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.