Sex trade follows oil boom into North Dakota

  • Article by: PAM LOUWAGIE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 30, 2014 - 7:15 AM

North Dakota towns are struggling to counter brazen sex trade.

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– 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.

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