North Dakota Oil Boom Attracts Traffickers

North Dakota’s Oil Boom Attracts Traffickers

Producing Oil Well in North Dakota

There’s an oil boom taking place in North Dakota.

The Bakken oil fields region has been a blessing for the plains states in a lot of ways. Since 2010, over 8,000 wells have been drilled, and over $4 billion in taxes on oil have been collected. Money has flooded universities, charities, hospitals, and museums.

It’s brought thousands of jobs to the area. In fact, there is so much work that North Dakota actually has to campaign to attract workers.

We’re talking about a lot of men suddenly flooding the area. The oil companies often build housing communities, with cheap barracks buildings or trailers, known as “man camps.”

It’s all happened very fast. The workers don’t always have places to stay (so the man camps are a good idea). The long-time locals aren’t really thrilled about the tens of thousands of workers who’ve arrived in their towns. The local small-town police force wasn’t really equipped to deal with all of this.

Maybe that’s why they’re not sure what to do about the rise of human trafficking in the area.

Police in the town of Williston only recently arrested their first human trafficker, 38-year-old Keith Graves. On first arriving in North Dakota, Graves stayed in a local church—the church and its parking lot were opened to workers by its pastor.

According to State’s Attorney Seymour Jordan, Graves victimized three women. At least one was forced to give Graves oral sex. He raped another while she was unconscious, and he “caused an unknown substance believed to be narcotics to be injected” into one of them.

He’s charged with:

  • Human trafficking
  • Promoting prostitution
  • Gross sexual imposition
  • Terrorizing
  • Possessing drug paraphernalia
  • Possessing a controlled substance
  • Reckless endangerment
  • Felonius restraint
  • Simple assault

He may have used a gun during his attack on the women.

You’ll be able to see more about Keith Graves, and the entire oil boom situation, in the documentary The Overnighters—which won the Special Jury Prize in 2013 at the Sundance Film Festival. It’s expected to be more widely available later in 2014, so if you can’t find it anywhere to watch, make a note and check again in a month or so. Graves is actually one of the film’s main subjects, and we’ll get to follow his story as he finds lodging at the church and then—after a local paper published that some of the “campers” were registered sex offenders—as a guest in the pastor’s home.

In 1999, Graves was convicted in California of lewd acts with a child under 14 years old.

Though this is the first human trafficking case being prosecuted in Williston, it’s far from the first instance of trafficking the town has seen.

In an NPR report published in February, Tiffany Aho, who runs a local cleaning service, says she never under any circumstances sends one girl out for a job. They always go in pairs or small groups. She even says that sometimes people ask if she offers other services than cleaning. (Hint: they mean sex.)

Trafficking also happens in local bars and restaurants—women wearing next to nothing come in and don’t come back out until they have a “date.” (This is a common form of trafficking in different areas across the country. Pimps send in girls and wait for them to come out with a john. After a sex act happens and payment is made, the pimps send the girls into a different establishment, and on it goes through the night.)

It’s like a modern gold rush, and with the influx of money and people, comes more opportunity for organized crime.

Local law enforcement is trying to step up their game. The attorney general of North Dakota has joined his voice to many others asking Congress for more funds to stop human trafficking. But it’s a lot to learn in a short span of time. Meanwhile, North Dakota and the plains states have earned a big place on the human trafficking circuit in the country.





L. Marrick is a fiction writer and freelance copywriter. 50% of proceeds from her book Working Girl, a memoir of her time working for a professional escort, go to sex trafficking non-profits. She waxes poetic about swords and the Renaissance Faire at her author blog. She looks all professional-like at her copywriting site. You can connect with her on Facebook and Twitter @LMarrick.

© L. Marrick 2014. The content of this article, except for quoted or linked source materials, is protected by copyright. Please contact the author at the above links to request usage.

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