Clayton Louis Lakey scrolls, and girls beckon.
Rather, their sellers do.
Like carnival barkers in an Internet sideshow, they tout their product: young women who will provide companionship. For a price.
"I have girls that are waiting for you to do with as you please," one online ad promises.
Lakey, 34, scrolls through the lurid postings, scores of them offering a break from the tedium and loneliness of his solitary job packing dirt in the Bakken oilfields.
Another ad grabs his attention. "Hot young girls!" it says. "They are experienced and ready to go if you are."
Lakey is ready. With a few clicks, he says he wants a girl. A young girl.
From a distant site, supply negotiates with demand.
"I have a little girl."
"How old is she? Do you have a place to host?"
"13 and yes I have a place to host."
"Can I hook up with her tomorrow when I get off work?"
"Sure, got cash?"
Lakey says he doesn't want to use a condom.
And they talk in text shorthand, buyer and seller, about younger girls.
"What age is ur youngest you have?"
"I have younger, but they're not as experienced as my 13 yo. I got a 10 yo in training but I don't think she's quite ready."
Lakey asks to see a photo, and he discusses paying $5,000 for the 10-year-old girl.
For "it," he says. For owning "it."
He asks how the seller recruits girls to work for him. How do you keep "the product" from running?
He agrees to pay $250 for sex with the 13-year-old.
But when he arrives at the designated tryst stop, he learns the girl doesn't exist, her pimp is a cop, and Lakey is on his way to prison, his twisted yearnings captured in police chat logs and court affidavits.
Over the past six months, Forum News Service has investigated an emerging issue in the Bakken oilfield region of western North Dakota: sex trafficking, including the trafficking of children.
We reviewed hundreds of documents and conducted more than 100 interviews with law enforcement officers, victim service providers, victims rescued from the sex trade and experts who have examined the issue regionally, nationally and internationally.
Our reporting took us from the Dakotas to Washington, D.C., from predators in courtrooms and prostitutes in police cars to top law enforcement agents, high elected officials and victim advocates who once were caught up in "the life" themselves. Our weeklong series begins today.
What we found:
- Sex trafficking can be an incredibly lucrative business, but far more for the traffickers than for the women and girls they exploit. Traffickers near and far have shown themselves eager to supply a booming demand in the "market" that is the Bakken.
- Sex traffickers operating in North Dakota frequently are engaged in drug trafficking as well, and the extent of that trade is growing, along with the severity of the drugs involved.
- Backpage.com, which has replaced Craigslist as the primary Internet prostitution marketplace, daily displays staggering numbers and varieties of sex-for-money ads, especially in pages aimed at growing male-heavy populations in Williston and Minot. But there is disagreement over whether authorities should seek to end the practice, fearing the ads could migrate to sites less easy for police to monitor -- or use to set up stings.
- While many people may see prostitution as a life of choice, advocates and others close to the issue increasingly resist that characterization: Most of the women engaged in prostitution actually are victims, they say, and need to be treated as such. And while North Dakota lawmakers will consider a proposal this year to decriminalize prostitution in the case of minors, advocates insist more change is needed in societal attitudes and authorities' approaches to the problem.
- Due to the nature of trafficking, women and girls caught up in the sex trade often go undetected and unaided until they have arrest records, mangled credit histories and other bruises that make it difficult to escape what they call "the life."
- North Dakota service providers, including staff at domestic violence shelters, report seeing a growing number of women and girls they believe to be victims of trafficking, but the state has no dedicated shelters for trafficking victims and the facilities that offer such services are 500 or more miles from the Oil Patch.
- Law enforcement agencies and victim service providers in western North Dakota, even if inclined to help, are maxed out, struggling to keep up with all the demands of a booming population and the crime that has followed. With the recent drop in oil prices projected to cut into state oil tax revenue, advocates for shelters, more investigators, more mental health and other social service providers may be competing for funds from a diminished pot.
The business of trafficking
As local, state and federal authorities look to ramp up pressure on sex trafficking in the region, the initial arrest and conviction numbers may not seem terribly shocking.
In the past year, federal and state courts in North Dakota have charged seven people with offenses related to sex trafficking or felony facilitating or promoting prostitution. The cases involve allegations in Bismarck, Minot, Williston and Dickinson, including the case of one man who pleaded guilty to enticing women to travel to the "fracking areas" to work as prostitutes and two accused of operating brothels in Oil Patch cities.
More than a dozen men were convicted in the state in 2014 in federal and state courts for seeking to buy sex with underage girls. The sting that resulted in charges against Lakey snared so many prospective johns it had to be shut down early.
Paula Bosh, who has worked as a victim specialist with the FBI in Minot for 11 years, never encountered a human trafficking case until recently. She now estimates she has worked with 12 adult victims of sex trafficking in northwest North Dakota in the past 1½ years.
