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

Western North Dakota energy service leaders, legislators optimistic after oil conference

BISMARCK — As the price of oil hovered around $50 a barrel last week, many western North Dakota oilfield and energy service companies turned to the Williston Basin Petroleum Conference to try to get a feel for where their industry is headed.

Most said they now feel better about the future of their businesses, as do state legislative leaders.

“What stood out to me was really the positivity,” said Matthew R. Kostelecky, president of B. J. Kadrmas, a Dickinson oilfield service company. “I really thought we’d be coming here with a lot of doom and gloom, obviously. But after listening to a lot of these CEOs and important people in business, it really just seems like this is the time to be efficient, smart, creative, kind of weather the storm, and it’s all going to come back.”

The past two years have been the 37-year-old Kostelecky’s first oil price downturn. He took over the business midway through the boom, only to watch work slow after a couple years. He paid close attention to what Whiting CEO Jim Volker and ConocoPhillips Lower 48 President Don Hrap said when they spoke at the conference.

“The attitude is that ultimately there’s a positive outlook for the future, but I think this is a new normal,” Kostelecky said. “For my generation, this is the first time that we’ve seen this. So it’s new to us, but the industry veterans, they’ve been there, they’ve done that. It’s just like anything else. You have to get past these difficult times.”

State Sen. Kelly Armstrong, R-Dickinson, said he felt conference attendees left invigorated by Thursday speeches from Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and former college football coach Lou Holtz.

He said Trump’s energy platform resonated with the industry folks in the building, and tied into themes he heard throughout the week.

“We need consistent, reasonable regulation that protects the environment while allowing people to do business,” said Armstrong, the NDGOP chairman and son of Dickinson oilman Mike Armstrong. “All they want is tax certainty and regulatory certainty. That’s what they want. Especially for some of these tertiary things for the oil industry.”

Along with an industry push for better regulations, innovation at the wellhead and the future of value-added petroleum byproducts and industries were focused on throughout the week.

North Dakota Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, a Dickinson Republican, sat through multiple sessions, listening to everything from the future of natural gas liquids to industry price predictions. He said he feels that while recovery may time some time, “things are looking up for the industry.”

“I heard this: $65 oil is the new $100 oil because they’ve now got so many efficiencies,” Wardner said. “Technology is moving forward in allowing the industry to get more oil out of the rock.”

Paul Steffes, CEO of Dickinson-based Steffes Corp., said many industry leaders anticipate gradual uptick in work. Hearing that, he’s a more enthusiastic about business prospects.

Steffes Corp. manufactures equipment used at the wellhead during the extraction process, most notably its engineered flare systems that have decreased the amount of natural gas flared throughout the Bakken.

Steffes said he spoke with several people who said their companies will need more equipment to support their drilled but uncompleted wells (DUCs) once they’re put into production.

“It certainly has a possibility that we could be spiked and be much busier than we have ever planned we were going to be, as soon as they finish these DUCs,” he said. “It is possible that we’ll be busier than we’ve ever been. That is kind of a scary thing.”

KC Homiston, the co-owner and president of Highlands Engineering in Dickinson, said he’s accepted the oil industry’s “new normal.”

The oilfield aspects of Highlands’ business have declined during the slowdown because, as a civil engineering and land surveying firm, they service companies who put up rigs. There are less than 30 rigs in North Dakota today. Throughout much of 2014, there were more than 190 rigs.

“That’s the bread and butter of what we do for them,” Homiston said. “A lot of our work is dependent on the number of rigs that were in play.”

Homiston said he thought the conference had “less buzz” and fewer people compared to the one he attended in May 2014, when the price of a barrel of oil was around $109 and there were 191 drilling rigs in the state. Still, he’s more optimistic about the industry than he has been.

“You talk to people, I think they still have a smile on their face and they think the long-term optimistic conversation is still there,” he said.

Homiston said he anticipates a slow uptick in business once DUCs starting going into production.

Referencing speeches given by from MBI Energy Services CEO Jim Arthaud and other industry leaders, Homiston said the overarching message from the conference was simple.

“Hang in there. It’s coming back.”

Past year proof of life’s uncertainties

The only thing certain in this life is uncertainty.

Never was that more true than in southwest North Dakota in 2015.

We came into the year nervous about the state of the energy industry here as oil prices steadily dropped.

The commodity that had sparked so much growth, development and excitement in our little corner of the world all of a sudden wasn’t having such a great impact. Instead, everything seemed to hit pause, and oil companies began shuttering operations, taking down rigs and cutting workers by the dozen.

We now go into 2016 knowing it’s unlikely that the oil industry will soon return to the boom times that sparked and sustained our growth.

