Tucked away in the back corner of the Dickinson State University Student Center basement, adjacent the cafeteria, is a room like many others on campus.
Seven desks, each with large computers and monitors, complete with webcams, line the room’s interior walls. Next to each desk sits large, comfortable-looking upholstered leather chairs. To the unknowing eye, the room appears to be nothing more than an upscale computer lab.
However, in the fall, the small room painted in DSU blue, white and gray colors will be the core of what the university hopes becomes its next extracurricular activity, and potentially even its next varsity sport.
Every one of us has our own 9/11 story. Even those of us who grew up on a farm 1,700 miles away from downtown Manhattan.
I’m 32 years old and haven’t met a person my age who can’t tell you exactly where they were when the World Trade Center was hit.
I was in bed. When my dad woke me up to tell me what happened that morning, the tragic event was in its fledgling moments and most of the world assumed it was some terrible accident.
Minutes later, we all realized it was something so much worse.
I was only a few weeks into my senior year of high school when the towers fell. It was a strange time.
During our seven periods of school that day, we had one actual class. (Apparently, math couldn’t take a backseat to the biggest event of our lifetimes.) We watched TV in every other class and discussed what was happening. The teachers didn’t want to teach. The students didn’t want to learn. We all were content to watch as history unfolded before our eyes.
The guys in our class — as 17- and 18-year-olds — wondered what was next. War? The draft? Did World War III just start? After all, the last time America was attacked like that, World War II started and many of our grandfathers ended up being drafted into military service.
Thankfully, there was no draft. But there was certainly war, and some of the young men and women in our school that morning would go on to serve nobly during the Global War on Terrorism by their own choice. Some are still serving, including one of my best friends.
Every one of them who came back returned unharmed. Sadly, that wasn’t the case for every American family — including some in our area.
This weekend marks the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on our country.
To coincide with the anniversary, Dickinson is hosting its first Veterans Appreciation Day at 11 a.m. today at Memorial Park, the site of the new Stark County Veterans Memorial.
Another 180 names have been placed on the memorial’s 11 granite tablets since it was erected last year. Post-9/11 veterans, active military and their families will the special guests today, and there’ll be a tribute to first responders as well.
Though I’m relatively young, it’s crazy to think that 9/11 happened so long ago that this year’s high school freshman class wasn’t alive for it. That means basically no high school student today can recall 9/11. To them, this is actual history.
That makes my generation’s role in relaying that history so significant. It doesn’t matter if you watched the events unfold live on TV halfway across the country, were in New York City that morning, or went on to fight in the wars. We owe it to the younger generations to tell them about this world-changing event from a personal perspective, and how significantly it changed our society.
They should know about the never-before-seen show of national patriotism and unity in the days, weeks and months following 9/11, and how that unity slowly broke down as the country seemed to split down the middle ideologically with the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
The world has changed so significantly since that day. In some ways better and in many ways worse. However, despite our nation’s persistent troubles — many of which trace back to that fateful Tuesday in September — it’s our duty to honor those who lost their lives that day, or fighting in the battles after it, by telling the story from our personal perspectives.
And, as we all said in the days, weeks and months after 9/11 — we should “Never forget.”
One of the nation’s leading commodities market regulators said Monday he’s confident the American energy industry can remain stable through the current period of lower oil prices, despite what overseas competition believes.
Christopher Giancarlo, a commissioner on the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission, discussed North Dakota’s role in world oil markets with Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and two of the state’s energy industry leaders at the Dickinson Public Safety Center before getting an oil rig tour in Dunn County.
“Some of our overseas competitors are hoping we can’t wait it out — that we can’t wait out the low prices,” Giancarlo said. “I think they’re going to be surprised when they see this type of ingenuity, preparing ourselves for the lower prices. We can wait it out.”
Giancarlo received a crash course in the state’s oil and gas industry Monday as part of a visit to the upper Midwest that also included agricultural stops in western South Dakota and northwest North Dakota.
