FORT BERTHOLD INDIAN RESERVATION, N.D. – Tribal police Sgt. Dawn White is racing down a dusty two-lane road — siren blaring, police radio crackling — as she attempts to get to the latest 911 call on a reservation that is a blur of oil rigs and bright-orange gas flares.
“Move! C’mon, get out of the fricking way!” White yells as she hits 102 mph and weaves in and out of a line of slow-moving tractor-trailers that stretches for miles.
In just five years, the Bakken formation in North Dakota has gone from producing about 200,000 barrels to 1.1 million barrels of oil a day, making North Dakota the No. 2 oil-producing state, behind Texas, and luring thousands of workers.
But there is a dark side to the multibillion-dollar boom in the oil fields, which stretch across western North Dakota into Montana and part of Canada. The arrival of highly paid oil workers living in sprawling “man camps” with limited spending opportunities has led to a crime wave – including murders, aggravated assaults, rapes, human trafficking and robberies – fueled by a huge market for illegal drugs, primarily heroin and methamphetamine.
Especially hard-hit are the Indian lands at the heart of the Bakken. Created in 1870 on rolling grasslands along the Missouri River, Fort Berthold was named after a U.S. Army fort and is home to the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation – known as the MHA Nation, or the Three Affiliated Tribes.
‘Like a tidal wave’
“It’s like a tidal wave, it’s unbelievable,” said Diane Johnson, chief judge at the MHA Nation. She said crime has tripled in the past two years and that 90 percent is drug-related. “The drug problem that the oil boom has brought is destroying our reservation.”
Once farmers and traders, the Mandan was the tribe that gave Lewis and Clark safe harbor on their expedition to the Northwest but was decimated in the mid-1830s by smallpox. Over many years, the 12 million acres awarded to the three tribes by treaty in 1851 has been reduced to 1 million.
The U.S. government in 1947 built the Garrison Dam and created Lake Sakakawea, a 479-square-mile body of water that flooded the land of the Three Affiliated Tribes, wiped out much of their farming and ranching economy, and forced most of them to relocate to higher ground on the prairie.
“When the white man said ‘This will be your reservation,’ little did they know those Badlands would now have oil and gas,” MHA Nation Chairman Tex “Red Tipped Arrow” Hall said in an energy company video last year. “Those Badlands were coined because they’re nothing but gully, gumbo and clay. Grass won’t grow, and horses can’t eat and cattle or buffalo can’t hardly eat … but there’s huge oil and gas reserves under those Badlands now.”
The oil boom could potentially bring hundreds of millions of dollars to the tribes, creating the opportunity to build new roads, schools, and badly needed housing and health facilities. But the money is coming with a steep social cost, according to White, her fellow tribal officers and federal officials who are struggling to keep up with the onslaught of drugs and crime.
“We are dealing with stuff we’ve never seen before,” White said after leaving the scene of the latest disturbance fueled by drugs and alcohol. “No one was prepared for this.”
The 20-member tribal police force is short-staffed and losing officers to higher-paying jobs on the oil fields. Sometimes, there are only two tribal officers on duty to cover the whole reservation, including part of the North Dakota Badlands. There is only one substance-abuse treatment center, with room for only nine patients at a time, to help the soaring number of heroin and meth addicts.
Over the summer, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy singled out drug trafficking in the Bakken oil patch as a “burgeoning threat.” Violent crime in North Dakota’s Williston Basin region, which includes the reservation, increased 121 percent from 2005 to 2011. The Bakken is also experiencing a large influx of motorcycle gangs, trying to claim “ownership” of the territory and facilitating prostitution and the drug trade, according to a federal report.
“Up until a few years ago, Fort Berthold was a typical reservation struggling with the typical economic problems that you find in Indian country,” said Timothy Purdon, the U.S. attorney for North Dakota, whose office prosecutes violent crime on the reservation.
“But now, boom – barrels of oil mean barrels of money,” Purdon said. “More money and more people equals more crime. And whether the outsiders came here to work on a rig and decided it would be easier to sell drugs or they came here to sell drugs, it doesn’t make any difference. They’re selling drugs. An unprecedented amount.”
Hall, the longtime chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes, called it the “worst tragedy” on the Fort Berthold reservation in his memory.
On a November afternoon two years ago, an intruder burst into a home in New Town, the largest town on the reservation, and shot and killed a grandmother and three of her grandchildren with a hunting rifle. A fourth grandchild, a 12-year-old boy, survived by hiding under his slain brother’s body and pretending he was dead.
The young man responsible for the killings slit his own throat hours later in a nearby town. He was high on meth, according to federal officials.
On the same day, in an unrelated incident, Sgt. White stopped a motorist who was wanted on an outstanding warrant. As she grabbed the handle of his car door, the driver, who had drugs in the vehicle, took off, dragging her on the ground for half a block and sending her to the hospital with a concussion.
It seemed as though big-city drug violence had arrived like a sudden storm.
Purdon and the FBI teamed up with White and other tribal officers, focusing on a large-scale drug-trafficking ring led by two brothers from Wasco, Calif. – “Happy” and “Oscar” Lopez. In the summer of 2013, in an investigation dubbed Operation Winter’s End, Purdon indicted 22 people, including the Lopez brothers as well as members of the tribes, for dealing heroin and meth on or around Fort Berthold. The drugs came from Mexico through Southern California, officials said.
