Police playing catch up to oil patch crime increases

Despite a nearly-full staff of officers, Williston Police Chief Jim Lokken said law enforcement is still in reactive in the Bakken region.

The Williams County Jail remains overbooked and law enforcement continues to battle the increase in crime brought on from an influx in population.

It's not necessarily the county and city are being plagued with criminals, but the number of people moving into the area has overwhelmed previous capacities.

Williams County Sheriff Scott Busching and Police Chief James Lokken, along with officials from the city and county, region, state and federal levels have tried to strategize a proactive plan to get a better handle on crime, but it's hard to plan when they don't know what to expect.

“You tell me what's going to happen and I'll tell you what we're going to do,” Busching said.

A previous facility was built in 1953, according to an article published in the Williston Herald. The jail had 37 beds and averaged 20 inmates per night in 1999. It was replaced because it didn't meet any federal standards.

The Williams County Jail was built in the late 2000s, Busching said. It 131 beds and held 138 inmates this week. Overflowed population slept in “bullets” or temporary beds.

Law enforcement plans to meet with local government officials later this month to discuss options to expand the jail or construct a new facility.

“I've been out-foxed since we started,” Busching said. “All the planning in the world for the first jail went out the window and it wasn't even close. I'm a little big gun shy now.”

The difficulty in planning rises from the fact that no one really knows how many people reside in the city and county, nor can anyone precisely report how many more people will arrive in the region in the upcoming years.

A 2000 Federal Bureau of Investigation study reported 12,631 people in the county and 26,97 in 2012.

The 2010 U.S. Census reported 22,398 people. But a recent study from North Dakota State University estimated 44,555 people in 2014.

Given the discrepancies, crime rates are often thrown aside as specific population amounts remain undetermined.

Still it's no mystery crime has increased.

“We've got it all. Second and third DUI offenses, drugs, thefts all the way up to homicides and anything in between,” Busching said. “Is my jail full of bad people—no. There are a lot of good guys that made a bad decision.”


Just after bar close on Saturday, March 16, Derrick Spiegel was shot and killed on the sidewalk outside of Heartbreaker's, allegedly by an Idaho man named Jonathan Peter Horvath.

It was a chaotic night in Williston.

Police were already out to a shots fired call on 49th Street West and were tied up on that call as bars were closing, when police are usually stationed near the strip clubs as a deterrence measure.

Call logs from the night showed all officers and deputies responding to the scene after the 911 call, but when it rains, it pours.

“If you've got people shooting a gun off, you send just about everybody you can,” Lokken told the Herald in March.

In less than 24 hours, Williams County was at the site of another murder when Christopher King was stabbed at the Capital Lodge man camp near Tioga, allegedly by his friend Ryan Anderson.

The murder of rancher Jack Sjol and the recent murder where a man was found under a mattress have happened since that March night. Each one has been equally as difficult for police to handle everyday duties.

“That ties up everybody,” Lokken said Friday. “A homicide ties up everybody from multiple agencies to work on these cases. When you get two or three of them in a row ... people start getting burned out. You're working 12-13 hours a day for two, three weeks straight.”

With an all-hands-on-deck approach to every homicide, police are often displaced from their normal duties. A homicide or shooting call can scramble officers and force them to prioritize that call over others, which many residents are not used to yet.

Even after an arrest is made, the job for law enforcement isn't done.

To prove the case and finalize it court, it is up to them to collect the evidence and help the attorneys put the case away.

That adds more hours of work and “50 different directions” officers and deputies need to go to solidify what they have, Police Captain Tom Ladwig added.

With public input and the help of multiple agencies on each homicide, Lokken said the area's solving rate is actually very good.

“We have to work together, otherwise, we can't solve these cases,” he said.


In 2012, the NorthWest Narcotics Task Force reported it had five agents covering Williams County and Williston, among regional areas.

The NWNTF executed 17 search warrants and conducted more than 240 cases that have led to more than 200 felony and misdemeanor arrests with several arrests pending, according to the report. It  confiscated marijuana worth $28,000, about 250 dosage units of controlled prescriptions and more than $85,000 in methamphetamine.

Other drugs seen by the sheriff and police chief in the last several years include cocaine, heroin, ecstasy, steroids and bath salts.

“Anytime lots of money flowing into the region, everyone is going to flock here,” Lokken said.

The task force also reported that meth laboratories are again on the rise.