"They seem to be coming from all over," said Bosh, a lifelong North Dakota resident.
She attributes the increase to a combination of increased activity in the state and a change in attitude about sex trafficking nationally that may contribute to more reporting.
"I think with greater awareness comes greater reporting," Bosh said. "We've just got to be ready for what to do when the reports come in."
The influx of young, unaccompanied men working high-paying oil jobs fuels the market for trafficking in the Bakken, said Siddharth Kara, a Harvard researcher who has traveled the world interviewing victims and traffickers.
The male-female ratio in western North Dakota - two busy Dickinson bars that scan IDs put it at 3-1 last year - exacerbates that demand.
With communities still catching up to the challenges of rapid growth, a general lack of awareness and strained law enforcement resources, the risk of getting caught is diminished.
Another factor complicating the issue: Drug crimes increased 19.5 percent from 2012 to 2013 in North Dakota, and many of the same people trafficking drugs are involved in sex trafficking, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said.
"Everybody used to specialize, and now they're diversifying," Stenehjem said. "They're all tied together."
But the money is certainly there in the sex business, too.
"Traffickers and pimps are already three steps ahead thinking there's an opportunity to make some money," Kara told Forum News Service in a recent interview. Those engaged in human trafficking consider it to be a high-profit, low-risk business, he said.
In his book, "Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery," Kara estimated that North American profits from trafficked sex slaves were $581 million in 2007.
Polaris, a national anti-trafficking organization, does the math: A trafficker who has a "stable" of three women with a quota of $500 a night each, seven days a week, could "earn" more than $500,000 tax-free in a year.
The same staggering numbers also quantify the "trauma experience" suffered by a woman under an ambitious pimp's control. A quota of five customers a night means 1,825 forced sexual encounters a year.
Globally, 4.5 million people are victims of forced sexual exploitation, according to an estimate by the International Labor Organization.
North Dakota under scrutiny
Adults who are coerced or forced into engaging in prostitution through the use of violence, threats, lies or other tactics are considered victims of sex trafficking under federal law. Anyone under age 18 who is involved in commercial sex is considered a victim regardless of whether force, fraud or coercion are involved.
In 2013, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimated that one in seven endangered runaways reported to them was likely a sex trafficking victim.
The issue has attracted more attention in North Dakota lately because of the rapid population growth, especially in young, unattached men with lots of money and limited social opportunities. But it is hardly new.
Kara, considered an authority on human trafficking, said sex slavery has been more present in rural America than many people realize, and anecdotal evidence from western North Dakota prior to the oil boom seems to bear that out.
Heidi Carlson, who was recruited into prostitution as a Minnesota college student, said she traveled a circuit in the 1980s that included the Dakotas, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Nebraska.
"I've always known North Dakota as a spot that's got a lot of trafficking," said Carlson, who has since worked to help trafficking victims in the Twin Cities. "There were no man camps when I was in North Dakota. It was all the community guys."
But the oil boom has put a brighter spotlight on North Dakota and the issue of human trafficking, drawing several rounds of national media attention and a recent visit to Williston by a senior human trafficking adviser for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Polaris sent a staff member from Washington, D.C., to North Dakota last year to provide training sessions. Polaris CEO Bradley Myles said people who track online ads for commercial sex noticed a spike in the Bakken region, and anecdotal reports from victim advocates and nonprofit groups also raised red flags.
People are wondering, Myles said. "Is this a new hotspot for human trafficking, both sex trafficking and labor trafficking, of U.S. citizens and immigrants?"
That concern brought Windie Lazenko to North Dakota.
The victim advocate and sex trafficking survivor traveled to Williston from Florida in the fall of 2013 to survey the area, planning to report back to national groups.
But she stayed in the region and is assisting sexually exploited women and girls more than a year later through her organization, 4her North Dakota.
"I was so overwhelmed and broken over the amount of human trafficking that's going on here," Lazenko said. "There were no resources. There was not one person in the entire state of North Dakota that was working in human trafficking, serving victims or even doing training or education."
It is mouse-click easy now for women and johns to connect. Sites like Backpage.com host the ads, and meetings can be arranged without a woman ever having to be seen soliciting sex.
Backpage.com has as many as 70 commercial sex ads in a typical night for Williston and sometimes 100 or more for Minot.
Minneapolis police Sgt. Grant Snyder, who trains law enforcement officers on human trafficking, was concerned about the potential for trafficking in the Bakken and monitored Backpage ads west of Bismarck for four months. He found that 70 percent of the ads had been posted in a different state the previous week.
"That's shocking," Snyder said. "Nobody else has that issue. Even (Las) Vegas, where there's a high population of transient victims that come and go, they don't have those kind of numbers."
