worries that their agents will become overworked by the continuing rise in in-depth narcotics investigations during the roundtable.

“One of their biggest issues is the funding and getting the level of law enforcement they need — the experienced law enforcement they need to combat this type of sale,” Decker said. “They need a certain type of person — a certain type of agent with the right experience.”

Dickinson City Administrator Shawn Kessel pointed to the perceived decrease in narcotics seizures and arrests by the Southwest Narcotics Task Force agents this year, saying instead of arresting low-level drug offenders, the agents are effectively triaging their caseload and focusing on high-profile cases.

“If you look at a simple statistical way of measuring success, it’s going to look like we have less of a problem,” Kessel said. “That couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Airport officials ask for Hoeven’s support

Officials from the Dickinson Theodore Roosevelt Regional Airport reiterated their need for Hoeven’s support at the federal level as they try to continue providing commercial air service after United Airlines announced in June its intention to ends its flights into Dickinson.

Hoeven said he has requested that the U.S. Department of Transportation expedite approval of the airport’s Essential Air Service designation to ensure commercial service to the airport.

When United announced it wanted to pull out, the airport was under the impression the airline would apply for federal EAS designation, which would federally fund its flights into Dickinson. It has yet to do that.

“We’ve done this before,” Hoeven said. “We don’t want to go work to approve someone for air service that doesn’t fit what you want.”

Airport manager Kelly Braun said he has been “working diligently” to try and get both United and other airlines to submit proposals for EAS to the DOT.

“Any help we can get from your office to persuade airlines to give proposals to the DOT would be helpful,” Braun told Hoeven.

Braun said United was issued a stay order to continue providing service to the airport past the Sept. 30 date for an EAS provider to be in place.

“They have a stay order that’ll prevent them from pulling out of the market until an EAS provider is selected,” he said.

The airport is also seeking to rebuild its runway by 2020 due to its inability to accommodate the 50-passenger planes that currently fly into the airport.

Along with that, Dickinson Airport Authority Chairman Jon Frantsvog said more airlines — including any that would serve Dickinson through the EAS program — are discontinuing their use of 50-seaters in favor of 70-passenger jets. That’ll only further deteriorate the runway, he said.

“The key is to get the FAA dialed in,” Hoeven said, adding the Federal Aviation Administration has been traditionally open to providing financial support for runway upgrade projects. “… We’ll make the case based on aircraft, saying we’ve got to get this runway transitioned as the airlines transition to 70-passenger aircraft.”

Law Enforcement Center Remodel Bids Get OK

The cost to remodel the Dickinson Law Enforcement Center will be much less than the Stark County Commission anticipated at just less than $1 million, commissioners learned at their monthly meeting Tuesday.

Rob Remark of JLG Architects told commissioners that bids for the project came in lower than expected, even with a high contingency percentage on the project — due to possible unforeseen “surprises” that contractors could find hiding behind walls and in the ceilings of the building, which was built in the 1980s.

Remark said the project will only cost around $663,000 in contracting, electrical and mechanical fees. However, he said there will be a 15 percent contingency on the costs.

With contingencies and soft costs added in, the total cost of the project is about $992,000.

“It’s a small project, a small scale,” Remark said. “It’s a remodel to an existing building. We know there’s going to be some surprises when the ceilings and the walls come out. There’s surprises that the design team made the decision … to plan for rather than make assumptions for.”

Nonetheless, commissioners accepted the bids and were pleased with the price tag.

“This project came in under what we assumed it was going to cost by about $500,000,” Commissioner Jay Elkin said.

Commissioner Pete Kuntz added that early in the process, the commission expected the remodel to cost around $1.4 million.

The Law Enforcement Center is home to the Stark County Sheriff’s Office and formerly also housed the Dickinson Police Department, which moved into the Public Safety Center last year.

Stark County Sheriff Terry Oestreich said some of the soft costs will be to update technology and safety aspects of the building, including adding new interrogation room hardware and software to match what the police department uses.

“What’s happening is the city, in their building, they have interview rooms that run with this system,” Oestreich said. “But actually our interview rooms there are going to be utilized more because they’re in the same building as our jail. So we wanted to try and have the same system for ease of operation so that there will be less chance of error in those recordings.”

Oestreich jokingly referred to the current recording system as being “off the shelf, from Walmart,” but noted more seriously that it’s “not very reliable.”

Remark said it’s unlikely the contingency costs would be that high, nor would the soft costs, meaning the project will likely come in at a lower budget.

  • Scull Construction informed the commission that the Stark County Courthouse building project began Tuesday and that the west end of the courthouse parking lot will be closed beginning today.
  • Representatives of the Waters Edge Subdivision southwest of Dickinson along Patterson Lake and the Heart River Golf Course approached the commission about the potential of paving a gravel road into the subdivision. County road superintendent Al Heiser will work with the homeowners assocation on creating a proposal.