Dickinson State enters the esports game

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.

The lab is home to DSU’s fledgeling esports program.

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Opportunity of a lifetime: DSU CB Jay Liggins hoping for shot at the NFL

Jay Liggins was 11 years old when he left Memphis, Tenn. He remembers it was a Thursday.

Just four days earlier, his mother had made an abrupt decision to move he and his 10 siblings across the country to escape inner-city violence and find a hometown more suitable for raising a large family.

Of all places, they ended up in Bismarck, N.D., a city one-tenth the size of Memphis in a state none of them had ever been to and knew little about.

“It was such a random decision,” Liggins said.

Yet it was one that became incredibly fateful to Liggins’ future, despite numerous challenges he would end up facing along the way.

Later this month, the former Dickinson State University standout cornerback will likely get an opportunity to be the first Blue Hawk signed by a National Football League team.

“It’s an opportunity of a lifetime,” Liggins said. “It’s something I wanted to do, and the fact that it’s in front of me, I had to grab it.”

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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.

Parts of Southwest N.D. on Cusp of Grain Harvest

Kelly Herberholz made the first cut of this year’s harvest a week ago.

Since then, he and his father, Joe, have slowly been chipping away at their crop throughout central and western Hettinger County. Kelly estimates they have at least 300 acres done and that much of their spring wheat is running between 35 and 45 bushels an acre.

“We need more than that though,” he said with a short laugh.

Southwest North Dakota farmers are on the verge of what appears to be an above-average small grains harvest in a year where prices are well below average.

“There’s some good-looking crop out there. Now if we could just get a price for it,” CHS Southwest Grain General Manager Delane Thom said Friday. “A 50-bushel spring wheat crop is barely a break-even number.”

On Friday, 14 protein spring wheat closed at $3.85 a bushel at the Southwest Grain terminal near Taylor. Milling quality durum was $5.90.

As farmers like Herberholz are quietly chipping away at their spring wheat crop in Hettinger County — where the wheat is furthest along — he and others say and are awaiting higher temperatures this weekend that could turn a crop nearly ready to cut into one that’s falling into the hoppers of combines throughout the area.

“If the sun would come out, I think we’d all go,” Herberholz said.

This weekend — with temperatures forecast in the high 80s and low 90s, with a chance of thunderstorms on Sunday evening — could go a long way toward getting farmers in the field.

Tom Snell, who runs Snell Harvesting of Ellinwood, Kan., has 18 combines in Regent ready to go whenever the wheat is. He said they took a couple of their John Deere harvesters out north of the small town on Friday to try areas for one client.

Snell said he has seen some good crops throughout the Great Plains this summer and while this year’s North Dakota crop isn’t going to be a “bin buster,” he believes it’ll be a good one. And he wants to help get it off the field and into those bins as soon as possible.

“When it’s getting this close we’re no different than a farmer,” Snell said. “As quick as you can, you want to get going.”

Thom said he recently drove through much of southwest North Dakota.

He said crops didn’t fare well along the Highway 12 corridor between Bowman and Lemmon, S.D.

“It’s extremely dry down in that country,” Thom said. “A lot of that crop was rolled up for hay because the hay crop was short. The further north you get of that line, the better it looks.”

He estimates that five major hail events during the summer took out anywhere between 30,000 to 50,000 acres of cropland throughout the area, all the way from Scranton to Glen Ullin and, of course, north to Killdeer, where a devastating storm ripped through the Dunn County city and surrounding countryside on July 10.

Thom said crops north of Interstate 94 are at least three weeks away from being ready to harvest.

“Where it hailed it out, it hailed it out,” he said.

Thom said that in recent weeks, many farmers have been selling year-old wheat at his elevator in what he says is effort to clear storage space.

“There has been a fair amount of old crop movement, of wheat specifically,” he said. “That’s kind of an indicator that there’s got to be a pretty normal crop out there.”

Farmers aren’t the only ones preparing for harvest, however.

Mick Lewton, store manager of West Plains Implement in Dickinson, said his business has done about all it can do to prepare for one of the busiest parts of its year. He said the Case IH ProHarvest support team is also mobilized at the shop.

