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.

Post-Oil Boom, There’s ‘More Dope Than Ever’ in Bakken

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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.


Prosecuting cases

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.”

Methamphetamine also known as crystal meth
Methamphetamine also known as crystal meth

Decker's attorney moves to suppress sexual abuse interrogation confession

The attorney for a Dickinson man facing life in prison for allegedly sexually abusing a 6-year-old female relative asked a judge to suppress state’s evidence of a police interrogation video that shows his client confessing to the crime.

Gregory Paul Decker, 53, who is facing charges of continuous sexual abuse of a child, a Class AA felony, took the stand Tuesday before Southwest District Judge Dann Greenwood after watching his 30-minute interogation video from Jan. 1.

The video shows Decker admitting to the allegations without prompting and within minutes of being interviewed by Dickinson Police Cpl. Brandon Stockie. According to court documents, Decker allegedly touched the girl on her private areas “five or six” times during 2015.

Tuesday’s hearing represented one of two cases against Decker for continuous sexual abuse of a child. The other alleges that in 1997 and 1998, he engaged in approximately 10 sexual acts within another female relative who, at the time, was between 6 and 7 years old.

Decker was arrested the morning of Jan. 1, his birthday, just hours after Dickinson police were called to his home after reports of a fight.

Following an evening with family and friends to celebrate he and his wife’s birthdays, Decker was confronted about the alleged abuse and then punched in the face by a man, who has not been identified by the court other than being a family acquaintance. Decker was taken to CHI St. Joseph’s Health sometime after 12:30 a.m., received stitches around his eye and was then released to police, who took him to the Public Safety Center for questioning about the incident.

Decker’s attorney, Michael Hoffman, alleges in the motion to suppress that Decker did not understand that Stockie, the lead detective on the case, had read him his Miranda rights because he was in pain after being assaulted, was confused and had high anxiety, and knew he was being being called a child molester by family and friends. Hoffman also alleges Decker didn’t know why the detective was questioning him, and said the detective “stated he was there to get (Decker) help for (his) problem or addiction.”

Within about three minutes of being questioned by Stockie, and before the detective brought up the alleged sexual abuse, Decker asked him, “What do you want me to say, that I was molesting her?”

“Well is that what happened?” Stockie asked.

“Well, yeah,” Decker replied.

Decker and the girl’s mother were both questioned by Stockie, which led to Decker’s eventual arrest. After Decker admitted to sexually abusing the girl, he told Stockie he wanted to get help and said he had been sexually abused as a young child.

Decker told Stockie he feared that he would lose his wife and family, and that his home would be terrorized.

Hoffman argued that Stockie purposefully led Decker to believe he’d help him get counseling and didn’t lead him to believe he may be placed under arrest. Stockie said during questioning that he employed a ruse detectives frequently use to try and extract evidence from suspects, and that what he did was a legal interrogation tactic.

Hoffman later brought Decker’s intelligence into question, calling him a “vulnerable person.”

Assistant state’s attorney James Hope argued that because Decker was released by the hospital, he was fully capable of answering Stockie’s questions despite his injuries, and said Decker’s history shows no reason to believe he has any mental vulnerabilities.

Decker is being held at the Southwest Multi County Correction Center. He will have a pretrial conference June 14, and a jury trial is scheduled to begin July 6. He faces the maximum sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. A pretrial conference for his other sexual abuse charge is scheduled for July 19.

Burglar who shot himself in head after standoff gets probation

The Reeder man who shot himself in the head after a standoff with Dickinson police last December was sentenced to three years of supervised probation Monday during an arraignment at the Stark County Courthouse.

Jeremy Mellmer, 32, had a five-year prison sentenced suspended by Southwest District Court Judge William Herauf after the judge agreed to the Stark County state attorney’s deal to keep the severely injured Mellmer out of the corrections system.

“He shot himself in the head and left himself in considerable poor health, which will greatly impact his life going forward as well as the reality of any extended incarceration,” said James Hope, Stark County assistant state’s attorney.

Mellmer pled guilty Monday to theft of property and burglary charges, both Class C felonies, after breaking into the home of Dickinson resident Bernard Deichert and stealing approximately $3,000 worth of firearms and other items on Nov. 24.

Mellmer, who wore a large neck brace and an eyepatch over his right eye, spoke in a gravely voice and mustered only one-word answers when responding to the judge’s questions.

Herauf said he was concerned about the proposed sentence, but agreed to keep Mellmer’s health burden out of the state’s hands.

“I’m going to go along with what’s been worked out, otherwise the state is faced with the problems that your health creates,” he said, before speaking directly to Mellmer about his future. “We’re not having this conduct again. None of it whatsoever.”

Joseph Mrstik, Mellmer’s court-appointed attorney, spoke on Mellmer’s behalf before Herauf agreed to the sentence.

“Through his own actions, Mr. Mellmer has significantly limited the ability to live his life and, frankly, if it weren’t for his father, he’d probably be out on the street and not doing very well,” Mrstik said. “My point is, he’s basically just taking it one day at a time, trying to make up for lost time and appreciating the fact that he’s still here.”

Mellmer escaped police during a traffic stop on Nov. 30. Police searched for him until Dec. 2, when they surrounded a house on the 900 block of Ninth Street East. The standoff ended when Mellmer shot himself. He has not been charged for that incident.

However, Mellmer is not done with court appearances.

He will have pretrial conference July 5 on charges of possession of marijuana with intent to deliver, a Class B felony, and possession of methamphetamine paraphernalia and carrying concealed firearm or weapon, both Class A misdemeanors. A July 20 trial is scheduled.

Hope said the state has few concerns about Mellmer committing further crimes following his final sentencing, solely because of his health.

“We’ll monitor his health condition and see how his recovery goes, and whether the health condition he has now is permanent,” Hope said in an interview.

Jail escapee punched in face, calls police

A Dickinson man wanted by authorities for escaping a South Dakota minimum-security facility nearly two weeks ago was arrested Tuesday morning by Dickinson police after he called them to report he had been punched in the face.

Paul Thomas Steiner, 62, was arrested shortly before 10 a.m. at a residence on the 300 block of East Broadway.

Steiner alleges that Terry Fussell, 51, of Dickinson, punched him while he was staying at Fussell’s home.

Steiner was taken to CHI St. Alexius Health Dickinson, where it was determined he had a broken orbital bone. He was arrested on multiple warrants and is being held at the Southwest Multi County Correction Center.

Steiner escaped from the Rapid City Community Work Center on May 20. He had been sentenced in March to five years at the facility after receiving his sixth charge for driving while intoxicated.

An aggravated assault charge for Fussell has been forwarded to the Stark County state’s attorney for consideration, Dickinson Police Capt. David Wilkie said Thursday.

No further information on the case was available.