Oil boom and a kidnapping alter Montana town

Mar 3, 2012, 5:45 AM

Associated Press

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 about 3,500 producing wells at the end of 2011, 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.”

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

United States News

Andy Hoang, a recent nursing graduate, center, poses with co-workers Lisa Davenport, left, and Just...

Associated Press

A young nurse suffered cardiac arrest while training on the condition. Fellow nurses saved her life

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Andy Hoang eagerly began her first nursing job this year in New Hampshire, with a desire to specialize in cardiac care. She was excited about attending a November practice session on how to respond to someone in cardiac arrest. But as things were getting under way at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, Hoang, […]

2 hours ago

Rory Kennedy, Kerry Kennedy, Joseph P. Kennedy II, and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, left to right, ar...

Associated Press

From Barbie’s unexpected wisdom to dissent among Kennedys, these are the top quotes of 2023

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — From dissent within the Kennedy family to the unexpected wisdom of Barbie, Yale’s 2023 list of notable quotations have something for just about everyone. This year’s list is topped by Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s siblings, who condemned his presidential bid. “Bobby might share the same name as our father, but he […]

2 hours ago

FILE - Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., chair of the House Freedom Caucus, speaks during a news conference ...

Associated Press

Court filing gives rare look inside FBI seizure of lawmaker’s phone in 2020 election probe

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Just how hard did some Republican members of Congress work to keep Donald Trump in office after his 2020 election loss? A court case is providing a few tantalizing clues. Snippets and short summaries of texts and emails sent by Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, a top Trump ally, have emerged […]

2 hours ago

FILE - Migrants form lines outside the border fence waiting for transportation to a U.S. Border Pat...

Associated Press

Washington’s center of gravity on immigration has shifted to the right

WASHINGTON (AP) — It was a decade ago that Capitol Hill was consumed by an urgency to overhaul the nation’s immigration system, fueled in no small part by Republicans who felt a political imperative to make inroads with minority voters by embracing more generous policies. But nothing ever became law and in the time since, […]

2 hours ago

Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., listens to a question during a news conference, March 30, 2022, in W...

Associated Press

Tuberville is ending blockade of most military nominees, clearing way for hundreds to be approved

Sen. Tommy Tuberville announced Tuesday that he's ending his blockade of hundreds of military promotions, following heavy criticism.

5 hours ago

Associated Press

New Mexico governor proposes $500M investment in treating oil production wastewater

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico would underwrite development of a strategic new source of water by buying treated water that originates from the used, salty byproducts of oil and natural gas drilling, and help preserve its freshwater aquifers in the process, under a proposal from the state’s Democratic governor. The initiative from Gov. […]

6 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

Follow @KTAR923...

West Hunsaker at Morris Hall supports Make-A-Wish Foundation in Arizona

KTAR's Community Spotlight this month focuses on Morris Hall and its commitment to supporting the Make-A-Wish Foundation in Arizona.



Key dates for Arizona sports fans to look forward to this fall

Fall brings new beginnings in different ways for Arizona’s professional sports teams like the Cardinals and Coyotes.



Importance of AC maintenance after Arizona’s excruciating heat wave

An air conditioning unit in Phoenix is vital to living a comfortable life inside, away from triple-digit heat.

Oil boom and a kidnapping alter Montana town