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Saturday, Feb 01 2014 09:15 PM

Booming North Dakota sees crime follow money and Bakersfield may have contributed

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    A view of the Bakken field, provided by the U.S. Geological Service.

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BY THEO DOUGLAS Californian staff writer tdouglas@bakersfield.com

The winning combination of horizontal drilling and the water-injection process known as fracking has helped turn the Bakken oil field into the Sutter's Mill of the frozen North. Rapid, intense exploration of the vast petroleum discovery, and refinement of the high-tech extraction technique that makes it so rewarding, have transformed the North Dakota oil boom into a California gold rush story, writ large.

Unfortunately, as federal and state charges announced earlier this week demonstrate, some of the thousands who have flocked to North Dakota from as far away as Bakersfield are criminals.

Operation Pipe Cleaner, a crime bust revealed Wednesday but months in the making, resulted in state and federal charges against 22 people -- including Spencer Earl Rogers, 24, and Laverne Taylor, 30. Both Rogers and Taylor are listed as having lived in Bakersfield and in Dickinson, North Dakota, a town of nearly 18,000 that's on the southern edge of the Bakken field, 200 miles south of the Canadian border.

Both are convicted felons with criminal records in Kern County -- Taylor's criminal history dates to 2002 -- and both are in custody in California.

FEDERAL CHARGES REVEALED

But in North Dakota, Rogers and Taylor each face one federal count of conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute controlled substances -- in each case, cocaine (probably in the powder form) and crack cocaine. Rogers and Taylor each also face one count of possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime.

In North Dakota, the two each also face two counts of possession of a firearm and ammunition by a convicted felon. Rogers also faces one additional federal charge of possession of firearms by a convicted felon.

Federal authorities won't be seeing him any time soon, however. Rogers was arrested Jan. 14 by Bakersfield police and booked on 12 felonies, including murder and assault with a deadly weapon.

U.S. Attorney Timothy Purdon and his North Dakota counterpart, Stark County State's Attorney Tom Henning, declined to discuss specifics about the charges against Rogers and Taylor, or the circumstances surrounding their alleged crimes.

But both men conceded -- and recent news reports confirm -- that the North Dakota Bakken oil field, where production has reached 1 million barrels a day in about six years, thanks largely to the water-, sand- and chemical-injection process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has taken on some undesirable social characteristics. The Bakken field seems to share, at least in some small ways, a storied, checkered history with places like the Yukon, Beaumont, Texas, Leadville, Colo., and Deadwood, S.D.

CRIME NOT NEW TO THE NORTH

In less than a decade, the Bakken has joined the boy's club of historic places around the globe where young men have made large quantities of money fast and, with few healthy after-work diversions at their disposal, behaved badly. In the days of yore, the chief vices were whiskey, gambling and prostitution. In Bakken, evidence suggests street drugs are another part of the recreational mix.

Locals -- who sometimes refer to the barracks-like housing areas where oil field workers live as "man-camps" instead of the more politically correct "crew camps" -- see tiny towns that are still small even after doubling in size. They see unemployment rates that have plummeted and job openings that go begging for workers -- a happy circumstance less than a decade after the Great Recession. But the influx of money has created this new set of problems.

Operation Pipe Cleaner is, however, not the only recent crime sweep to target the area.

A series of federal indictments unsealed in October revealed federal charges against a dozen people and allegations they were involved in a drug ring that distributed methamphetamine in North Dakota and Montana.

One of the people, Washington state resident Robert Farrell Armstrong, pleaded guilty to possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute earlier this month in Billings, Mont.

AUTHORITIES SEE RISE IN CRIME

The federal and state attorneys behind this North Dakota case are not surprised that crime has quickly followed the discovery of great wealth.

"They're seeing a huge increase in trafficking of all kinds of illegal stuff into the oil fields, where apparently they think the wages are high and the decision-making process of those folks making decisions aren't perhaps as good as they should be," Henning said. "We're seeing evidence of organized gang affiliations. And the stuff that you're exporting from Bakersfield, I'm sure are some elements of that. Whether they're Hell's Angels or whatever motorcycle gang, or whether it's coming from the mob in Chicago, it's gotten far beyond whatever would have been generated locally."

Purdon agreed, noting that in 2009 the U.S. Attorney's office in the western part of North Dakota has seen more than a 100 percent increase in the number of defendants it handles per year.

The number of defendants rose from about 125 in 2009 to 250 in 2012, to 335 in 2013, Purdon said, attributing the rise to an increase in the number of multi-defendant drug conspiracy cases.

He said this, coupled with the fact that illegal drugs coming into North Dakota appear to passing through fewer hands, could reveal disturbing trends.

"It tells us that we're dealing with organized crime in a way that we haven't before. We certainly are concerned about the influence of motorcycle gangs, the influence of Mexican cartels, the influence of street gangs that you'd normally associate with larger population centers," Purdon said. "Our hometowns are developing big-city crime problems."

KERN COUNTY PASTS

In Kern County, Rogers has a criminal record dating to 2008, when he pleaded guilty to one felony count of being accessory to a crime. The following year, Rogers pleaded guilty to one felony county of second-degree burglary. He has no strikes from either conviction, but was arrested earlier this month by Bakersfield police in connection with two other crimes.

Bakersfield Police Department officers arrested Rogers on Jan. 14 in connection with the March 2, 2013, shooting death of Kevin McMahan, at South Real Road and Highway 58, and in connection with a July 28, 2013, shooting in the 500 block of South Brown Street.

He was booked on 12 felony counts ranging from assault with a deadly weapon to first degree murder to participating in a street gang.

Rogers' attorney, David Torres of Bakersfield, was out of the country Friday and unavailable to speak with a reporter.

Walter Goodson, 38, of Bakersfield was also arrested Jan. 14 in connection with McMahan's death and booked on three felony charges of first-degree murder, attempted murder, and participating in a street gang.

Goodson is not charged in Operation Pipe Cleaner.

Taylor was taken into federal custody recently, and it is unclear who will be representing her in court.

DAKOTA LIFE STILL BUCOLIC

Chamber of Commerce officials in Williston, N.D. -- possibly the Bakken's epicenter, about two hours north of Dickinson -- and in Minot, a larger city farther west, are far from unfamiliar with big-city crime. But they say you can get into trouble anywhere, and the reality of their state is that people here still leave their doors unlocked, and will help you if you drop your groceries.

"Have things changed? Yes. Is it the same town it was in 2010 or even the spring of 2011 before the flood? No," said John MacMartin, president of the Area Chamber of Commerce in Minot, which experienced a devastating flood in June 2011. "But do you worry about your kids playing in the streets? No."

Lee Lusht, president of the Williston Area Chamber of Commerce, said the oil boom has been an economic boon, although the town has more than doubled from its population of 14,700 at the 2010 census -- and is growing so fast that even its mayor has trouble keeping track.

"When the story gets out that it's this Wild West crazy town, it scares people. I'm a single woman. I live here and I don't pack heat. But I also don't talk on my cell phone at 11:30 at night when I leave Walmart," Lusht said. "Our major trials and tribulations are not the crime. It's the pace of the growth."

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