In the mid 1990s, the city was referred to as “Williston White,” Ladwig said. And in the early stages of the current oil boom, law enforcement busted two or three meth labs per week—finding garbage cans filled with various chemicals used to cook the drug.

The state of North Dakota has done well implementing new laws that limit the availability of several over-the-counter bought ingredients as Ephedrine and Anhydrous ammonia, Ladwig said.


High-profile drug cases have growing in the Bakken

In early July, 22 men and women were arrested and accused of dealing methamphetamine and heroin on the Fort Berthold Reservation, which has seen one of the sharpest increases in the drug trade.

The bust, called Operation Winter's End, was executed again in October, centering on McKenzie County near Watford City. Phase two of the operation caught attention not only for being another large ring, but for Randy Skarda, 52, of Keene, who was allegedly shot an FBI agent during the raid.

Earlier this month, 22 more were arrested near Dickinson as part of Operation Pipe Cleaner, a joint effort between the FBI and North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigations with help from several other agencies.

Purdon said the increase in drug crimes, including many others of less extreme numbers, have brought agencies throughout western North Dakota together to try and slow the trend and influx of hard drug trade.

“There’s no question,” Purdon told the Herald in December. “There has been an increase in organized drug trafficking. With more people, there is more crime. Local law enforcement is doing a great job, but they are in a 100 percent reactive mode right now. We are helping them.”

Purdon has stressed, as did Lokken, that drug trade is a supply and demand business. As money pours into one area, it increases population and increases demand for drugs.

In turn, organized crime will come to the region where the demand is high and money can be easily made, which makes the Bakken an easy target.

“Is there organized crime here? You bet there is,” Lokken told the Herald on Friday. “To what extent, I have absolutely no idea. But we do have the motorcycle gang organized crime here in town. We believe they're bringing in drugs. We believe they're bringing in prostitutes.”


Other crimes are mainly due to “testosterone ignited with alcohol,” Busching said.

County and city reports of DUIs and thefts have nearly doubled since the start of the most recent oil boom.

In 2008, the sheriff's office arrested 15 people for DUI offense compared with the 205 people arrested in 2012.

The police department reported 288 DUI arrests in 2012, Lokken said. Officers have offered “ride home” services on Dec. 31 and are able to impaired drive people to their residencies if not tied up.

Thefts are also on the rise.

Police reported 124 thefts two years ago. copper wire, electronics and purses have been stolen from company sites and from opened vehicles.

The sheriff said arrest figures rose because of three factors: more people, more alcohol and drugs and additional law enforcement that have training in detention and apprehension. Still deputies and officers, along with prosecutors and judges remain in catch-up mode.


“We hope to speed things up so their not sitting in jail awaiting trial,” Busching said of the jail.

County and city officials have also worked to mitigate the increase in crime.

In 2008, the Williams County Commission budgeted the sheriff's office at $1.1 million and corrections at $648,846, according to the auditor's office. In 2014, the county commission increased those budgets to $3.9 million and $2.4 million.

Commissioner Dan Kalil said the goals are to “get out of the reactive mode and get into the proactive mode.”

The county has hired additional officers and more vehicles to accommodate the sheriff's needs, Kalil said.

However, it's been “frustrating” to organize meetings with regional law enforcement to discuss options for the jail, Kalil said.

The Williston City Commission increased the police department budget from $1.472 million in 2007 to $4.8 million in 2014, according to the auditor's office.

“We have a commission that understands the problems,” Lokken said. “They've been on our side.”

Williston Mayor Ward Koeser said the city has helped “ramp up our police force.”

“This is not a crime ridden and crime infested city,” Koeser said. “But I think we've responded [to the growth].”

The local government has hired more law enforcement.

In 2008, the sheriff's office had 15 deputies and the police department had 23 officers. In 2014, city and county commissioners approved additional hiring, which brought the totals to 38 for the county and 45 for the city.

At the jail, Busching counts 27 corrections officers, an increase from the 11 hired in 1999. The extra force is beneficial but the department faces high turnover rates.

The sheriff and police chief are prioritizing calls, having to respond to the most immediate concerns first.

“We're still reactive, not proactive,” Lokken said.

 The expansion of capabilities and ultimately a reworking of plans for the jail relies on local and regional projections for the future.

“Obviously we need more jail space,” Kalil said. “...The chances of hitting it right are going to be so difficult. It's going to be a struggle—look how far off the mark we are for [this] building.”

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