– The gray-haired man sat at the bar at Applebee’s in a sport coat, nursing a vodka soda on a summer Thursday afternoon. A blonde, middle-aged woman in black leggings, toting zebra-striped luggage, sat down beside him and began to talk.

She scrawled “Ginger” on a bar napkin and a phone number with a Virginia area code. Call it, she told him, and they would know how to find her. A date would be $200. Then she grabbed her bags and sashayed out the door.

The man gripped the napkin and grinned, marveling aloud to others at the bar: “She was a hooker!”

Such is life here in the epicenter of the Bakken oil boom, where a small community flash-flooded with male workers has earned the reputation of a modern-day Wild West.

This once-quiet cow town never had to worry much about big-city problems. But with the oil boom overwhelming everything here the past few years, understaffed local law enforcement has let much of the sex-trade go unchecked, unwilling to pour time into what some view as low-level, victimless offenses, leaders say. The region has been unprepared for the results, with no safe houses specifically to help victims, no services geared toward them and no advocacy groups.

“We still have some education to do,” said Tim Purdon, North Dakota’s U.S. attorney, who said he, too, hadn’t fully grasped the state’s new sex-trafficking problem until late last year. “People aren’t used to seeing this sort of activity.”

Purdon and state leaders are starting to address the problem: sending more law enforcement to the Bakken, forming a task force to come up with a plan of attack.

But for now, “it is so blatant,” said Windie Lazenko, a sex-trafficking survivor-turned-advocate who took it upon herself to move to Williston last year. As the region’s go-to advocate, she sometimes drops everything to drive hours — to Minot and beyond — to meet with possible victims. “You can walk into any bar. It’s going on in the strip clubs. It’s going on in Wal-Mart.”

In plain sight

Even some regular businesses here use sex to sell. One drive-through coffee hut features scantily clad baristas; another lists drinks in bra sizes. Down the highway, a taxi company has fliers featuring silhouettes of dancing women, saying they have “cute girls” and “LOVE Long Trips.”

Nick Ethridge, 22, a day laborer who moved to Williston from Tennessee, said a young woman at a bar asked him to host a party, saying she would “take care of business with all the dudes.” The woman’s pimp sat nearby.

“That’s nuts!” Ethridge said. “I didn’t think it would be that plain and open.”

Jim Klug, a 52-year-old salesman born and raised in Williston, said he was walking home from a local bar one night when two women drove up and propositioned him.

“I’m thinking, ‘Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around?’ ” he joked and shook his head. “The ones that are here aren’t too bashful.”

Offers are flourishing online, too. By 2 p.m. on a recent Tuesday, Backpage.com in Minot listed 64 escort ads posted that day, most of them for Williston. That was only a dozen fewer than were posted at the same time for Minneapolis/St. Paul, which has nearly five times the population of all of North Dakota.

The man who was propositioned at Applebee’s, 67-year-old David Paulseth, said he wasn’t that surprised. He’s been in town frequently doing auditing work from his hometown, about 200 miles east, and has watched the changes. “This is not a small town anymore.”

Easier than ordering pizza

Early on, some law enforcers tried to combat the problem by setting up small prostitution stings.

State court records for the past 10 years show there were almost no prostitution or sex trafficking-related cases in far western North Dakota until 2011, when there were a dozen.

In Watford City, about 45 miles south of Williston, police officer Ryan Chaffee worked on one of those stings and was surprised at how easy it was to find sex for hire, he said.

“It’s easier to get a prostitute than it is ordering pizza,” he said. “They’d come over to whoever’s house or meet up at a truck or whatever.”

But as other criminal activity has thrived, small towns rarely do the stings anymore.

“Those investigations are more time-intensive and, as you can imagine, most of the time we’re running around sticking our finger in the dike trying to keep it from bursting,” said Art Walgren, police chief of Watford City.

Under state law, typical charges for prostitution-related crimes result in meager consequences: Prostitution or soliciting a prostitute is a Class B misdemeanor, with a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail and a $1,500 fine; facilitating or promoting prostitution carries a maximum of five years in jail and $10,000 in fines, but only under certain scenarios.

Law enforcement is moving away from charging those who are selling sex, though, understanding that very little of it is voluntary. Most sex sales are forced or coerced by pimps, national advocates say. A 2009 North Dakota law against human trafficking goes after pimps with harsh consequences: life in prison for trafficking a minor, or up to 20 years for trafficking an adult.

