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Was Fracking Hell fake?

WILLISTON -- A television special that claimed to expose crime and desperation brought to Williston by the oil rush was met with local skepticism, and in some cases anger, when it aired in October. Now, an assistant to the show's producer, along ...

WILLISTON - A television special that claimed to expose crime and desperation brought to Williston by the oil rush was met with local skepticism, and in some cases anger, when it aired in October.

Now, an assistant to the show’s producer, along with a man who appeared on camera during the program, have said in recent weeks that the final product was not a completely honest portrayal.

“Fracking Hell,” part of the Underworld Inc. series on the National Geographic channel, followed a number of masked characters who spilled secrets about extortion, prostitution, theft, drugs and motorcycle gang activity, all of which hinge in some way on the oil industry’s effects on Williston.

“They spun a lot of those stories in a different direction than how we filmed them,” said Gregg Zart, a member of the film crew. “I was disappointed with the subtle things they did that they didn’t need to do. They cut it and edited it in a way that was slightly different from reality.”

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Filmmakers, equipped with drones and handheld cameras, were discreet as they worked in Williams County during the late spring and early summer. A substantial amount of footage focuses on law enforcement, but the show’s most colorful moments come from first-person accounts on the area’s underbelly.

“Cowboy,” who has a history of stealing scrap metal, explains the planning process behind stealing large amounts of copper from industrial sites, and admits in other interviews that he uses methamphetamine.

“When I got there and meth came into my life, the whole world changed,” he says at one point in the show. “Meth has changed me to the point where I don’t even like myself.”

But Cowboy, who lives in a Williams County trailer park and asked that his name be withheld, says the show’s editors took things he said out of context, portraying him as an addict and a desperado.

After producers spent about a week earning his trust, he agreed to interviews, but didn’t see a need to cover his face.

“I wasn’t going to wear a mask,” he said during an interview last month.

“Now I understand why. They turned the story to where what I told them they took it and intensified it. I just basically told them how it worked.”

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Editors embellished

Zart, in connection with his work, assisted the show’s director as a “fixer,” or someone who found participants and locations for filming.

Zart, a Washington-based artist and videographer who spent about two years in Williston at the height of the boom, was offered a spot with the show after producers saw his tabloid-style Youtube videos exposing the Bakken’s difficult growing pains.

He met Cowboy north of Williston on a lot notorious for its lawless population living in campers and trailers.

The director’s intention, he said, was to show how outliers feed off of the oil industry here, but the show’s editors, who are based in London, fabricated drama for effect.

He offered one shot in which Cowboy apparently reacts to being recognized on the road by police, and another that seems to show him describing one final heist of scrap metal as his ticket home, as examples.

“All that was completely fake,” he said. In reality, Cowboy was startled on the road by a friend in another car, and the planned theft would not have earned him thousands, contrary to what the narrator says.

“I felt like the story was powerful enough to not Hollywood it up, and I felt like my Cowboy guy was the strongest guy in the piece,” Zart said. “We weren’t trying to paint a pretty picture, and there was a definite demographic that we were trying to appeal to, but I certainly wasn’t trying to make Williston look bad.”

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Tough guy

Although Zart was mainly involved with the narrative on Cowboy and Hoo Doo Brown, he also lent a hand to a potential storyline about underground gambling.  

“We tried to find a sports bookie, and I looked high and low for a betting ring, but I couldn’t find any,” he said.

Producers turned to motorcycle gangs instead.

Zart found a promising candidate to talk about the activities of outlaw bikers here.

But producers passed on Zart’s man, and settled on “Rick,” who was discovered by another member of the crew. Rick’s introduction by the narrator includes the line “Every morning he rumbles (on a motorcycle) down Main Street to collect his street taxes.”

In interviews filmed in a rented garage at a Williston apartment complex, Rick boasts that his gang rakes in hundreds of thousands of dollars through extortion and the manufacture and sale of methamphetamine.

Despite Rick’s hard-nosed claims, in reality he didn’t even own a motorcycle, Zart said.

The man seen riding a bike in the show is not Rick, but the man Zart originally found.

One segment in the show that met with a particularly sour local reaction included footage shot outside The Shop, a downtown biker-themed bar pegged by the show’s editors as a gathering spot for motorcycle gang members.

The camera shows a sheriff’s deputy driving to the bar in response to a fight that’s broken out, according to the narrator.

The deputy approaches, speaks briefly to several leather-clad men standing on the sidewalk, and turns away after apparently calming tensions.

“That never happened,” Zart said, attributing the scene to editors’ cherry-picking.

Short search

His search for someone to fill the role that was eventually taken by Cowboy began downtown, at the job center and in churches. Before long, someone referred him to the trailer park where he found Cowboy and his friend, who is seen on the show as “Hoo Doo Brown.”

“I started looking for desperate people and I didn’t have to look far,” Zart said.

Although producers offered to pay them with gas vouchers and Walmart gift cards, it took days to earn the men’s confidence, and even then, Cowboy remained a hard sell.

“It was obvious that he’d come to North Dakota with bigger plans,” Zart said.

Initially uninterested in participating, Cowboy reluctantly consented after the show’s producers gave him a copy of “The Overnighters,” a documentary about the influx of men seeking work in the oil patch near Williston. Cowboy thought that he and his father, who has since passed away, may have appeared in the film, Zart said.

The favor, though, did little to make him less camera shy.

“After the first time they had to chase me down,” he said.

Cowboy, 46, a North Carolina native who came to Williston about four years ago, said other seasoned thieves living nearby were too skittish to speak about stealing on camera. His intent was to shine a light into that world, and warn people away from it.

“I didn’t want anybody else to get messed up with this,” he said.

Cowboy, who doesn’t own a working vehicle, said he drove the film crew around in a rental car for about half an hour, and over the course of the next several days, sat for a handful of interviews.

But after seeing the show for the first time last month, he realized the project wasn’t what he thought it was.

“After I watched the video…they just did it for the damn money, the publicity,” he said. “They had me believing they cared.”

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