“It takes a little while to prepare for, but we’re about as good as we’re going to get right now,” Lewton said.

DirecTV Viewers in Western N.D. Still Without ABC Affiliate KMBY

It has been nearly two months and DirecTV customers in western North Dakota are still without local ABC affiliate KBMY.

DirecTV hasn’t been carrying KBMY — which is based in Bismarck — or North Dakota ABC affiliates WDAY in Fargo and WDAZ in Grand Forks since June 1, when contract extension negotiations broke down between the satellite provider and Forum Communications, which owns the three stations as well as The Dickinson Press.

With the blackout about to enter its ninth week, some southwest North Dakota viewers are beginning to express their frustrations.

Dave Holland, a Killdeer businessman who lives in rural Dunn County, said customers are caught in between a power struggle.

“When companies get so large, it’s all about power,” Holland said. “It’s all about controlling the market and the way they do business. The small person, the consumer, is always going to be the loser in these power struggles.”

Holland said his biggest issue with the loss of the channel was during the NBA finals, which aired on ABC in June.

Holland said it took a few calls and some personal negotiating with DirectTV before the satellite provider allowed him to replace the lost KBMY feed with the ABC affiliate feeds from Los Angeles and New York. Still, he has to pay an extra $2.50 a month for those channels and said he didn’t receive a discount in his bill for losing KBMY.

Mari Ossenfort, vice president for broadcasting at Forum Communications and WDAY’s general manager, said DirecTV pays a per-subscriber fee for the rights to broadcast local affiliates of ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and the CW.

She said DirecTV is unwilling to pay the fee Forum Communications is asking for its ABC affiliates.

Ossenfort said while she can’t share the Forum’s asking price because of confidentiality agreements, she did say “the price we are asking is far less than $2.50 a month.”

“DirecTV refuses to pay us a market-based fee for the right to resell our stations’ signals to its subscribers and is insisting on a variety of other oppressive contractual demands that no other distributor of our stations has demanded,” Ossenfort said.

Nolan Dix, the station manager for KNDC-AM radio in Hettinger, is a DirecTV customer and said the world of broadcasting can be fickle — especially when it comes to broadcast rights.

“It’s just frustrating that somebody holds that much power that you flip on a channel and it’s like, ‘Oh wait, I don’t get it?’” he said.

Jill Eckroth said she and her family have had DirecTV since they moved to Flasher in 2006 and have received local channels since about 2010. She said while DirecTV has always provided them with good service — including hooking up their service following a recent move to a new home outside of the small Morton County town — she said the inability to watch some of her favorite TV shows, including summer hit “The Bachelorette,” has been frustrating.

“We can’t get it unless we have an antenna, but it’s not easy to do that either because it’s not always good reception and service,” Eckroth said.

DirecTV was purchased in 2015 by AT&T — one of the largest companies in the world. Since then, the satellite provider has blacked out markets far beyond Bismarck and Fargo because of prolonged contract negotiations.

On July 16, the satellite provider dropped the NBC and CW affiliates in Boston and the Fox affiliate in Miami. Last year, it had a three-month dispute with the ABC affiliate in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Ossenfort said Forum first proposed a new agreement with DirecTV on Jan. 27. The existing agreement expired March 31, but an extension was granted as the two sides negotiated. That extension was terminated June 1, when DirecTV turned off viewers’ access to the channels.

She said the ABC affiliates owned by Forum cover in the entire state of North Dakota, eastern Montana, northwest Minnesota and northern South Dakota, as well as parts of Canada.

“We understand the viewers’ frustration as we are frustrated also,” Ossenfort said. “The demands DirecTV is making exceed those of any other agreement we have with a distributor. We need to be fair to all our distributors. We have commitments that we need to make to our programmers.”

Attempts made via email to contact AT&T DirecTV for this story were not returned.

Federal Commodities Regulator Believes US Oil Industry Can Wait for Prices to Improve

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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.”

Convicted Murderer of Dickinson Woman Dies in New England Prison

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.