WILLISTON, N.D. — Outlaw motorcycle gangs are gaining a foothold in western North Dakota, law enforcement officials say.
U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon said the threat of organized crime, including motorcycle gangs, is one reason federal agencies have sent more resources to the Oil Patch.
“There’s no question that we are seeing more and more intelligence that various organized outlaw motorcycle gangs are attempting to operate in the Bakken, engaged in drug trafficking for sure,” Purdon said.
Law enforcement officials said the motorcycle gangs have been present in the eastern part of the state — a man convicted in a recent Fargo stabbing is linked to a gang — but the strong economy in the oil-producing areas is bringing increasing numbers to the western half of the state.
“We’re seeing them increasingly active in drug trafficking and potentially in prostitution as well,” North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said. “We know they’re there and, at this point, what we are doing is concentrating our efforts on targeting those groups before they get a firm foothold in western North Dakota.”
The U.S. Department of Justice says there are more than 300 outlaw motorcycle gangs in the country that use their clubs as conduits for criminal enterprises. The department defines the groups as “highly structured criminal organizations whose members engage in criminal activities such as violent crime, weapons trafficking and drug trafficking.”
The Sons of Silence outlaw motorcycle gang came up in testimony this week in Williston in the homicide case of Jack Sjol, a Williston rancher who was fatally shot this spring.
Issac Steen, a co-defendant in the case, told investigators that Ryan Lee Stensaker confided in him that the Sons of Silence hired Stensaker and others to kill Sjol, according to the testimony from law enforcement.
Williams County Sheriff Scott Busching said Friday that investigators have not confirmed a link to the Sons of Silence.
Defense attorney Steven Mottinger, who represents Stensaker, said it’s too early in the ongoing case for him to comment.
Although a connection to the Sjol death is unconfirmed, the Sons of Silence group is organized in the Williston area and has been since at least 2008, say officials with the Williston Police Department and the Williams County Sheriff’s Office.
The Sons of Silence is one of the largest outlaw motorcycle gangs in the United States, according to the Department of Justice, with 250 to 275 members in 12 states.
“Members have been implicated in numerous criminal activities, including murder, assault, drug trafficking, intimidation, extortion, prostitution operations, money laundering, weapons trafficking, and motorcycle and motorcycle parts theft,” the Justice Department says.
Capt. Verlan Kvande with the Williams County Sheriff’s Office said that in recent years, officers have begun seeing outlaw motorcycle gang members openly display colors, vests and patches.
“They were here before, but were pretty mild offshoots at that time,” Kvande said.
The primary danger to the public is the organized groups bring a new source of methamphetamine as well as drugs that have not been common in northwest North Dakota before, Purdon said.
“The threat is that drugs are more available on the street in northwest North Dakota than they have been,” he said.
Human trafficking is also a concern, Stenehjem said. Often prostitution cases are linked to motorcycle gangs or other organized crime, he said.
In addition, potential turf battles between gangs create concerns for law enforcement, Stenehjem said.
Stenehjem said a couple of well-known gangs are established in North Dakota, but he declined to name them. He said there are ongoing criminal cases involving the gangs but he couldn’t go into specifics.
Members of the Bandidos and the Hells Angels motorcycle clubs have been seen traveling through the area, but are not believed to be organized in Williston, Kvande said.
Gangs have been around
Outlaw motorcycle gangs in North Dakota are not only a result of the oil boom.
Fargo Police Detective Tom Morris has been investigating gangs since 2005, but said they were in North Dakota before that as well.
“They’ve been around for quite a while,” said Morris, who also serves as vice president of the Midwest Gang Investigators Association. He said the Sons of Silence are present throughout the state, but he doesn’t know how many members or associates there are.
The defendant in a December stabbing in the parking lot of Speck’s Bar in Fargo that occurred after the bar closed was a probate member of the Sons of Silence, which is a step toward becoming a full member, Morris said.
Jason Todd Pederson pleaded guilty to aggravated assault for stabbing two men and is serving five years in prison, court records show.
Morris said Pederson wore a vest and patch indicating his Sons of Silence affiliation. Pederson also is listed on the Sons of Silence website as a “locked down” member, meaning he is incarcerated.
Morris described two categories of crimes associated with motorcycle gangs: Gang-motivated crimes, in which a member performs a task in to further the interests of the gang; and member-based crimes in which an individual member of the group commits a crime, but not to further the interests of the gang.
Investigators believe the Pederson case was a member-based crime rather than a gang-motivated crime, Morris said.
Mottinger, who was Pederson’s attorney, said he doesn’t believe the incident was related to the motorcycle group.
“I never saw any concrete evidence that what happened had anything to do with whether or not Mr. Pederson was associated with the Sons of Silence,” Mottinger said.
Purdon said more federal resources are being directed to the Oil Patch to respond to organized crime.
As of July, the FBI has two additional agents stationed in Williston and Sidney, Mont., in addition to increased numbers of agents in Minot and Bismarck. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives also recently stationed its first agent in Bismarck and will soon add another to work Oil Patch cases, Purdon said.
Homeland Security has added another agent in western North Dakota and several other federal agencies are working to expand how they assist local law enforcement, Purdon said.
“It’s unprecedented, and among the reasons you’re seeing that is the increase in criminal activity including outlaw motorcycle gangs,” Purdon said.
State officials also are ramping up efforts on organized crime, including three new Bureau of Criminal Investigation agents approved in the recent legislative session.
“We are focusing on their activities because I think that it’s important that we get a handle on it now than have to deal with a much more entrenched operation in the future,” Stenehjem said.