Crime turns oil boomtown into Wild West

October 26, 2011: 6:46 AM ET

WILLISTON, N.D. (CNNMoney) -- As oil companies pump more and more crude out of the ground and workers from around the country arrive to cash in on the black gold rush, a new wave of crime has taken over the once quiet towns of Northwestern North Dakota.

Within the last few months, a Watford City pharmacy was robbed of $16,000 in narcotics, four people were stabbed at a local strip club in Williston, a semi truck crashed into an RV full of people sleeping and the first prostitution ring in decades was busted.

Last year, the number of criminal incidents reported to the Williston Police Department nearly tripled to 16,495. But that's only a fraction of the lawlessness the police have seen this year.

"The numbers we are seeing for this year will blow these out of the water," said Lieutenant David Belisle.

In a single month this summer, the department received 1,000 calls -- compared to the 4,000 calls it received in the three-year period between 2007 and 2009. This year, 9-1-1 calls to the department have already more than tripled last year's call volume, he said.

America's Biggest Boomtown

Thefts at residences and retailers -- especially jewelers and convenience stores -- have jumped precipitously, with police responding to 40% more burglar alarms last year than the previous year.

Many of the thieves are looking for prescription drugs like Oxycontin -- which are being stolen from residences and drugstores.

Josslyn Finck, the manager of Barrett's pharmacy in nearby Watford City, said someone recently torched the steel door of her pharmacy and stole $16,000 of narcotics in the middle of a power outage. Before this year, small incidents of shoplifting -- like someone pocketing a Chap Stick -- were the only crimes she had encountered.

The break-in at Barrett's was one of a string of similar incidents at pharmacies that began this year, said Detective Lieutenant Mark Hanson, who has worked 34 years as an officer and was born in Williston.

According to the police department, prescription drug abuse and prescription forgery are on the rise and a growing number of oilfield employees are failing their urinalysis tests.

Alcohol-related incidents are also surging. And since oilfield employees work around-the-clock shifts, police have to remain constantly vigilant.

"Our D.U.I.s are ranging throughout all hours of the day, our alcohol-related assaults are ranging throughout the day, our foot pursuits and vehicle pursuits are ranging throughout the day," said detective David Peterson.

Assault and battery incidents in Williston rose 171% to 38 charges last year. Two years ago, there may have been three-to-four violent crimes a week. Now, it's an average of two or three a night.

"Violent crimes in our night clubs, family violence -- all of that has increased," said Peterson. "We get calls from people who are going home at night after the club has closed and they're at an intersection and somebody they don't even know will pull up beside them, maybe make a comment to them, and then physically assault them."

The lack of housing seems to be a huge driver in the uptick in violence, said Peterson.

Locals to big oil: We want our town back!

"What we have here is a lot of people who are working who don't necessarily have their own home to go home to at the end of the day where mom and the kids are at," he said. "I think the tensions, and the stressors, are greater for that person living under those conditions."

Those tensions and stressors have also helped revived an age-old profession: prostitution.

The small towns surrounding the Bakken formation haven't seen prostitution since the last oil boom in the 1980s, said Hanson. But just this month, a prostitution ring of four women was busted through a sting operation by the Williston Police Department, and several other rings are currently being investigated.

"Where there's money and there's men around that are here by themselves -- and men do outnumber the women considerably in the area right now -- that's something that's going to happen," said Hanson. "And I expect more of it."

Reports of rape, which were rarely reported before the boom, now occur once a week in Williston, said Peterson (but he stressed that these are typically rapes conducted by someone who knows the victim).

The police department is struggling to keep up.

Earn $2,000 a night as a boomtown stripper

Last year, the Williston Police Department added five officers, bringing its total ranks to 26. It plans to add another six at the beginning of next year. But bringing in new recruits has been tough.

"It's an explosive growth rate where our administration is doing the best job it possibly can to staff for our needs, but it's a staffing nightmare," said Peterson.

Until the infrastructure catches up and the police force has the bandwidth to take preventive measures instead of simply reacting to the steady flow of criminal reports, it's hard to be optimistic about reducing the amount of crime in the area.

"It's a rat race every day, and the rats sometimes win," said Hanson. "We're almost to the point of being overwhelmed, and a lot of times we are."

Are you living in a boomtown? If you know of an area where jobs are plentiful and high paying, and resources and housing are scarce, e-mail blake.ellis@turner.com for the chance to be included in an upcoming story on CNNMoney. To top of page

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