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Clayton Lakey, 34, a North Dakota oilfield worker caught up in a November sex trafficking sting, pleaded guilty in U. District Court in May to a charge of coercion and enticement. Forum News Service.

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When Twin Cities girls are missing, cops look to Oil Patch. Like carnival barkers in an Internet sideshow, they tout their product: young women who will provide companionship.

For a price. Lakey, 34, scrolls through the lurid postings, scores of them offering a break from the tedium and loneliness of his solitary job packing dirt in the Bakken oilfields. Another ad grabs his attention. He asks how the seller recruits girls to work for him. Over the past six months, Forum News Service has investigated an emerging issue in the Bakken oilfield region of western North Dakota: sex trafficking, including the trafficking of children.

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We reviewed hundreds of documents and conducted more than interviews with law enforcement officers, victim service providers, victims rescued from the sex trade and experts who have examined the issue regionally, nationally and internationally. Our reporting took us from the Dakotas to Washington, D.

Sex trafficking can be an incredibly lucrative business, but far more for the traffickers than for the women and girls they exploit.

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Sex traffickers operating in North Dakota frequently are engaged in drug trafficking as well, and the extent of that trade is growing, along with the severity of the drugs involved. But there is disagreement over whether authorities should seek to end the practice, fearing the could migrate to sites less easy for police to monitor — or use to set up stings.

While many people may see prostitution as a life of choice, advocates and others close to the issue increasingly resist that characterization: Most of the women engaged in prostitution actually are victims, they say, and need to be treated as such.

North Dakota service providers, including staff at domestic violence shelters, report seeing a growing of women and girls they believe to be victims of trafficking, but the state has no dedicated shelters for trafficking victims and the facilities that offer such services are or more miles from the Oil Patch.

Law enforcement agencies and victim service providers in western North Dakota, even if inclined to help, are maxed out, struggling to keep up with all the demands of a booming population and the crime that has followed. In the past year, federal and state courts in North Dakota have charged seven people with offenses related to sex trafficking or felony facilitating or promoting prostitution. The cases involve allegations in Bismarck, Minot, Williston and Dickinson.

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More than a dozen men were convicted in the state in in federal and state courts for seeking to buy sex with underage girls. The sting that resulted in charges against Lakey snared so many prospective johns it had to be shut down early.

Paula Bosh, who has worked as a victim specialist with the FBI in Minot for 11 years, never encountered a human-trafficking case until recently. The influx of young, unaccompanied men working high-paying oil jobs fuels the market for trafficking in the Bakken, said Siddharth Kara, a Harvard researcher who has traveled the world interviewing victims and traffickers. With communities still catching up to the challenges of rapid growth, a general lack of awareness and strained law enforcement resources, the risk of getting caught is diminished.

Another factor complicating the issue: Drug crimes increased Anyone younger than 18 who is involved in commercial sex is considered a victim regardless of whether force, fraud or coercion are involved.

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Inthe National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimated that one in seven endangered runaways reported to them was likely a sex trafficking victim. Kara, considered an authority on human trafficking, said sex slavery has been more present in rural America than many people realize, and anecdotal evidence from western North Dakota before the oil boom seems to bear that out.

Heidi Carlson, who was recruited into prostitution as a Minnesota college student, said she traveled a circuit in the s that included the Dakotas, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Nebraska.

It was all the community guys. But the oil boom has put a brighter spotlight on North Dakota and the issue of human trafficking, drawing several rounds of national media attention and a recent visit to Williston by a senior human-trafficking adviser for the U. Department of Health and Human Services. Sites such as Back.

Minneapolis police Sgt. Grant Snyder, who trains law enforcement officers on human trafficking, was concerned about the potential for trafficking in the Bakken and monitored Back west of Bismarck for four months. He found that 70 percent of the had been posted in a different state the week. Some perceive the women on Back.

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Assistant U. But Heather McCord Mitchell, a federal public defender who represented Lakey and met with several of the defendants from the sting, told the judge that the problems arise from more than the money flowing into the Bakken. There is considerable alcohol and drug use in the area, and a lack of services, particularly a lack of mental health services, adds to the feeling of isolation, she said. Police in Moorhead, Minn.

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The girl was a runaway from the Twin Cities. Grand Forks police have encountered two underage sex trafficking victims in the past two years, said Lt. Jim Remer.

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One case involved a year-old girl, and the trafficker was recently sentenced in a federal case in Minnesota. And while the trafficking cases prosecuted so far in North Dakota have not involved underage victims, the strong response to stings that advertise underage girls using keywords on Craigslist and Back indicate underage victims likely are in the state, Attorney General Stenehjem said.

He was sentenced to five years in prison, followed by 10 years of supervised release. He also must register as a sex offender. He was legally separated from his wife, he told a federal judge, and had been working in North Dakota for three years, trying to make enough money to get a better place and seek custody of his 5-year-old daughter.

stories from the series in coming days in the Pioneer Press and on TwinCities.

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See the entire series and additional materials at traffickedreport. Show Caption.

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