WILLISTON, N.D. – The blood-drenched man had survived a brutal attack: Beaten with brass knuckles, shocked with a stun gun, slashed with a razor blade, then dumped 40 miles away in Montana, he staggered to a farmhouse for help. His path eventually led authorities back to a quiet backyard in this oil boom town.
What they uncovered was a large-scale methamphetamine ring that had found a home in a state long known for its slow pace and small-town solitude.
The members of this violent gang were all relative newcomers to Williston. They called themselves "The Family," the feds say, and were holed up in a few campers tucked behind a white-frame house.
Authorities say several "Family" members had abducted and planned to kill one of their own, seeking to enforce their code of silence out of fear he'd spill the group's secrets. They assaulted him in Williston, stuffed him into a car trunk, attacked him again, then left him for dead in a Montana field. He wound up, instead, in a North Dakota hospital, telling the FBI his story.
The result: Seven guilty pleas. Prison sentences of up to 20 years. And the dismantling of a drug trafficking ring that had been selling meth in one of the fastest-growing corners of America.
The oil boom in the Bakken shale fields has touched off an explosion of growth and wealth on this remote wind-swept prairie. Big money is raining down in small towns. Oil rigs light up the night sky. But the bonanza flourishing here has also brought with it a dark side: a growing trade in meth, heroin, cocaine and marijuana, the shadow of sinister cartels and newfound violence.
Small-town police forces have been flooded with service calls. County jails overflow on weekend nights. Drugs and dealers are popping up in all kinds of places:
Heroin is being trafficked on some isolated Indian reservations. Mexican cartels are slowly making inroads in small-town America. And hard-core criminals are transporting drugs from other states, sometimes concealing them in ingenious ways: liquid meth in windshield wiper reservoirs.
"Organized drug dealers are smart," says U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon. "They're good businessmen. They go where the demand is and that's what we're seeing here. ... There's simply a lot of money involved, a lot of money flowing around in those communities."
The Bakken Formation — tens of thousands of square miles of oil-bearing shale under the long, flat prairies of western North Dakota, eastern Montana and part of Canada — was touted as a modern-day Gold Rush. Thousands flocked here, most law-abiding Americans in search of good-paying jobs. But the lure of big money was a guaranteed draw, too, for troublemakers.
Federal prosecutions in the western half of North Dakota nearly tripled — from 126 in 2009 to 336 last year — mostly, Purdon says, because of drug cases involving several people.
In Montana, 70 people have been charged since October in federal drug cases. Last spring, about 10 others, included two reputed members of the notorious Sinaloa cartel, were charged in a drug conspiracy. The two pleaded guilty to distributing at least 80 pounds of meth to local drug dealers within a five-month period; the intended market, the feds say, was the oil patch.
"We have a formidable opponent," says Mike Cotter, U.S. attorney in Montana. "They market it well. They move it well and it's a battle that we have to continue to fight."
With the problems becoming more pronounced, the feds are pouring in additional resources to bolster local police and drug task forces.
Drugs are not new here. Years ago, homegrown meth was a scourge in North Dakota but its supply was sharply reduced by a crackdown on meth labs and legislation that made it harder to buy ingredients.
Meth is still most common, but most of it now originates in Mexico. It's more potent and tends to be found in larger quantities. (In Ward County, about two hours away, meth seizures jumped from $63,200 in 2012 to $404,600 last year, according to the sheriff's office.)
Heroin also is more visible, something that "scares me," says Williams County Sheriff Scott Busching, who deals with a variety of new troubles, including traffic and an overcrowded county jail. He says he'd probably rate the drug problem in his county a 7 on a scale of 10.
Prices are up, too, fueled by demand in an area where lots of young men are flush with cash, far from their families and have little to do in their spare time. Authorities say a gram of meth that might sell for $120 in big cities can cost $200 in Williston.
One more difference: Authorities are seeing more criminals from out of state, some with long rap sheets.
The seven men in the 2012 abduction-drug conspiracy had all come to Williston within two years before their arrests, authorities say. Brian Dahl, also known as Kodiak, had transported meth from Washington, according to documents. Though his felony record should have barred him from owning firearms, he was arrested with 22 weapons.
Jeffrey Jim Butler, also known as Pops, had an assault and drug record. He's serving a 20-year sentence after pleading guilty to kidnapping and conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine.
In another big drug bust, a 24-year-old Bakersfield, Calif., man who was jailed back home on murder, assault and gang charges was among 22 people indicted in January in "Operation Pipe Cleaner." The group is accused of trafficking drugs in the Dickinson area, about 100 miles from Williston.
"It used to be if someone was selling methamphetamine in the area, there probably were six degrees of separation from a Mexican cartel or a motorcycle gang," Purdon says. "Those drugs were passing through a lot of different hands before they ended up on the street. Generally, what we're seeing now is only one or two degrees."
"We're battling our butts off to stay ahead of this," he adds. "Our concern is that ... as people start to compete, the violence will increase. There's nothing less at stake here than our way of life."
Sharon Cohen, a Chicago-based national writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.