Dear Readers: I first wrote of James Henrikson in January of 2014, not long after the murder for hire of Doug Carlile, a crime for which he was recently sentenced to life in prison. I summarized the entire 2 1/2 years in an article for Dakota Country magazine which should be in the mail and in stores today. For those of you who don’t get the magazine, (you should, if you’re at all interested in the outdoors in the Dakotas), I’m sharing it here and, I hope, writing about this for the very last time.
Deep in the North Dakota Bad Lands, likely in a small canyon at the end of a dusty two-track trail, in a shallow, hand-dug grave, lie the remains of Kristopher “KC” Clarke. They’ll probably never be found, because the man who put them there can never return to North Dakota to help Clarke’s family recover them. He’s serving a life sentence for murder in a federal prison in the state of Washington.
The last trace of the age of innocence in the North Dakota oil patch went into that grave with KC’s body. The North Dakota Bad Lands now hold secrets we could never have imagined ten years ago, when an oilman named Harold Hamm pioneered the fracking revolution that brought an oil boom—and so much more—to western North Dakota.
Most say it was good for both North and South Dakota—it created untold riches for North Dakota and much of that wealth and good fortune also bounced into the economy of our neighbor to the south. But it’s changed our beloved Bad Lands forever—physically and socially. The lighting of our night sky with oil well flares and the fine layer of dust on every stem of our pristine Bad Lands vegetation are the most visible examples of the physical change. The sordid murder tale of James Henrikson is the most gruesome of the countless social changes.
You’ve read about James Henrikson here over the past 24 months or so (here’s the most recent, written just before he was sentenced), and North Dakota media have kept an occasional eye on his story, but I’m going to recount it in summary one more time, because it’s part of the sweeping change that has come to our Bad Lands, and all of us need to know and remember the kind of things that happen here, because all that happens here in our generation will impact this important place for generations to come.
James Henrikson was one of the thousands of men who came here with the advent of the oil boom, seeking his fortune in what appeared to be a land of opportunity, an escape from a crumbling economy in deep recession in much of our country. Except Henrikson was different than most of them. An ex-con with a drug and crime-riddled past, a big, body-building bully with a violent streak as wide as the highway he drove in on from the west, Henrikson quickly found a home in the wilds of Bad Lands Country, where he charmed his way into the good graces of the Chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes, Tex Hall, and then used Hall’s imprimatur to establish a successful trucking business on the Fort Berthold Reservation.
He and Hall became close friends, close enough to vacation together with their wives in Hawaii and, some say, establish a business partnership, with Henrikson running his business out of a warehouse owned by Hall near Hall’s home town of Mandaree, on the reservation. Kristopher Clarke was his protégé, until something in their relationship soured, and Henrikson reached back into his past, to a gang of assassins in the Spokane area, to have Clarke killed.
Led by a devil-worshiping killer named Timothy Suckow, they used a train ride from Washington to North Dakota to plan a murder, and with Henrikson’s help, they lured Clarke into the warehouse and bashed his head in with a floor jack. Suckow, the killer, later confessed, as he sought a plea bargain on a murder charge, that on the fourth hit, “his skull went soft.” Clarke was dead on the floor of Tex Hall’s warehouse.
They buried him somewhere in the Bad Lands, but authorities believe that later, Henrikson went back and moved the body. A group of volunteers has conducted numerous searches in areas where they believe Clarke might be buried, but no body has been found, and it’s unlikely federal authorities will ever let Henrikson come back to take them to the body, if he could even find the spot again in the wilds of North Dakotas Bad Lands. If it is shallow enough, coyotes might find it. Otherwise it is there for the ages.
But it was a second murder that got everyone in prison. Henrikson hired the same killer, Suckow, and his gang, to kill a business partner in Spokane named Douglas Carlile. Suckow shot Carlile in his home, but carelessly and stupidly dropped a glove as he made an escape through a back yard, and authorities used DNA from the glove to track him down. He confessed, and implicated his partners and Henrikson.
By the time of Suckow’s confession in which he fingered Henrikson as his employer, however, Henrikson was already in jail in North Dakota. Henrikson was being watched carefully by North Dakota authorities after the Carlile murder and, knowing Henrikson probably had enough money to escape and lead a life somewhere out of reach of U. S. authorities, the FBI raided his home in Watford City, ND, and found a stash of guns. Henrikson was a convicted felon. He couldn’t have guns. Good police work by North Dakota authorities, the FBI and North Dakota’s U.S. Attorney, Timothy Purdon, put him in jail in North Dakota until murder charges were eventually filed.
The murder charges were accompanied by heroin possession and distribution charges. Henrikson’s second business, besides trucking, was selling heroin to addicts who’d come here to earn the money to pay for their habit. His greed knew no limits. He was eventually convicted on all the charges.
Suckow, who’s about 50, was sentenced to 30 years in prison, with no chance of parole. He’ll likely die there. Other gang members got lesser sentences. Henrikson, who’s not yet 40, will spend the rest of his life in a federal lockup.
That’s the darkest of the dark stories to emerge from the Bad Lands during the state’s oil boom, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. Except there’s not a lot of celebrating going on in the Bakken this year. Low oil prices have sent the oil industry into a deep funk here.
It was hundred-dollar-a-barrel oil that allowed the extremely expensive hydraulic fracturing (fracking) process to turn huge profits for the oil companies. That went away a year and a half ago. Most experts say it’s going to take prices above $60 to restart the engines, much higher to get them back to full speed. Until then, drilling rigs remain “stacked” in various locations across the Oil Patch. I think at last count only about 15 per cent of the drillings rigs that were active two years ago are active today.
That’s been good news for the Bad Lands. Right now, there are almost no drilling rigs in the Badlands, and there are few, if any, wells being fracked. If that continues, it means that this year, we’ll escape the cavalcade of trucks that create the summer dust clouds that have been turning the sky brown the last few years, and the dirt coating on the new grass, which made it inedible for the critters. The little bit of drilling that is taking place is generally in the “core” of the Bakken, north of the Badlands.
The low oil prices, of course, also mean lower gas prices, making our trips to the Badlands less expensive. And the bust has freed up hundreds of motel rooms on summer nights, at much lower prices than we were paying, if we could even get a room, in past summers. I’ve heard rumors of $25 motel rooms in the oil patch this summer.
Meanwhile, oil executives and state government officials continue to whine about low oil prices. Don’t North Dakota officials understand that most of us, who buy gas, are FOR lower oil prices? And that we’re having a hard time feeling sorry for those companies that made a huge fortune for a bunch of years, but are sitting in a holding pattern now? Or for a state government that has billions in the bank and is nowhere near the crisis our elected officials are trying to make us believe faces them?
Murders, rapes and robberies are down. So are apartment and home prices. We’re slowly getting back to what was once considered normal here. The James Henriksons of the world are finding us a less attractive place to swindle their partners, sell their heroin and bump off those they don’t like.
If the Bakken Oil Bust means the Badlands are safer—for plants, and animals, and humans—then I’m for it.