“You can’t really understand how to assist a business with the regulatory concerns if you don’t actually understand how they make their money, how they get up in the morning and put food on the table at night,” Giancarlo said.
‘All about survival’
North Dakota Petroleum Council President Ron Ness and Justin Bethancourt, the Bakken operations and maintenance superintendent for ConocoPhillps in Dickinson, gave Giancarlo a nuts-and-bolts walkthrough of how the North Dakota oil industry came to be and how its economy has been shaped by the most recent boom of the past decade.
Giancarlo said a sluggish world economy is keeping oil prices from climbing back to levels seen when the Bakken oil play boomed. He said volatile currency prices around the globe have spilled over into commodity prices of all kinds and has forced producers to hedge their risks.
“You guys have done enormous, fantastic work in supply — both in terms of discovery and production, and then also in terms of productivity and efficiency,” Giancarlo said. “So the supply side of the equation is in really good shape. The problem is the demand side. The demand side is caught in this sort of sluggish global growth that we’re seeing across the western world, across the developing world. Part of the times we live in right now is that anxiety over that missing global growth.”
Ness and Bethancourt said an oil producer’s ability to drill more than a dozen oil wells on a single well pad, an unheard of practice of at the start of the Bakken oil boom, has helped drive profits while lowering production costs.
“I do come away proud of American ingenuity,” Giancarlo said. “The ability to first ramp up and then build this amazing infrastructure. Then, almost as a reward for their success, to see the fall in prices and then once again readjust to that is tremendous. I don’t know if any other country in the world could have done what we’ve done. But we’re a victim of our own success in some ways.”
Ness said oil companies involved in the Bakken shale play are in a better place now than they were at the beginning of 2016.
“The independents, their stock value has been decimated, their balance sheets have been decimated,” he said. “If you would have been here in January or February, we were at risk of losing two or three of our top-five producers to bankruptcy.”
Ness added later that one of the latest trends in the state’s energy market is that operators are selling interests in their drilled-but-uncompleted wells to hedge funds as a way to finance wells that haven’t been brought into production.
“At this point, it’s all about survival,” he said.
Saudi Arabia’s role
Heitkamp and Giancarlo also delved into Saudi Arabia’s role in guiding the world oil markets. The senator said she frequently hears from North Dakotans who are quick tell her the Saudis are forcing oil prices down in an effort to push the American shale producers out of the market.
“I think the Saudis have been driving the market down. I’m not convinced the Saudis can drive the market back up,” she said. “At some point, they’re going to have more competition than what they want.”
Giancarlo and Heitkamp both said the Saudis, much like North Dakota, are creating value-added industries to help them move past this period of lower oil prices instead of relying solely on crude oil production.
Heitkamp said she also believes the Saudis have recalibrated their long-term price expectations.
“They’re looking at this as transitional,” she said. “They’re trying to figure out what the new Saudi economy is going to look like. They look at the long-term trends in supply and demand.”
Giancarlo added that the Saudis are fine with prices where they are right now “because it’s causing all this pain in the most innovative oil production area in the world, which is right here. It’s causing a lot of pain. It’s an ideal situation for them to be in. They want to maintain their distribution relationships.”
Ashley DeWitt and Alyss Kovash walked about Prairie Outpost Park on Thursday afternoon, their heads bobbing up and down between the historic buildings and their smartphones.
Soon, one pointed to the west and they picked up the pace.
After all, they wanted to catch ‘em all. Pokémon that is.
The pair — two of hundreds in Dickinson and millions around the world — were playing the augmented reality video game “Pokémon Go,” a smartphone app that makes users leave their couches and head outside to play.
“It’s addicting,” Kovash said with a laugh.
The game has taken ahold of Dickinson’s gaming community. John Odermann with Badlands Comics and Games estimates hundreds around Dickinson are playing the game. He’s even has seen multiple people of all ages playing “Pokémon Go” in the evenings at certain locations around Dickinson, including Prairie Outpost Park and Dickinson State University.
