The browser or device you are using is out of date. It has known security flaws and a limited feature set. You will not see all the features of some websites. Please update your browser. A list of the most popular browsers can be found below.
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.
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.”
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