Continue reading “Past year proof of life’s uncertainties”

Year of change in Oil Patch: City leaders move forward after unexpected crude price declines in 2015

An oil well pumps on the outskirts of northwest Watford City on Oct. 14. Despite the decline in oil prices, a hectic way of life continues in many Oil Patch cities, though some city leaders say 2015 brought many changes
An oil well pumps on the outskirts of northwest Watford City on Oct. 14. Despite the decline in oil prices, a hectic way of life continues in many Oil Patch cities, though some city leaders say 2015 brought many changes

Leaders in western North Dakota’s Oil Patch cities say life didn’t change as abruptly as many expected it to in 2015 as crude prices bottomed out, oil rigs disappeared from the landscape, and oilfield workers packed up and left the area in droves.

As traffic slowed, crew camps closed and apartments emptied, Williston, Dickinson and Watford City continued to build infrastructure and work on long-term projects while keeping a close eye on the industry for even the slightest changes.

“As a city, we haven’t had a chance to take a breath yet,” Williston Mayor Howard Klug said. “We had $100 million worth of projects going on. We’re finally getting them all buttoned up.”

In McKenzie County, which produces more oil than any county in the state, Watford City Mayor Brent Sanford said “it’s really business as usual.” But, he said, challenges are neverending, despite the creation of what city and county leaders believe is a long-term industry through both oil and natural gas production jobs.

“People are still busy,” he said. “There’s not a lot of job loss in Watford City, comparatively, and there are still job openings. There are still employers who are still trying to figure out plans for hiring the right amount of employees and the right employees.”

Dickinson, meanwhile, has fallen back on its manufacturing industry to soften the blow of massive oilfield job loss after what City Administrator Shawn Kessel said after the city experienced multiple years of 10 percent growth.

“I think people really have to look the whole thing in perspective. … That stuff is really not sustainable in the long term,” he said. “What the downturn has done has allowed our manufacturers to take advantage of the economy. They had a hard time expanding because of such a low unemployment rate. They couldn’t find employees. Now they can. Rather than having expansions happen in other communities, they can now look at Dickinson again. I think that’s great. I’m really glad to see that. It further diversifies our economy. It makes us more resilient in managing the back side of the boom.”

Continue reading “Year of change in Oil Patch: City leaders move forward after unexpected crude price declines in 2015”

Home prices fall in Dickinson, but not much

Buying a home in Dickinson is cheaper and less stressful than it was only a year ago, two of the city’s top Realtors said Friday.

Though the oil industry slowdown around Dickinson has led to lower average sale prices and more homes in the city being listed for sale, the overall residential housing market has remained strong and may be beginning to stabilize.

“They (prices) have definitely softened and buyers are now more cautious, so there’s more on the market,” said Ninetta Wandler, a longtime Dickinson Realtor. “But they’re not forced to buy yesterday. Before, if you had three houses to look at, you were lucky — and you didn’t have time to think about it.”

Compared to last year, there’s much more time for prospective homebuyers to think about a home purchase and to negotiate the price.

The average year-to-date sale price for residential property has fallen nearly 10 percent — from about $294,000 to $266,000 — according to the Badlands Board of Realtors’ market summary report for June.

Still, more than 84 percent of active listings last month were for homes priced above $200,000 — a decrease of only about 3 percent from last year — while more than half of the homes on the market at the end of June were listed between $250,000 to $400,000.

Don Paulson is trying to sell one of those homes in north Dickinson.

“I just want to downsize,” he said.

He may not have to wait long to do so.
Continue reading “Home prices fall in Dickinson, but not much”

The boom’s ‘epicenter:’ Oil Patch hub Watford City adjusts to burgeoning population, financial questions

A 4 p.m. traffic snarl along Highway 85 in south Watford City like this one on Feb. 13 is a typical sight in the town that went from 1,744 to more than 7,500 since 2010.

WATFORD CITY — There are days, Brent Sanford said, when he struggles to wrap his head around everything happening in his hometown.

Ten years ago, Sanford returned to Watford City to take over his family’s automotive dealership. He soon found himself on the city council and was elected mayor in 2010 — right as oil and gas exploration in the Bakken shale formation was beginning to put a stranglehold on northwest North Dakota communities.

Today, Sanford and other Watford City leaders are facing challenges few small towns in America ever have to endure. All the while, he said, they’re trying to keep their once-quiet community from becoming just another “dirty oil town.”

The goal, Sanford and other city leaders said, is to keep pace with growth that has gripped Watford City because of the unprecedented oil boom — it enters the construction season with $240 million in infrastructure needs, ranging from streets to schools — while maintaining its appeal as a progressive and welcoming home where people want to put down roots.

But that is more challenging than anyone could have ever imagined.

“Everything is in flux, basically,” Sanford said.

Watford City Mayor Brent Sanford

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Continue reading “The boom’s ‘epicenter:’ Oil Patch hub Watford City adjusts to burgeoning population, financial questions”