WILLISTON — Most people in town never noticed the small film crew that spent several weeks in Williston at the beginning of the summer.
Armed with handheld cameras and drones, the men accompanied sheriff’s deputies, quietly shot footage of local streets and trailer parks, and interviewed a number of masked sources who said they operate, and in some cases prosper, in the area’s oil-stained underbelly.
A teaser to the special reads, “An oil fracking boom and subsequent bust have brought extortion, prostitution, drug dealing and theft to the remote prairie town of Williston, North Dakota.”
The lengthy segment, part of the network’s Underworld, Inc. series, seeks to illustrate those claims through ride-alongs with the Williams County Sheriff’s Office and conversations with the drug-addicted scrap metal thieves “Cowboy” and “Hoo Doo Brown,” “Wild Bill,” a pimp, “Anna Bella,” an independent sex worker, and “Rick,” who boasts of membership in an outlaw motorcycle gang that rakes in hundreds of thousands of dollars through extortion and drug dealing in Williston.
Even though the final product, titled “Fracking Hell,” was aired last week with little fanfare on the National Geographic channel, the show instantly hit a nerve here.
“They should try to make something that shows what Williston is really about. I wouldn’t want to be here if it was really like that, and I sure as hell wouldn’t want to be running a bar if it was like that,” said Ginger Peterson, manager of The Shop, a downtown biker-themed bar that filmmakers sought to use as an example of outlaw motorcycle gang activity here.
Footage shot outside the bar shows three leather-clad men standing on the sidewalk, along with a handful of Williston police officers. As a sheriff’s deputy jumps out of his patrol car, the narrator explains that a fight has broken out.
The deputy approaches, speaks briefly to the men, and turns away, having calmed tensions, the show claims.
An aerial shot shows two men roaring away on cruisers, as the narrator notes that they are headed uptown, presumably with suspicious intentions.
“Trouble involving bikers has a way of spilling down Main Street,” the voice intones.
Inside The Shop on Friday afternoon, the special was the center of conversation.
One man, who can be seen briefly on the show standing in front of the bar, said he remembers when men with cameras rolled up, accompanied by the deputy.
Contrary to the film’s claims, there was no violence that night, and the Williston police officers seen in the shot were there to visit with bar patrons who were outside, not break up a fight.
“They came here just to get a story to make money,” the man said. “They didn’t talk to anybody, they just recorded, and made (expletive) up. Everything (was) slander slander slander.”
As the group watched the scene again on someone’s phone, he walked away.
“That’s all false,” he said.
The group said that the network seemed to come to Williston with an agenda, and didn’t bother to fact check.
“All it was was camera shots,” one person said.
No one there recognized “Rick” a masked man who appears in the show claiming to be a member of an outlaw motorcycle gang that extorts local businesses and runs a thriving methamphetamine manufacturing and dealing operation.
“I got five individuals in town that deal with it (meth) - they pay the money to me,” he says in the show, adding that he brings in $100,000 a month from selling drugs.
Dismissing Rick as someone they don’t know, who rides a motorcycle they don’t recognize, the group expressed anger at the portrayal of the bar and Williston as a whole.
“I feel like they found the absolute worst people. I grew up here, how dare you come into my town and say it’s such a (trashy) place,” said Ashley Oyloe, 26.
Deputy Corey Metzger of the Williams County Sheriff’s Office is featured in the show. He patrols downtown streets, describing an alcohol-fueled culture that leads to violence that sometimes turns deadly.
“Oil in North Dakota has changed life here forever,” he tells the camera crew. “By definition the oil field is a dirty job and it’s brought in a lot of dirty people...there’s not a lot of higher class people in Williston.”
Footage of deputies is interspersed with segments showing several people who claim they make a living by stealing scrap metal, acting as a pimp or selling sex.
“Cowboy” and “Hoo Doo Brown” are seen smoking methamphetamine, “Wild Bill” claims his girls have made up to $90,000 a year as prostitutes in Williston, and “Anna Bella” says five men a day used to pay her for sex, but now it’s down to one or two.
“We’re seeing the bottom of the barrel….it’s a direct effect of the oil field,” Metzger says.
Stephanie Lawrence, 32, a bartender at The Shop, came here from Oregon to work in the oil patch, and objects to stereotyping such workers as dirty and low class.
“I came here for the oil, the boom died, and I decided to stick it out and see if it’s coming back,” she said. “My life was great back home, I came here because I knew how much money could be made here, and I started making that money. I didn’t leave anything terrible.”
“I commend these people, if you want to make your life better and this is where it’s at,” she said. “But if you get in trouble here, that’s you as a person, that’s not Williston.”
Local police, whose faces are blurred on-screen because the department didn’t agree to participate in the filming, say although claims of activity by outlaw motorcycle gangs here can’t be dismissed, investigators are not looking into any reports of extortion, nor is there any evidence of working methamphetamine labs in the Williston area.
Lt. Det. David Peterson of the Williston Police Department questioned the show’s credibility.
“I think any media organization that wanted to go to any town in the United States and find some underground activity to report could do it,” Peterson, a Williston native, said. “What about the thousands of hard-working Americans who moved to Williston and made this their home? I believe this is home, not fracking hell.”
Sgt. Det. Caleb Fry of the Williams County Sheriff’s Office, who is shown in the special patrolling the area outside Williston, said film crews rode along with him in June and July on several different shifts.
In the show, he talks about increasing thefts, particularly of vehicles and copper wire, and the problem’s direct relation to addiction. The point of the project, he said, was to expose the outliers who seem to feed on the effects of the oil industry here.
“It’s a portrayal of the side of Williston that a lot of people don’t see; it was just the portrayal of the bad part,” he said. “There are tons of good people out there, but I don’t think the show was looking for good people. By no means am I bad-mouthing the oil field, there are tons of great people out there, but in our profession we don’t always run into those types of people.”