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Crime in the Bakken

As Oil Floods Plains Towns, Crime Pours In

Matthew Staver for The New York Times

Sgt. Daniel Blood making an arrest last month in Watford City, N.D. Since 2005, arrests there have risen more than fivefold.

SIDNEY, Mont. — One cold morning last year, a math teacher jogging through her hometown in eastern Montana was abducted, strangled and buried in a shallow grave. Charged in her death were two drifters from Colorado, drawn to the region by the allure of easy money in the oil fields.

One hundred fifty miles away, in a bustling oil town in North Dakota, a 30-year-old man disappeared one afternoon from the street where he had been putting in water and sewer pipes, leaving behind a lunchbox with his paycheck inside and a family grasping for answers. After months of searching, his mother said she now believes her son is gone, buried somewhere on the high plain.

Stories like these, once rare, have become as common as drilling rigs in rural towns at the heart of one of the nation’s richest oil booms. Crime has soared as thousands of workers and rivers of cash have flowed into towns, straining police departments and shattering residents’ sense of safety.

“It just feels like the modern-day Wild West,” said Sgt. Kylan Klauzer, an investigator in Dickinson, in western North Dakota. The Dickinson police handled 41 violent crimes last year, up from seven only five years ago.

To the police and residents, the violence shows how a modern-day gold rush is transforming the rolling plains and farm towns where people once fretted about a population drain. Today, four-story chain hotels are rising, and small apartments rent for $2,000 a month. Two-lane roads are jammed with tractor-trailers. Fast-food restaurants offer $300 signing bonuses for new employees, and jobs as gas station attendants can pay $50,000 a year. Workers flush with cash are snapping up A.T.V.s, and hotel menus offer crab and artichoke dip and bacon-wrapped dates.

Amid all of that new money, reports of assault and theft have doubled or even tripled, and the police say they are rushing from call to call, grappling with everything from bar brawls and shoplifting to kidnappings and attempted murders. Traffic stops for drunken or reckless driving have skyrocketed; local jails are spilling over with drug suspects.

Last year, a study by officials in Montana and North Dakota found that crime had risen by 32 percent since 2005 in communities at the center of the boom. In Watford City, N.D., where mile-long chains of tractor-trailers stack up at the town’s main traffic light, arrests increased 565 percent during that time. In Roosevelt County in Montana, arrests were up 855 percent, and the sheriff, Freedom Crawford, said his jail was so full that he was ticketing and releasing offenders for minor crimes like disorderly conduct.

“I don’t have nowhere to put them,” Sheriff Crawford said.

Officials say that most of the new arrivals are hard workers who are simply looking for better lives, and that much of the increase in crime has resulted from population growth: Waves of new residents inevitably mean more traffic crashes and calls to 911.

Police and sheriff’s departments are responding by hiring more officers, in part with new tax revenue but often not fast enough to keep pace with their booming populations. In Dickinson, for example, the population has surged to an estimated 25,000 from 16,000 in 2000, with new hotels, condominiums and extended-stay inns being built every week. The city’s police department has 38 officers, but Sergeant Klauzer said it would need to add 12 more to keep up with the growth. Each detective’s caseload has doubled.

Once a month, Sergeant Klauzer receives a phone call from a mother looking for news about her son, Eric Haider, the 30-year-old pipe layer who vanished in May 2012, one of several disappearances in the region. Mr. Haider hated the tiring three-hour commute to his job in Dickinson, but the town’s breakneck growth meant steady work and money to support his daughter, said his mother, Maryellen Suchan.

The family has made buttons and printed fliers with Mr. Haider’s brown-bearded face, and has silk-screened T-shirts with the words “Have You Seen My Son?” The police dug up the streets and searched with dogs. As hopes dimmed, Mr. Haider’s family began asking hunters and oil workers to look out for shallow graves. Not a trace has been found.

“It’s a living nightmare,” Ms. Suchan said. “There isn’t a single day that we don’t think of him, talk of him. I don’t have an end.”

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