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.
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.