Federal officials charge 22 people with conspiracy to sell heroin, other drugs in ND oil patch

Federal authorities unsealed indictments Monday against 22 people charged with conspiracy to sell heroin and other drugs on an Indian reservation in the heart of the North Dakota oil patch.

The first indictment in the investigation, dubbed "Operation Winter's End," was filed in March, but authorities did not make the case public until Monday because of the ongoing investigation.

Investigators say heroin and other drugs were brought to the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, located southeast of Williston within the Bakken oil patch, from other parts of the country.

"The charges filed as a result of Operation Winter's End are a first step to address the increased organized drug distribution activities on the Fort Berthold Reservation and in northwestern North Dakota," U.S. Attorney Timothy Purdon said in a statement. "This indictment will help make both reservation and non-reservation communities in the Bakken oil patch stronger and safer."

Law enforcement officials have said that organized crime and other illegal activity is increasing with the influx of people looking for work in the energy industry. Recent U.S. Census Bureau estimates show that Williston, in the far northwestern corner of the state, is the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the country.

Federal authorities have increased policing efforts in oil country by adding several FBI agents in Minot and Bismarck and a Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms agent in Bismarck.

"The U.S. attorney's office is committed to an anti-organized crime strategy in the oil patch that is built on close cooperation between federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies," Purdon said.

Authorities have said heroin sales in North Dakota are on the increase after a decade of seeing only sporadic cases. Some investigators believe the abuse of prescription painkillers is fueling the market for heroin because it's a cheaper alternative and more readily available.