Since then, Purdon has indicted more than 40 other people who have all pleaded guilty to felony drug charges in the Winter’s End case, with a large amount of the meth and heroin also coming from gangs in Chicago or dealers in Minneapolis.
Investigating crime on Fort Berthold is more difficult than most places because the reservation sits in six different counties each with its own sheriff – some of whom do not have a good relationship with the tribe, according to tribal members. If the suspect and perpetrator are both Native American, the tribal police or the FBI handle the arrest. But if the suspect is not Native American, in most cases the tribal police can detain the suspect but then have to call the sheriff in the county where the crime occurred. Sometimes they have to wait several hours before a deputy arrives to make the arrest. In a murder case, the state or the FBI might be involved.
In the quadruple murder, for example, all four victims were white. But police didn’t immediately know whether the perpetrator was white or Native American, so there was initial confusion among law enforcement officials about who was in charge of the investigation.
“Can you imagine the idea that we didn’t know the race of the shooter, so we didn’t know at first who had jurisdiction over the homicide?” Purdon asked. “That’s not something your typical county sheriff has to deal with.”
The killer was later identified as a 21-year-old Native American.
In the front seat of her cruiser, White, an Army veteran who grew up in Fort Berthold, carries an eagle feather and a photograph of the rodeo-champion grandfather who raised her.
Volk calls her “the eyes and ears of the reservation,” a cop who is able to find anyone. Her fervor to save her people from the ravages of heroin and meth gives White the fortitude to arrest even tribal members she knows well.
“I put the uniform on,” White said, “I have no family. I have no friends.”
Before she sets out on patrol, she lights the end of braided sweet grass, a tradition of the Plains Indians to drive away bad spirits. White, a mother of three, places it on her dashboard for protection.
White also carries a set of pink handcuffs, a personal signature that she says represents “girl power.”
Responding to a call, White pulls up to the reservation’s 4 Bears Casino and Lodge to check on a call about a small child who was left inside a car while her mother went inside to gamble.
Lined up outside the casino’s hotel are four other police cars. They are not the cruisers of officers who have come to investigate the child. They belong to several new recruits who have no place to live.
The housing shortage has forced officers to move with their families into casino hotel rooms until homes are built for them.
Three Affiliated Tribes Police Chief Chad Johnson said he needs at least 50 more officers.
“I get a lot of applicants from all over,” Johnson said. “The first thing they ask is if we have housing available. We’ve been putting them up in the casino, but some of them have families and they don’t want their families living in a casino.”
Johnson, the judge, has the same problem recruiting prosecutors. “We can’t get them to come to the MHA Nation because of the lack of housing and the community is becoming so unsafe,” she said. “It is extremely dangerous to live here now.”
While Fort Berthold needs more police officers, housing for recruits, more tribal prosecutors and judges, and additional drug treatment facilities, some residents say their leaders have made questionable purchases, including a yacht. Just behind the casino on the lake sits a gleaming white 96-foot yacht that the tribe purchased last year to be used for a riverboat gambling operation.
While some federal officials have questioned the tribe’s financial priorities, tribe members have called for an investigation into their leader’s business dealings.
Earlier this year, the seven-member tribal business council led by Hall voted to hire a former U.S. attorney to examine Hall’s private oil and gas business dealings on Fort Berthold – including his relationship with James Henrikson, a man who was arrested on felony weapons charges and was indicted recently on 11 counts, including murder-for-hire of an associate.
Hall, who served as chairman for 12 years, lost his re-election bid the same week. In a statement, he has denied “affiliation with any gangs” and said he is cooperating with federal investigators in the Henrikson case. Another member of the tribal council, Barry Benson, was arrested this year on drug charges.
Federal officials have sent more agents and resources to the Bakken, tripling the number of prosecutions in what Purdon calls a “robust response” to the crime wave.
But, he added, “it’s not for me to talk about what the appropriate response is by the state of North Dakota, or these counties and the tribe.”
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., last month created a task force of North Dakotans to focus on the increase in drug-related crime and human trafficking in the Bakken, including Fort Berthold.
The state “could absolutely do more,” Heitkamp said in an interview, pointing to the need for more mental-health services, drug treatment facilities and drug courts. “We are blessed with a growing economy and the country’s lowest unemployment rate, but there was a 20 percent increase in drug crimes in North Dakota last year,” Heitkamp said. “A better-coordinated response from the state would be helpful. The lack of roads, housing and law enforcement has stretched this small rural reservation to the max.”
Earlier this year at a tribal conference in Bismarck, N.D., which Purdon and Attorney General Eric Holder attended, White was presented with an award for her work trying to eradicate drug trafficking at Fort Berthold. She choked back tears as she walked to the podium, where she dedicated her award to her Native American grandparents who raised her.
She spoke about the time she has spent away from her three children because of her job.
“I sacrifice because this is the only place I’m going to be a cop, the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation,” White said, her voice cracking.
“This is the last of what my people have,” White said. “Our people have survived so many things in history. The methamphetamine use, the heroin use, is just another epidemic like smallpox and boarding schools. And the last of the last are going to have to survive. And I want to be in the front lines because that was my vow – to protect my people.”