Proving a case against a pimp is much harder than finding a victim, though.

Federal authorities stepped in late last year, setting up a sting by posting an ad online selling sex. Callers confirmed with them later that they were selling an underage girl. Three men responded in Williston. In Dickinson, a town of about 20,000 on the southern edge of the Bakken patch along Interstate 94, authorities arrested 11.

To Purdon, the U.S. attorney, it was shocking.

“That’s 11 dudes who allegedly thought it would be a good idea to spend their weekend using [Backpage] to arrange commercial sex with a 14-year-old girl,” he said. “That was a very sobering moment for me.”

Those 14 cases were charged in federal court.

The number of state cases for prostitution or sex trafficking-related charges in western North Dakota swelled to 23 in 2012 and 40 in 2013, according to court records, which show 20 cases so far this year.

Just this month, Williston police announced their first-ever human trafficking case.

Purdon, state Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and Rep. Kevin Cramer have since emerged as key leaders in combating trafficking, partly by pushing to get more state and federal resources to the oil patch.

They are looking to Minnesota as a model for setting up systems to combat trafficking and help victims, partly by deciding not to prosecute trafficking victims who could testify against pimps and partly by coordinating efforts on investigations, educating the public and serving victims throughout the state.

Stenehjem said he’ll ask the Legislature next year for funding to put two state agents in Williston to focus on sex trafficking of children.

“It’s clear to me that we need to redouble our efforts,” he said.

The FBI has increased staffing in Western North Dakota, too. Two agents are temporarily assigned to the Bakken area, and the FBI has permission to open a four-agent office in Williston, said Jennifer Keenan, assistant special agent in charge. They’ve also added three agents to offices in Minot and Bismarck, both just outside the oil patch.

“I think with the office in Williston, we’ll get a much better handle on it,” Keenan said.

Forging relationships

In the meantime, Lazenko, who has worked as an advocate around the county, is enlisting interest from some church and community groups to try to help.

When she stepped foot on the streets of Williston late last year, she couldn’t believe how blatant it was. “I was so overwhelmed and broken over the amount of human trafficking going on here.”

She saw no services specifically to help victims and decided it was a spiritual calling for her to stay, she said. She now operates 4Her North Dakota out of a small office in Life Church Assembly of God and spends her time speaking to community groups, forging relationships with law enforcement and hitting the streets, hoping to help victims. So far, she has helped 14, she said, taking some home with her until she could find safe spots for them with services out of state. She’s trying to drum up money to build a safe house locally.

On a recent Friday evening, Lazenko maneuvered a pickup through the back streets of Williston. After spending 16 years in the sex trade as a teen and adult, Lazenko, a young-looking 45, carries a street credibility and knows how to spot victims in trouble.

Rounding the corner between a club and the parking lot of a local motel — a known haven for sex deals — she spotted a young girl in hot-pink short shorts and a clingy white tank top lingering near the building’s back door.

Then she spotted two men sitting in the parking lot nearby. They peered at her suspiciously from behind the tinted windows of a sleek new Chrysler 300 with Texas plates.

Pimps, she quickly realized. There’d be no approaching the girl tonight. Instead, she texted a state Bureau of Criminal Investigation agent who she knew and moved on.

“I think the pimps are definitely exploiting the community because it’s vulnerable and they know that,” Lazenko said. “They can come in and pretty much do whatever they want.”

After dark, Lazenko walked into one of Williston’s two strip clubs downtown. She spends many nights here, where men crowd around tables and dancers mingle among them while one seductively swings around a pole on a stage.

Women are sometimes trafficked in strip clubs, Lazenko said. The managers at both clubs know her now, though one club is more amenable to her being there than the other.

She sat at the bar and ordered a drink just to hold, so she could blend in. A few dancers recognized her, and she greeted them with a hug. She refers to them as “my girls.”

“Lacy,” a dancer in skimpy underwear and platform heels, emerged from a crowd of men to say hello. Lazenko made her pitch amid the bar’s thumping music. Was she doing OK, she asked the dancer.

Lazenko handed Lacy her card, hoping to sit down with her and talk more seriously later, away from work. She wanted to learn more about how Lacy got there and whether she had been encouraged to trade sex for money.

“If you ever want to go out for coffee or something … just get away,” Lazenko offered.

Lacy took the card and turned back to mingle among the men.