US Attorney Tim Purdon fights back against an explosion of drugs, prostitution, violence and sex trafficking in western North Dakota
By Chris Hennen
US Attorney Tim Purdon was confirmed to be North Dakota’s chief federal law enforcement officer in August of 2010. Since he took office, we’ve seen a steady stream of headlines showing increased crime in western North Dakota following the exploding population resulting from the oil boom.
High Plains Reader conducted an interview with Purdon to learn more about the scope of the problem and how he’s battling it.
HPR: Can you give us an idea of the increase in crime in the western part of the state over the last few years? What are the numbers?
Tim Purdon: The state of North Dakota Attorney General’s crime report numbers for the last few years do show some increasing in the number of crimes charged in western North Dakota.
We’re seeing the same thing in our office, the number of cases that we’re charging is up. We’ve seen an increase in population in the western part of the state and more people equals more crime. It’s as simple as that. What we’re seeing though is that local law enforcement on the ground, city police chiefs, county sheriffs and their staff, really for the last couple of years, have been working their tails off to try and answer calls. They are running from call to call to call, DUI, bar fight, domestic violence, things of that nature. Their call volumes are through the roof ...
But they are basically in a 100 percent reactive mode so one of the issues that we’ve seen is without local law enforcement being able to engage in some of the previous proactive police work that they’ve done because of the volume of calls they are chasing, is that in addition to street crimes being up, things like aggravated assaults being up and things of that nature, we’re also starting to see organized crime move into the area.
Organized crime is criminal enterprises that come together to make money off of criminal activity: selling drugs, prostitution, things of that nature and those sorts of crimes end up being prosecuted a lot of the times in federal court. We’ve seen an increase in those types of crimes in my office in Bismarck.
In 2009, we prosecuted approximately 125 defendants in the western part of the state in federal court. In 2012, that number went up to around 255. And last year, calendar year 2013, that number was around 335. So the number of federal cases is way up and that’s due primarily to an increase in the number of multi defendant drug conspiracy cases that we’ve indicted in the last couple of years.
HPR: Are these types of crimes more severe, are they more violent?
Purdon: When we see organized crime move into the area, organized drug trafficking groups, the concern always is not just they are peddling new drugs like heroin, which we’ve seen, or that they are peddling increased weights of methamphetamine, which we’ve seen. The concern that I have is that the folks associated at higher level of drug dealing (and) violence is part and parcel of their business plan. And so yes we are seeing that as an increased risk.
My office recently is in the process of concluding an investigation into a drug trafficking group that was operating out of Williston calling them the Butler Dahl Crew. Some of those folks in that drug trafficking organization were involved in a very violent kidnapping where they severely assaulted another member of the group, tased him, beat him, used razors on him and put him into a car that they lined with plastic and drove him across the border into Montana where they left him for dead basically. Incredibly violent episode, as violent as I’ve seen in the 20 years that I’ve been working in the federal criminal justice system.
We were able, working with Williston authorities, state BCI and the FBI to indict 7 or 8 folks in that drug trafficking cell and get convictions on all those folks for various crimes. But that’s the sort of thing that concerns me, that sort of a drug trafficking organization moving into a place like Williston and setting up shop, that what we’re battling against with our federal partners here in the US Attorney’s office.
HPR: How much of this is a direct result of the oil boom? You talked about how there’s increases in population and dollars to these communities and that obviously comes with it but it is kind of directly related to the oil boom, can you disconnect the two?
Purdon: I think it’s as simple as two factors that are driving this. More people equals more crime no. 1. And then also organized crime is going to follow the demand. Certainly when you see the amount of increase in the type of drugs we’re dealing with in the western part of the state, my conclusion is there appears to have been an increase in the demand for that sort of thing.
Another example is on the idea of prostitution and human trafficking. We conducted operations in Williston and Dickinson late last year that lead to the arrest of three individuals in Williston and eleven in Dickinson who are charged with attempted sex trafficking of minors. They were folks who answered ads on the internet looking to have sex with a minor that was being trafficked by someone else. Obviously that served to a sex trafficking of minors exists in places like Dickinson and Williston to the tune of 14 people arrested in those two communities late last year.
So I think that you are seeing two things driving this. More people equals more crime. And there’s an increased demand that’s come along for drugs, prostitution and things of that nature. Now I am not attributing that to the specific fact that there are oil workers here. It’s just more people, more money, you are going to see more demand for that sort of thing. It doesn’t matter if they are oil workers or people responding to a gold rush or any other sort of high intensity, high population growth, high economic opportunity area.
HPR: How proactive is the oil industry in helping you combat it? Specifically, I know they are supposed to be drug testing workers, are you finding that they are doing that or are they cutting corners with the tremendous need for labor?
Purdon: In my experience, the top companies operating in the oil patch, the large Fortune 500 companies, they have pretty good standards in place, pretty good safeguards in place and they drug test and that’s helpful.
But there are a lot of other folks operating in the oil patch, subcontractors and subcontractors of subcontractors and so that’s a concern. I saw that recently a couple of weeks ago in eastern Montana, there was a presentation that was put on by the oil industry and they brought a consultant in to talk about the challenges that companies are facing and he identified one of the largest challenges is employees and so that was the industry talking about itself in that regard. So I think the companies are concerned too. Obviously, they don’t want to employ folks that are driving water trucks or oil trucks while they are under the influence of narcotics … but it’s a very tight job market and we’re open to doing more with the companies.
I’ve approached some companies in the past about working with us to make sure that any sex offenders that are working with them are properly registered and we’d like to work more with the industry in regards to situations like that as well.
HPR: What effect do you think this is having on the way of life in North Dakota? When you think of western North Dakota, traditionally, lots of prostitution and drugs doesn’t come to mind. How has this changed the region?
Purdon: I think that’s very concerning to me. I used to hunt in the Watford City area, hunt pheasants. I can remember walking in CRP land close to Watford City and hunting pheasants close enough that I could see the water tower in Watford City and all of that land that I used to hunt is now, that’s all man camps.
And Watford City, which used to be a sleepy little community that was a place that was really a neat place that I liked to go and spend some time in the outdoors and hunting and meeting the folks up there, that’s changed. And so that’s just for me as an outsider, a person from Bismarck. I wonder what it must be like to be a member of the PTA in Watford City and to be concerned about your kids and a longtime business owner in Watford City watching your community change.
I am concerned about what it’s doing to our communities and we need to make sure that our hometowns remain places that people want to not just work but want to live and raise their families as well. I mean our hometowns, Watford City, New Town, Williston, Dickinson, they are developing some big city crime problems and we have to work together that they remain places that people want to raise their kids.
HPR: Are you winning? Do you feel you are making a dent? And can you keep up with the increases?
Purdon: The folks in my office are doing incredible work. I couldn’t be prouder of the lawyers and the support staff in my office who are dealing with an increase in the number of cases we’re doing. Like I said, well over 100 percent in three or four years, that’s amazing. Those folks are heroes.
Are we winning? I tell you what, we’re fighting the fight of our lives here. When you look at the cases we’ve taken down, Operation Winter’s End off of the Fort Berthold Reservation, the Butler Dahl crew out of Williston, Operation Pipe Cleaner again the 14 attempted sex trafficking of minors.
We are in this fight every day up to our neck and our goal is give as good as we get. Long term, we need to make sure that we have proper resources, federal law enforcement, state and local law enforcement, enough prosecutors in federal court and in state court to do these cases. But we’re doing everything we can to win this fight. As we talked about earlier, I don’t think there’s anything less at stake than our way of life in some of our hometowns.
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