Oil boom and a kidnapping alter Montana town

MATTHEW BROWN Associated Press Published:

SIDNEY, Mont. (AP) -- Sidney isn't the first small town in the West to get run over by a gold rush, in this case black gold -- more than 16 million barrels of crude being pumped every month from the massive Bakken oil field beneath eastern Montana and western North Dakota.

But Sidney's new-found prosperity doesn't dull the sting of the recent kidnapping and apparent murder of a local teacher, Sherry Arnold. Authorities allege the 43-year-old Arnold was snatched from a Sidney street by two men among the thousands from across the country descending on the small towns of the Northern Plains in search of a slice of the boom's multi-billion-dollar payoff.

"It's turned this little town upside down," said Ron Whited, Arnold's father, who lives on a ranch 25 miles outside of town. "There's evil in the world, and it just happened to touch down in Sidney, Montana on Jan. 7."

Arnold's disappearance has brought into sharp focus the changes now overwhelming the 5,000 residents of Sidney. And for many it means an abrupt end to the days of unlocked doors and reflexive trust that residents of the self-proclaimed "Sunrise City" say they once enjoyed.

Sidney's past still can be seen in the overall-wearing farmers passing in and out of Johnson Hardware along Main Street, in the smoke that rises from the Sidney Sugars plant at the edge of town during sugar beet season.

But the streets are now jammed with semis, the police chief says he will need up to seven more officers, the hotels are overflowing and the schools stretched to capacity. And it's just begun: The Bakken boom is projected to last another 10 to 20 years with tens of thousands more wells drilled, state regulators say.

"The things we've always taken for granted we can't take for granted anymore. Like Sherry," said lifetime resident Leann Pelvit. The former school bus driver took Arnold to school when she was a student. Three of Pelvit's four children later had Arnold as their math teacher.

Even as the two suspects in the case await trial, Whited and others in this historically agricultural community don't blame the explosive changes wrought by the boom for his daughter's disappearance.

Scores of industry workers joined in the massive search for Arnold that turned up only a single running shoe. A "couple bad apples," as one local farmer put it, do not represent the many newcomers who arrived for well-paying jobs.

Oil production in the Bakken dates back decades but ignited into a boom a few years ago when horizontal drilling techniques coupled with hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," made it easier to pull oil from a geologic formation that holds an estimated 4.3 billion barrels of oil.

Most drilling so far has been in North Dakota, where there were 3,500 wells at the end of 201, with rigs sinking 150 more each month. As oil prices stay above $100 a barrel and production increases, companies are pushing into Sidney and surrounding areas of Richland County, near the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers.

When Gary Hancock arrived in Sidney this week with his daughter's boyfriend, Richard Rayborn, after a marathon 30-hour drive from Magee, Miss., they spent their first night in Hancock's Chevrolet pickup with the engine running to fight off the single-digit temperatures.

They were following Hancock's son-in-law who arrived in the Bakken last year to work for a drilling company. Hancock left behind a wife and two daughters for the opportunity to multiply his wages from his previous job, hauling chickens for the food company Sanderson Farms.

"You'd do good to make $500 a week" at home, Hancock, 47, said through his open window as Rayborn slept in the passenger seat. "Up here, you can make $500 a day."

Many others show up without a jobs hoping to get hired on the spot. That includes the suspects in Arnold's disappearance, 22-year-old Michael Spell and 47-year-old Lester Van Waters Jr., of Parachute, Colo., according to court documents and interviews with Spell's friends and family.

The prosecutor in the case alleges that Spell confessed to grabbing Arnold as she was running along Sidney's "truck route" near the sugar refinery. Spell told investigators Waters choked her to death before the pair buried her body in a field outside Williston, N.D., the epicenter of the boom.

Her body has not been found.

Ron and Sharon Whited still refer to their daughter, who was married with two children, as "bright eyes," a nickname she picked up in elementary school. In her absence, the Whiteds said they've been bolstered by an outpouring of support from friends and the solace offered by the pastor at their church, Trinity Lutheran.

Sidney Schools superintendent Dan Farr, who was trained as a school counselor and worked with Arnold for 13 years, said the continued mystery of her whereabouts has provoked a particular form of grieving called "ambiguous loss" that robs family and friends of closure because there is no body to bury.

For the school district, the loss of a beloved teacher is set against a backdrop of skyrocketing enrollment from workers who moved to Sidney with family in tow. Over the next two to three years, Farr said, Sidney's population could double if proposed new subdivisions, RV parks and "man camps" for workers are built. Student numbers are projected to climb more than 60 percent.

Sidney Mayor Bret Smelser is pushing for more oil revenues to be returned to towns and cities hardest hit by the boom. For now, much of that money goes to counties, which Smelser said denies him of resources for his community.

A glimpse of Sidney's future can be seen in the experience of Williston and surrounding Williams County, N.D., where more than 9,000 beds have been permitted for man camps, sprawling compounds of trailers or mobile homes that companies temporarily erect in open fields for worker housing. Williams County Sheriff Scott Busching said that calls to his department have risen sharply during the last three years, forcing him to double patrol deputies from 10 to 20.

That includes spikes in traffic accidents and aggravated assaults linked to bar fights. In response, many local residents are arming themselves against potential danger. Concealed weapon permit applications in Williams County soared from 156 in 2010 to 550 last year, the sheriff said. Arnold's disappearance has further accelerated the trend, with 126 new applications coming in January alone.

Montana authorities are seeing similar trends emerge. Sidney Police Chief Frank DiFonzo said the added stress on his force has made his officers more reactive than proactive, with little time for once-routine criminal investigations.

DiFonzo, Sidney's chief since 1981, said the increased workload appears to reflect the sheer number of new arrivals, rather than an increase in particular crimes. And though the oil industry is what's bringing those workers, DiFonzo said it would be no different if they were seeking sugar beets or gold.

"I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt that they're coming here to work," he said. "But it's made the residents who live here very nervous."