Prostitution in the oil patch

Notes helped Watford City police develop undercover operations that resulted in the arrest of two men in town, one for prostitution, the other for attempting to buy sex.

WATFORD CITY — Managers of the Roosevelt Inn in Watford City have seen their share of different folks come and go in the Bakken boom. But three people who checked in for four nights a few weeks ago were a different kind of different.

For starters, having two women and a guy sharing one room was a bit unusual. But it’s crowded and fairly expensive out there in the oil patch.

The real difference was that the two women slept all day and headed out at night in full makeup, big shiny hair and short clingy dresses.

It didn’t take a brain like Einstein’s to figure out what might be going on, and a late-night disturbance caused by two guys fighting over who got to go into the room first cleared any lingering doubt.

The Watford City police were contacted, but the cops’ plan to bust the women for prostitution at a bar uptown was foiled when local patrons told the women that plainclothes’ cops were on the premises.

Slade Herfindahl, the city’s police chief, said the women admitted to prostitution, but he didn’t have enough to make a case after getting burned as an undercover cop.

Turned out, one of the women was wanted on a criminal warrant in Illinois. The group was told to leave the hotel and sent back home.

Bethany Devlin and Lindsey Ybarra, hotel managers, say they work hard to run a clean, quiet, respectable facility with no tolerance for property damage and loud parties, much less working girls in the rooms.

“We don’t want a reputation for that,” Devlin said.

It is a fine line between what they might suspect and illegal behavior that affects other guests.

“Just because they dressed skimpy, we can’t call the cops on that,” said Ybarra. In cases where race is an issue, there is some concern that a report would be construed as discrimination, she said.

The suspects had booked a room for four nights and since they left, it’s been quiet in town, at least as far as prostitution goes, and as far as Herfindahl knows.

He and his six officers have been on quite a run. Starting back in October and continuing through February, his department has made nine prostitution arrests and arrested a man for attempting to solicit sex.

They are the first prostitution arrests ever for the county, said deputy State’s Attorney Ariston Johnson. They’re twice as many as were made in October in a joint investigation with the Bureau of Criminal Investigation, a drug task force and Williston police.

“This is a direct result of (Herfindahl’s) efforts to find and arrest them in our county. Without continued enforcement, it will only recur,” Johnson said.

Williams County Sheriff Scott Busching said he knows that’s not the extent of the problem.

“There’s more (activity), but you prioritize. It’s not something we can devote a person to fulltime. It’s a Class B misdemeanor; they bond out and beat you home,” he said.

Farther south in the patch, Stark County Sheriff Clarence Tuhy said his officers have not arrested any prostitutes. “We haven’t gotten any calls; if we do, we’ll sure as heck do an investigation,” he said.

Dickinson Police Department Capt. David Wilkie said his department conducted a sting last year but made no arrests.

He said the department plans to increase work in that area when it fills two vacancies on the force.

Dickinson is usually a stop on the way to Williston, though police have identified some women who come through regularly and a group that travels through, he said

“It is a priority. It’s not just two people hooking up, it’s two people in an illegal activity. It’s not victimless; it affects families, other people and there’s a lot of money involved,” he said.

Herfindahl said his department’s strong arrest record isn’t because Watford City attracts more prostitutes than other oil boom towns; it’s more likely because prostitutes are more visible there.

“It’s a small town, people notice more. We show success so the public is more apt to report to us when they know something’s being done,” he said.

He said the women are here for the same reason everyone else is — work and money.

“They are here for financial opportunity. They hear on CNN Money about the disposable income, the man-to-woman ratio. Some are dancers and say they’re doing this until they can get a stripping spot,” Herfindahl said. “The money is good. One told me she’s made $160,000 a year. They do good business here.”

Prostitution in North Dakota is a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in prison and a $1,000 fine.

All but one Watford City case has been through the McKenzie County court system.

That one, from February, is still pending.