Traffickers often move from city to city to stay off the radar, Michael Osborn, chief of the FBI's Violent Crimes Against Children unit, told Forum News Service in a recent interview.
"Their belief and part of their methodology is if I can hop city to city, I have less opportunity of being identified as a repeat offender in one city," Osborn said.
Some perceive the women on Backpage.com as opportunists moving to the Bakken eagerly to earn big money and that they are engaging in a "victimless crime." Attitudes are shifting, however, as reflected in a recent comment by Tim Purdon, U.S. attorney for North Dakota.
"My belief is that a lot more people involved in prostitution are being forced into it through some form of force, fraud or coercion," Purdon said.
Drugs, alcohol, depression
Clayton Louis Lakey was the first conviction from more than a dozen men arrested in "Operation Vigilant Guardian," a federal sting targeting men in Dickinson and Williston who were seeking to purchase sex with minors.
One still has a plea agreement pending, and one is set to go to trial next year.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Gary Delorme told the judge during Lakey's sentencing that the catch-a-predator operations work, and they can prevent children from being abused in the Bakken.
"The money that's flooding in, the people that are flooding in, there's a problem out there," Delorme said.
But Heather McCord Mitchell, a federal public defender who represented Lakey and met with several of the defendants from the sting, told the judge that the problems arise from more than the money flowing into the Bakken. A majority of the men were having difficult times with nowhere to turn, she said during Lakey's sentencing hearing.
"It's a lot of men who are away from their families, isolated, lonely, many grappling with severe depression," she said. There is considerable alcohol and drug use in the area, and a lack of services, particularly a lack of mental health services, adds to the feeling of isolation, she said.
McCord Mitchell doesn't necessarily think Lakey or the other men are predators and noted that many had lived mostly law-abiding lives.
"People do incredibly stupid things when they're suffering from depression and they're isolated and they have no support systems," she said.
Bill Schmidt, another federal public defender who represented some of the defendants from the sting, argued for a lesser sentence in another case, pointing out that none of the cases involved underage victims. "I think there are far bigger fish to fry in western North Dakota than undercover sting operations," he said.
But U.S. District Judge Daniel Hovland responded that he wishes law enforcement agencies had resources to do more stings to "curtail the chaos the oil boom has created."
"These are troublesome crimes," Hovland said during a court hearing. "We have a problem in this state, and we have to do something about it."
Underage and undetected
It's unclear how many underage girls are being forced into prostitution in North Dakota, but national statistics show that the average age of entry into prostitution is 12 to 14.
Police in Moorhead, Minn., rescued a 13-year-old sex trafficking victim in June after responding to a suspicious ad on Backpage.com. The girl was a runaway from the Twin Cities.
Grand Forks police have encountered two underage sex trafficking victims in the past two years, said Lt. Jim Remer. One case involved a 17-year-old girl, and the trafficker was recently sentenced in a federal case in Minnesota.
Claudine O'Leary, who works with teens who have been trafficked in Milwaukee, said she's identified at least 10 underage victims who were trafficked in North Dakota in the past three years.
And while the trafficking cases prosecuted so far in North Dakota have not involved underage victims, the strong response to stings that advertise underage girls using keywords on Craigslist and Backpage indicate underage victims likely are in the state, Attorney General Stenehjem said.
"If these people are out making the calls and responding to these advertisements thinking there are young girls, it must be because there are some available," Stenehjem said. "Because otherwise the word would get around, there's no point to call, all these ads advertising these young girls are cops, are stings. That's not what's happening."
'I don't know how I could have even did it'
Lakey, the oilfield worker caught up in the November 2013 Dickinson sting, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in May to a charge of coercion and enticement. He was sentenced to five years in prison, followed by 10 years of supervised release. He also must register as a sex offender.
He did not respond to a letter requesting an interview sent to him in prison.
He was legally separated from his wife, he told a federal judge, and had been working in North Dakota for three years, trying to make enough money to get a better place and seek custody of his 5-year-old daughter.
"I was just going through a hard time and lonely," Lakey told the judge.
He said he was earning $5,000 a month doing "solids control" on drilling rigs, drying and storing dirt brought up by drilling. He worked 12-hour days for two weeks, then had two weeks off.
"Well, I was working a real – a one-person job and really didn't have anybody to talk to or anything like that," he said in court. "And I just got bored and doing – looking back at this now, it just -- I don't know how I could have even did it."
But he did. He arranged to pay to have unprotected sex with a 13-year-old girl. And he asked an undercover agent for his "secrets" on how he, too, could recruit a girl.
Rob Fontenot, an investigator with the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation, was involved with the sting.
"What was scary ... was that he would refer to the child as 'it'. As in, 'It's' an object, not a human being. How do you keep 'it' from running away?" Fontenot said.
"As a parent and a cop and a human being … it's shocking to think those people are really out there."