BILLINGS – The booming Bakken oil patch that’s given a major boost to U.S. energy production has emerged as a new front in the fight against drug trafficking.
Organized crime rings are popping up in the Northern Plains, with traffickers sensing opportunity in the thousands of men and women lured there by the hope of a big paycheck.
Law-enforcement officers across the region have teamed up to crack down, netting one of their most significant successes this week – four arrests in North Dakota and a dozen in Montana, all but one on drug charges.
Authorities said Friday that more arrests are in the works as they unveiled an interagency partnership to combat crime in the oil patch. But with drug offenses, violence and property crimes on the upswing, they face an uphill climb to reduce the spiking crime rate.
The changes at play in once-quiet prairie communities were demonstrated this week with the shooting of an FBI agent in the small, unincorporated town of Keene, N.D. The agent, who was not seriously injured, was executing a search warrant as part of an oil patch-centered investigation, said U.S. Attorney for North Dakota Tim Purdon.
“More people equals more money equals more crime,” Purdon said, adding the federal shutdown is making the situation worse.
“We’re in this very, very serious fight against organized crime for control of the streets of the oil patch, and I’ve got about half of my employees home on furlough,” he said. “We’re in this fight now with one arm tied behind our back.”
The law enforcement partnership announced Friday, known as Project Safe Bakken, has been at work since last year. Montana Attorney General Tim Fox said it could not be made public until arrests and indictments were made in the cases that were unsealed this week.
Police Chief Frank DiFonzo of Sidney, where a new FBI field office was opened in July, said help from outside agencies was sorely needed. He said his officers were busy simply keeping up with routine police work, and were ill equipped to confront organized crime on their own.
A parallel Bakken-focused effort in North Dakota in July charged 22 people with conspiracy to sell heroin and other drugs on an Indian reservation in the heart of the oil patch. Authorities linked that case to a national drug trafficking ring seeking to make inroads in the Bakken. Purdon said the four arrests this week were part of the same investigation.
In the Montana case, the government alleges that 49-year-old Robert Ferrell Armstrong, aka Dr. Bob, of Moses Lake, Wash., brought in large quantities of methamphetamine from his home state and distributed them in the Bakken and elsewhere in Montana through a network of couriers.
At the time of his arrest, Armstrong was wanted for failing to check in with corrections authorities in Washington state, where he has a history of drug, gun and assault charges, said Washington Corrections spokeswoman Norah West.
Armstrong and several others among the 12 people arrested face federal drug conspiracy charges that carry potential sentences of 10 years to life in prison if they are convicted.
Montana U.S. Attorney Mike Cotter said the arrests should serve as a warning to others: “If you violate the law, agents of Project Safe Bakken will find you wherever you are and hold you accountable,” he said.
The severity of the potential sentences in the case reflects the volume of drugs that the ring allegedly sold. Precise quantities were not detailed in the affidavit.
Armstrong and most of the other defendants pleaded not guilty during initial court appearances. Two defendants have not yet entered pleas.
Armstrong’s public defender, Tony Gallagher, and Cotter said they could not discuss details of the case beyond what was in a batch of indictments unsealed Wednesday.
“Mr. Armstrong has tendered a plea of not guilty, which puts at issue each and every charge,” Gallagher said.
The arrests follow increases in most major crimes since the Bakken boom began about five years ago.
A review of FBI crime reports show violent crime was up 64 percent and property crimes up 63 percent in Montana’s four Bakken counties between 2009 and 2012, the period for which the most complete data was available. Counties elsewhere in the state showed a drop in crime in those years.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Montana Attorney General Fox acknowledged that law enforcement agencies have been forced to play catch-up with dramatic changes in the Bakken that few anticipated a decade ago.
But Fox stressed that the economic benefits from the boom have been substantial. More than 20,000 people have poured into eastern Montana and western North Dakota since oil production began its meteoric rise in 2008. Tens of thousands more are expected in the next several years as the boom continues.
“With the good, comes some bad,” Fox said. “There’s a lot to be done. I’m personally committed to making sure we address the public safety issues.”