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Patrick Springer, Published January 22 2013

US attorney: It's hard to keep up with Oil Patch crime

FARGO – Organized crime involving everything from scrap metal theft to drugs and prostitution is proliferating in North Dakota’s booming Oil Patch, top prosecutors said Tuesday.

Timothy Purdon, the U.S. attorney for North Dakota, said federal law enforcement staffing in the west has in-creased, but agents and their state and local counterparts are straining to keep up.

“I think we’re at a really critical point,” he said. “I’m concerned about places like Watford City, Stanley, New Town.”

The increased population associated with the boom also provides more opportunities for criminal enterprises, he told The Forum Editorial Board.

“That will attract organized crime,” Purdon said. “There’s a lot of money to be made.”

He added: “We certainly have seen a huge uptick in prostitution arrests in northwest North Dakota.”

Wayne Stenehjem, North Dakota’s attorney general, agreed that crime is increasing in the west, including an upswing in organized crime.

Motorcycle gangs are involved in some organized crime in western North Dakota, Stenehjem and Purdon said.

The North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation, which Stenehjem oversees, is proposing three new agents to deal with increased crime in the Oil Patch, including one agent who would specialize in organized crime around the state.

“If we want to nip it in the bud, now is the time to do it,” Stenehjem said in a phone interview. The initial response from state legislators has been favorable, he said.

The BCI has eight agents in western North Dakota, including four in Minot and two each in Williston and Dickinson.

“All of them are swamped,” Stenehjem said. “They have more than they can handle.”

The FBI has five agents in Minot, four in Bismarck and three each in Fargo and Grand Forks, Purdon said.

For the first time, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has an office in Bismarck, and the Department of Homeland Security has added an agent in western North Dakota, he said.

Gov. Jack Dalrymple’s budget proposal calls for 15 more state troopers, most of them to be stationed in the Oil Patch.

Because of the increase in crime, law enforcement officers in western North Dakota find themselves reacting to crime, with little or no time spent in proactive police work, Purdon and Stenehjem said.

“It’s almost entirely reactive,” Stenehjem said. “That’s why I think we need these additional folks.”

Federal prosecutors in North Dakota are coping with record numbers of cases, Purdon said.

Last year the caseload handled by the U.S. attorney’s office in North Dakota increased 47 percent, with a 92 percent increase in drug trafficking cases, including those involving organized crime.

“This growth is unsustainable with 18 lawyers and a shrinking support staff,” Purdon said. A hiring freeze is in effect for the U.S. Department of Justice.

To handle the increased caseload, Purdon has asked two veteran prosecutors in his office to recommend ways of coping, which could mean a decreased focus in certain areas.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522

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