“You’ll see clusters of teenage kids, college kids and adults just walking around because there’s so many Pokéstops at those two places,” he said. “It’s crazy.”
“Pokémon Go” is a variation on the popular Nintendo video game franchise “Pokémon” (short for Pocket Monsters) which hooked gamers and casual fans 20 years ago and spawned games in multiple formats, a TV show and movies.
The game uses the GPS in a player’s smartphone to place them on an actual map of the city they’re in and has them physically walk around the area to try and find “Pokémon” characters to “catch.”
Multiple Dickinson attractions — such as The Brew coffee shop, the Biesiot Activities Center, most churches and even Walmart — are either “Pokéstops” or “gyms,” which are digital arenas overlaid on the real locations. Players must actually go to these places in order to play the game.
Dickinson law enforcement and DSU security have had a crash course in the game since it debuted earlier this month.
But unlike other cities, where law enforcement have encountered issues with trespassing, Dickinson authorities say they’ve only had a few concerned citizens call in reports of teens and 20-somethings wandering around seemingly aimlessly outside of churches and in parks late at night.
Jack Schulz, director of security at DSU, said on a nice evening, as many as 50 “Pokémon Go” players can be found traversing the campus.
“We haven’t had any issues,” he said. “The only thing we ask them is when they’re driving, don’t be using it, because it’s like texting. Watch what you’re doing.”
Dickinson Police Capt. David Wilkie also urged players to be mindful that someone may be watching them while they’re “hunting” for Pokémon.
“Don’t be surprised if the police show up, because people (in Dickinson) are still a little leery of people doing strange things,” Wilkie said. “In a big city, people are used to seeing people doing weird things. But here in Dickinson, if people are sitting out in front of their house or in front of a business in the middle of the night, they tend to be more on the cautious side than not.”
One thing is for certain though — “Pokémon Go” is doing exactly what it aimed for.
It’s getting gamers off the couch and outside this summer.
DeWitt, a 26-year-old from Gladstone, said she has been playing some version of “Pokémon” since she was a child and owns the first set of “Pokémon” cards. She said she downloaded “Pokémon Go” immediately when she heard it had come out and said enjoys how interactive the game is.
“When you’re little, you’re like, oh I want to be this,” DeWitt said. “Now that it’s out, you’re like, wow, I can actually do this. It’s fun. It’s something to do to pass the time.”
She and Kovash, 19, said they walked from Villard Street to Museum Drive while playing the game Thursday and had more walking to do. Along the way, they met other “Pokémon Go” players.
“There were guys walking in the center of the road,” Kovash said with a laugh. “They’re like, ‘Are you collecting Pokémon? Have you found any?’”
Nathan Jones, a 25-year-old maintenance technician from Dickinson, said there’s a lot of nostalgia in playing the game.
“Growing up as a kid, it’s every little kid’s dream to play ‘Pokémon’ in the real world and now you have the ability to do so,” he said.
Jones said he has been all around Dickinson and even went to Bismarck to play “Pokémon Go.” He and a group of friends are even discussing a trip to Las Vegas in part because of the high volume of Pokéstops along The Strip.
Jones said he’s pleased with how socially interactive the game makes users be, as well as the positivity it brings.
“It gives a good reason to bring people together,” he said. “Most of the time it’s people sharing secrets, or little tips and tricks they’ve learned along the way. There’s a whole ’nother aspect of it.”
Odermann, who is also the head football coach at Trinity High School, called the game “a great opportunity for people to get outside and do some physical activity.”
He also believes the game could bring forth a change in how some video games are played.
“Nintendo, a couple years ago with the Wii, revolutionized gaming,” he said. “This may be another way they’re doing it. You’re not sitting on a couch anymore playing this game. You’re actually out walking around getting some physical exercise.”
NEW ENGLAND — A woman serving life in prison for a 1990 murder of a Dickinson woman died this week at the New England women’s prison, just days after she was denied parole.
Jayta (Christopher) Schmidt, 52, was found unresponsive on Tuesday at the minimum-security Dakota Women’s Correctional and Rehabilitation Center, where she was an inmate.
