Daines hears about drug crimes, lack of resources in Bakken

2014-05-14T20:46:00Z 2014-05-15T11:38:05Z Daines hears about drug crimes, lack of resources in BakkenBy TOM LUTEY tlutey@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

SIDNEY — With drug-related Bakken crime on the rise, law enforcement agents of all levels told the U.S. Rep. Steve Daines they would take whatever help the Republican can muster.

Local, state and federal agents meeting with Daines on Wednesday in Sidney said they cannot keep up with a jump in criminal activity that is also increasingly drug related.

“We are seeing a tremendous explosion in terms of criminal activity, particularly highly organized criminal activity,” said Rich Batterman, county attorney for Fallon County. “In my jurisdiction in Baker, we had two major meth busts, including one of over a half a pound of pure methamphetamine last year.”

Batterman put the crime increase in a regional context, saying organized trafficking of drugs from Billings to the Bakken is damaging communities big and small.

A federal Drug Enforcement Agency representative told the group that the nature of the methamphetamine coming into the area is often 80 to 100 percent pure, levels rarely produced by local dealers and backyard cooks. He said the meth was coming from sophisticated, organized drug rings often rooted in the Mexican drug business.

Daines noted that the region has experienced a 221 percent increase in criminal activity in the past couple years.

There has also been an increase in registered sex offenders. A Roosevelt County official said the number of registered sex offenders there has jumped from less than 70 in 2008 to more than 160.

These are challenging issues for small communities. The struggles of conducting investigations into narcotics and human trafficking are simply too much.

Officials from Sidney, Savage, Baker and surrounding counties said their small departments not only lack manpower for detective work, but are often not fully staffed.

New officers often cannot find housing in the oil boom communities and what they can find is often priced beyond their pay. There’s also the lure of western Montana.

“One of our biggest issues is drug enforcement and it takes so much to organize and run a complicated drug investigation that I can’t do it with my manpower,” said Frank DiFonzo, Sidney’s police chief. “We have enough challenges just maintaining the issues on the streets, but we can’t ignore it either. Drug enforcement is extremely important. Any kind of help we can get, either state assistance or federal assistance, we would welcome here.”

DiFonzo said Montana Attorney General Tim Fox has helped. The Justice Department’s Division of Criminal Investigation has two agents posted in Sidney.

DCI Administrator Bryan Lockerby said he would like to do more, but the cost of drug investigations is increasing.

The Marshals Service said it would work with local law enforcement to capture fugitives in the Bakken. Officials said the oil patch should not be seen as hiding place for people wanted by the federal government. However, resources are also limited for the Marshals.

The federal Drug Enforcement Agency also works the area with agents headquartered in Billings.

The location of the DEA officers was a sticking point for Daines, who wanted to know why the DEA didn’t have agents based in the Bakken.

He likened the current situation to locating a fire department hundreds of miles away from a fire and promised to press the DEA on upping its Bakken resources.

Daines also said he would see what could be done to get federal agencies more involved in criminal investigations that agents often regard as too small, an issue raised by local officials at the meeting.

The congressman, who is also running for Montana’s open senate seat, also said state government needed to be more responsive to the challenges Bakken communities face. He said he would lean on state lawmakers to produce results on Bakken issues.

“The state is running a several-hundred-million-dollar surplus. The Legislature is going to have to take a sober look at what’s going on out here and make sure the resources are allocated properly and quickly.”

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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