Herfindahl said most worrisome to him is that prostitution is part of other criminal behavior and those he’s arrested either have a history of, or warrants related to, drug traffic or more serious crimes. One of the department’s first prostitution arrests was of a woman who’d done time for murder and had just been arrested in Williston the previous week, he said.

These arrests are not routine for a small, formerly rural department. Some of them leave the guys feeling like they need a shower afterward.

One, in February, was the arrest of a 35-year-old man, whose current address is Williston, who was reported to the department for soliciting sex with the male owner of a local rental property.

An officer contacted the man and arranged a meeting at what the department calls its “set,” an off-site location it uses for drug buys and where supporting and armed officers provide backup and can clandestinely tape and film the transaction.

In this case, the male prostitute came to the location carrying a duffel bag, went into the bathroom and emerged wearing a wig, purple women’s lingerie, black fishnet stockings and sling back high heels.

“He got on his knees on the couch, facing away from me, asking if we were gonna do it. I gave him $300 and said we had a deal,” Herfindahl. At the word “deal,” his two backup officers emerged and the arrest was made. The man pleaded guilty and was fined $500.

“I haven’t seen that before and I hope I don’t again,” he said.

The case that bothers the police chief most of all also involved a man, but this one wasn’t selling sex, he was trying to buy it.

In that case, the man was at the local drive-in in Watford City and engaged a young male waiter in conversation. He left a substantial tip and a written note, “If you would like some extra money, call me,” with a fictitious name and actual cellphone number.

The young man, thinking the offer might be for truck driving or oil field work, called and met the guy at his truck at a nearby gas station.

Within a few minutes, the conversation “got dirty,” and the man said he was willing to pay $150 for sex. The younger man said he was 16 (he wasn’t, but the age added to the potential severity of the contact) and jumped out. He went to the police, who used the note to make their own contact.

Herfindahl, undercover, got the same solicitation. “I arrested that guy,” for two counts of hiring an individual to engage in sexual activity, also a Class B misdemeanor, he said.

He said that case sticks with him as being the most reprehensible.

“Some kid should be able to work at a store in town without some guy soliciting him, but they all bother me. They’re all kind of sad,” he said.

So far, Herfindahl’s are the only prostitution arrests in McKenzie County.

McKenzie County Sheriff Ron Rankin said his officers have looked into three reports of potential prostitution.

One, reportedly involving high school girls, was turned over to Fort Berthold Indian Reservation tribal police because of the jurisdiction. Two others, one at a rural location and one in nearby Alexander, went “poof” when officers tried staking out the location, Rankin said.

“Traffic is still our worst problem here,” the sheriff said.

There are fairly frequent and unsubstantiated rumors of women soliciting from truck to truck when drivers are lined up at disposal wells, both lawmen said.

Both said there isn’t any evidence of a prostitution ring and Herfindahl said none of the cases involved human trafficking, in which the women are under physical or financial duress, or juveniles.

So far, the department hasn’t set up an operation with the intent of busting both the prostitute and her “john,” or customer. Herfindahl said removing one prostitute resolves many potential crimes, while busting the customer is only one crime. He said the department has plans in that area. “Be patient,” he said.

Some of the Watford City cases started with citizens turning over to police the women’s thinly disguised business cards.

The Internet is another way to find out whether prostitutes are in town.

Herfindahl regularly checks a website where women list their working names, phone numbers and communities they’re working out of. This past week, there were none working in Watford City, eight in Williston and three in Minot.

“I think the word’s getting out,” Herfindahl said.

To illustrate how easy it is to make a “date,” he called a number, talked to “Holly,” and set up a plan to call her when he got to the lobby of the Airport International Inn in Williston. Over the speakerphone, she could be heard to say, “It’s $300, for one hour.”

A message left with Holly to be interviewed for this story has not been returned. Others named Veronica, Hailey and Nicole abruptly disconnected calls for interviews.

The Airport International Inn did not respond to two calls for comment.

Reach reporter Lauren Donovan at 220-5511 or lauren@westriv.com.

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