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.
In a bustling oil town in North Dakota 150 miles away, 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 Sergeant 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
ATVs, and hotel menus offer crab-artichoke dip and bacon-wrapped dates.
Amid all of that new money, reports of assault and theft have doubled or even tripled, and 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 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.
Officials say most of 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.