Schmidt was convicted in 1991 of murdering Dickinson resident Cindy Owen on Feb. 7, 1990. She was serving life in prison and had twice been denied parole, according to court records. The state Parole Board denied her most recent request on Sunday and deferred her next hearing parole until 2031, according to board records.
The North Dakota Highway Patrol stated in a news release that after Schmidt was found, she was airlifted to Bismarck and was pronounced dead at CHI St. Alexius Health. The case remains under investigation by the Highway Patrol, the Bureau of Criminal Investigation and the State Medical Examiner’s Office. The Hettinger County Sheriff’s Office assisted in the case.
Sgt. Chris Messer of the Highway Patrol, an investigator on the case, said he could not confirm how Schmidt died.
Schmidt was 26 years old when she killed Owen, 30, by shooting her three times in the abdominal area with a .44-caliber Ruger magnum, according to court documents.
The murder happened in Owen’s 1979 Plymouth sedan near what then known as Johnston’s Inc., a beverage distributor on 23rd Avenue East. Schmidt then took the car and headed west on Interstate 94 before she was arrested in Golden Valley County.
Owen was once the girlfriend of Schmidt’s brother, William Sandoval.
Her trial and hearings — highlighted by Schmidt’s attitude and the threat of a media blackout — lasted much of 1990 and drew large media attention in western North Dakota leading up to her conviction.
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.”
BELFIELD — The company trying to build an oil refinery just three miles from Theodore Roosevelt National Park in Billings County isn’t slowing down its efforts, even after the Dakota Prairie Refinery sold at a loss earlier this week.
Thomas Johnson, chief operating officer of California-based Meridian Energy Group, said Tuesday’s sale of the Dickinson diesel refinery doesn’t affect his company’s goal of building the Davis Refinery, which would process 55,000 barrels of Bakken crude a day.
“We did economic modeling, what our costs are going to be and concluded that we’re going to make some profits there in the Bakken and the Belfield area,” Johnson said.
Tesoro bought the Dakota Prairie Refinery from MDU Resources Group and Calumet Specialty Products, which broke ground on the refinery in 2013 and opened it in May 2015.
Johnson pointed to the Davis Refinery’s efforts to build a refinery that’ll produce gasoline, jet fuel and ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel as the difference between its plans and the Dakota Prairie Refinery, which processed 20,000 barrels of oil into around 8,000 barrels of diesel fuel a day, along with a set of byproducts.
MDU Resources spent $430 million on the refinery and reported that it lost $7.2 million in its first quarter of operations. The refinery’s construction was plagued by cost overruns and construction delays.
Johnson said he was involved in the building of PetroMax Refining, a 25,000-barrel-a-day refinery in Houston that opened last year, and said Meridian is using a similar business model with the Davis Refinery.
“We were successful last year, so we fully anticipate being successful this time,” Johnson said. “The key is not to get into a situation like Dakota Prairie. It’s unfortunate what happened, but it is a good lesson to learn.”
In an effort to rally community support for the Davis Refinery, Meridian is hosting a public gathering at 5 p.m. Tuesday atop Buck Hill, the highest point in Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s South Unit.
Opponents of the refinery have said it will be clearly visible from Buck Hill, and have used that as ammunition to stop it from being built.
“Basically, we want to give everybody kind of an opportunity to see that the view from Buck Hill towards the refinery,” said Adam Williams, Meridian’s director of corporate communications. “We’re going to have some surveyors out and we’ll be floating several large weather balloons at the exact height as the top of the crude tower from grade. We want to do all we can to give people an opportunity to see what the effects will be, or if there’s any visual line of sight from Buck Hill. My guess is it won’t be too visible from the naked eye.”
The Billings County Commission is scheduled to discuss the Davis Refinery for its third straight monthly meeting at 9 a.m. Wednesday. Williams said Meridian CEO Bill Prentice plans to attend the meeting, along with several other of the company’s key players.