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Montana, North Dakota battle over FBI agents

By TOM LUTEY/Billings Gazette Ravalli Republic

A Bakken-state fracas has erupted over whether FBI agents stationed in Montana should be moved to North Dakota.

Responding to a 32 percent increase in crime in the Bakken oil country, the Federal Bureau of Investigation last July opened shop in Sidney, which is where U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., contends the agents belong.

North Dakota’s senators, Republican John Hoeven and Democrat Heidi Heitkamp, disagree and want the agents moved to Williston. The two lawmakers wrote FBI Director James B. Comey on Dec. 19 to say the agents were never supposed to be permanently based in “Sydney,” as they spelled it.

“Due to initial space constraints in Williston, these agents were subsequently moved to temporary space in Sydney, Montana until permanent space was secured in Williston,” the senators said. “We have been advised that permanent space has now been secured in Williston.”

Tester made his case for the agents staying put in a Jan. 7 letter to the FBI director. In his letter, Tester said he’s been assured by the FBI that reports of a Williston move are not based on any decision the bureau made.

It was unclear Thursday who started the discussion about relocating the FBI agents. The FBI regional office in Salt Lake told the Gazette it could not, for security reasons, discuss the number of agents in the Bakken, or their whereabouts.

Heitkamp’s staff would not identify the person who assured the senator the FBI relocation was planned from the start.

“Moving agents from Eastern Montana to western North Dakota is not an effective response to our region’s growing crime problems,” Tester said in his letter to Comey.

A five-year stretch of seemingly endless growth in western North Dakota and Eastern Montana has challenged law enforcement officers at all levels on both sides of the state line. Traffic citations are way up.

Roosevelt County Sheriff Freedom Crawford said his deputies wrote two citations in the border town of Bainville in 2008 and 398 tickets in 2012.

There have also been high-profile crimes, the kind previously unheard of in this rural area where neighbors are usually know by name and cars at the curb were not long ago parked unlocked with keys in the ignition.

In 2012, two drifters, drawn to the area by the promise of high-paying oilfield work, allegedly murdered Sidney resident Sherry Arnold and dumped her body northwest North Dakota.

One of the men has pleaded guilty. The other awaits trial. It took law enforcement in both states to crack the case and find Arnold’s body.

Last year, a cross-border drug investigation involving federal, state and local law enforcement netted a dozen people charged with methamphetamine trafficking and weapons crimes.

Crawford’s Roosevelt County in Montana borders Williams County, N.D., where Williston is located. He said cross-border crime is a battle that requires daily cooperation between his deputies and those in Williams County. The issue of where the FBI agents are located seems political, he said.

“Tell them they can put them on the state line and call them MonDak fed agents,” Crawford said. “I don’t care what they call them. Just tell them to come out and help us more.”

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