- Associated Press - Monday, April 14, 2014

WILLISTON, N.D. (AP) - The blood-drenched man had survived a brutal attack: Beaten with brass knuckles, shocked with a stun gun, slashed with a razor blade, then dumped 40 miles away in Montana, he staggered to a farmhouse for help. His path eventually led authorities back to a quiet backyard in this oil boom town.

What they uncovered was a large-scale methamphetamine ring that had found a home in a state long known for its small-town solitude, its slow pace and peaceful pastures.

The members of this violent gang were all relative newcomers to Williston. They called themselves “The Family,” the feds say, and were holed up in a few campers tucked behind an innocent-looking, white-frame house. They had plenty of firepower, too: One of the men had an arsenal of 22 weapons.

Authorities say several “Family” members had abducted and planned to kill one of their own, seeking to enforce their code of silence out of fear he’d spill the group’s secrets. They assaulted him in a camper in Williston, stuffed him into a plastic-lined car trunk, then beat him again after he escaped. He was left for dead in a Montana field. He wound up, instead, in a North Dakota hospital, telling the FBI his story.

The result: Seven guilty pleas. Prison sentences of up to 20 years. And the dismantling of a drug trafficking ring that sold meth for more than a year in one of the fastest-growing corners of America.

The oil boom in the Bakken shale fields has touched off an explosion of growth and wealth on this remote wind-swept prairie. Big money is raining down in small towns. Oil rigs light up the night sky. But the bonanza suddenly flourishing here has also brought with it a dark side: a growing trade in meth, heroin, cocaine and marijuana, the shadow of sinister cartels and newfound violence.

Small-town police forces have been struggling to keep pace. In nearby Watford City, for instance, police calls for service have multiplied at a staggering rate - almost 100 times - in a five-year period. County jails overflow on weekend nights. Local sheriffs no longer know every name and face when they stroll down Main Street.

Drugs and dealers are popping up in all kinds of places: Heroin is being trafficked on isolated Indian reservations. Mexican cartels are slowly making inroads in small-town America. And hard-core criminals are bringing drugs in from other states, sometimes concealing them in ingenious ways: liquid meth in windshield wiper reservoirs.

“Organized drug dealers are smart,” says U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon. “They’re good businessmen. They go where the demand is and that’s what we’re seeing here. … There’s simply a lot of money involved, a lot of money flowing around in those communities.”

With the problems becoming more pronounced, the feds are pouring in resources to bolster local police and drug task forces.

“We’re battling our butts off to stay ahead of this,” Purdon says. “Our concern is that this is an open market and as people start to compete, the violence will increase. … There’s nothing less at stake here than our way of life.”

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The oil boom with its gusher of dollars was already under way more than three years ago when Tim Purdon was sworn in as chief federal prosecutor for western North Dakota.

The Bakken Formation - tens of thousands of square miles of oil-bearing shale under the long, flat prairies of western North Dakota, eastern Montana and part of Canada - was touted as a modern-day Gold Rush. Thousands flocked here, most law-abiding Americans in search of good-paying jobs. But the lure of big money was a guaranteed draw, too, for drug dealers and other troublemakers.

As the population skyrocketed, Purdon noticed a seemingly inevitable consequence: more people, more crime.

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