The dark side of the oil boom: Human trafficking in the heartland

In a North Dakota town that was once dying, oil and money are flowing –€“ and bringing big-city problems

Catch more from our “Dirty Power” series.

Gas flares at a North Dakota oil-drilling operation.
A gas flare at a North Dakota oil-drilling operation.
America Tonight

WILLISTON, N.D. — When he took office 20 years ago, Mayor Ward Koeser’s town was struggling. But thanks to a huge influx of oil jobs and money over the past five years, Williston now calls itself Boomtown, USA.

“It’s growing faster than any place else in the country,” the mayor said with a smile. “It’s exciting. It’s amazing what oil can do for you. Black gold.”

The race to extract that black gold from the prairies of North Dakota is evident everywhere around Williston. Oil pump jacks dot nearly every farmer’s field. Stand next to one and you can hear liquid money filling up tanks. Trucks haul it to the nearest train depot, and trains pulling crude rumble through Williston all day and all night. 

Welders Andrew Jolovich (left) and Fabio Soto (center) say they're trying to stay out of trouble while working in Williston, N.D.
Welders Andrew Jolovich, left, and Fabio Soto, center, say they’re trying to stay out of trouble while working in Williston.
America Tonight

By next year, the United States is expected to overtake Saudi Arabia and become the world’s top oil producer. For those at the heart of the boom, it means job security in an uncertain economy. Williston’s unemployment rate is about one-half of 1 percent, and its per capita income is among the highest in the Upper Midwest.

But the boom has been accompanied by some growing pains.

The influx of labor has made rents in this small town the highest in the nation, surpassing San Francisco’s and crowding workers into cramped quarters in RV parks and “man camps.”

Welders Fabio Soto and Andrew Jolovich moved to Williston to make money and are trying to stay out of trouble in this testosterone-soaked town.

“That was one of the troubles,” Soto said, pointing to the alcohol-sensing monitor on his ankle with a laugh. “I ended up getting in a little scrap and going to jail.”

The two now avoid the bar scene. Meanwhile, DUI arrests in Williston are up 15-fold, and drug use is on the rise.

Lana Bonnet, who runs Williston's Family Crisis Shelter, said domestic violence has quadrupled since the oil boom began.
Lana Bonnet, who runs Williston’s Family Crisis Shelter, said domestic violence has quadrupled since the oil boom began.
America Tonight

Farmer Bob Ganaway leases some of his land for oil drilling. Overall, he thinks the oil boom is positive for Williston but has witnessed how it has divided some in the community.

“A lot of people you hear that, ‘You know, I wish it had never happened,’ that the money’s not worth it” he said. “There’s a lot more fighting amongst people here. When you start putting a lot of money out there, then jealousy starts. And pretty soon, it’s neighbor against neighbor.”

Before the boom, the 11-bed Williston Family Crisis Shelter filled up about 50 days a year. Now it’s always at capacity and has been for the past two years.

How much has domestic violence increased since the boom?

“At one point I would say it tripled,” said Lana Bonnet, who runs the shelter. “But now I’m going to say quadrupled. I mean, it’s really crazy.”

Cramped quarters, drugs, alcohol and money are a volatile mix in Williston, she said.

“They get here. They can find jobs but no housing,” she said. “So what are they doing? They are living in their vehicles. They’re living in campers. If you and your wife and two kids, three kids were living in a vehicle — yikes, right?”

Footage from "Boom," a documentary aimed at preparing other oil and gas boomtowns to deal with the human trafficking that often follows in the footsteps of oil discovery, courtesy of iEmpathize
A still from “Boom,” a documentary aimed at preparing oil and gas boomtowns to deal with human trafficking.
courtesy of iEmpathize

That mix of men and money has brought another plague. Undercover footage provided by the anti-trafficking organization iEmpathize hints at a more insidious problem: human sex trafficking.

Windie Jo Lazenko said an influx of money and a highly skewed ratio of men to women has fueled a massive increase in prostitution, often arranged through websites like Backpage.com. And where there is prostitution, she said, there is trafficking.

Lazenko went  to Williston seven months ago to fight the sex trafficking of women and underage girls that she said is a direct result of the oil boom. She has since formed 4her North Dakota to help victims of sex trafficking and exploitation.

“I look for identifying marks like tattoos because a lot of the girls under pimp control are branded … with their pimp’s name,” she said.

A scene inside a Williston strip club.
A scene inside a Williston strip club.
courtesy of iEmpathize

Lazenko was trafficked when she was a girl.

“I started running away at a very young age and wound up turning to a friend for help who was under pimp control,” Lazenko said. “She took me to a party and turned me out to her pimp. And I was sold that night. In and out of sexual exploitation, I started working the strip clubs at a very young age. Definitely experienced some things along the way.”

Since moving to Williston, she said, she has helped 10 trafficked girls escape the sex trade.

“Word’s gotten out now,” she said. “People trust me.”

Lazenko regularly visits prostitution hot spots to build relationships and help with shelter, sympathy, self-defense classes and even a ticket home. She took “America Tonight” on her rounds at night.

“So this right here is a huge area for prostitution and, I would assume, trafficking,” she said, pulling into a Walmart parking lot. “It’s wherever the money is and wherever the men are. And you know, this is where the men have to come. So that just attracts drug activity and prostitution and stuff like that. So it’s just really crazy.”

The next stops were nearby hotels where, Lazenko said, most of the sex trafficking occurs.

“Some of these hotels along this strip actually have floors that are bought out by pimps, and girls are in those rooms, and it operates pretty much like a brothel,” she said, adding that it’s a very dangerous environment for the women. “The girls that are being trafficked here are not from here. If a girl shows any sign of wanting to exit … there are consequences for that.”

Farmer Bob Ganaway tells Christof Putzel that Williston will "probably be a good town again someday."
Farmer Bob Ganaway, right, says Williston will “probably be a good town again someday.”
America Tonight

North Dakota officials admit that women and children are caught up in trafficking. But the victims’ chances of escape are slim. An FBI representative declined to comment, but anti-trafficking advocates say only one FBI agent is assigned to the problem and Williston’s women’s shelters are overflowing. Lazenko hopes that by shining a light on the situation, she can attract more resources to help those who remain trapped in servitude.

North Dakota’s black gold is expected to keeping flowing for decades to come, fueling America’s drive for energy independence. But that boom could continue to bring big-city problems to small towns like Williston.

Asked whether he longs for the days when Williston was just a farming town, Ganaway pauses for a moment.

“Yeah, I guess you do,” he said. “But ... you can never go home, and the only thing that’s ever constant is change. We’ve gone through some real rough times. But we’ll work through this, and Williston will come out, you know, and probably be a good town again someday.”

With editing by Dave Gustafson

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