Strangers in Sidney: When a Small-town Reporter Strikes Big News

By Amy Sisk

Louisa Barber tapped her thumbs against the steering wheel to the beat of the song At Last as she crossed the Montana-North Dakota border. Her sedan cruised past mile after mile of golden, grassy plains under an unseasonal cerulean sky.

Up ahead black smoke escaped the exhaust pipe of a semi-truck as it barreled toward her car. The truck’s rumbling engine drowned out the music playing from her Chevy Cobalt’s built-in stereo, but it didn’t faze Barber. She was lost in Etta James’ voice.

Oil pumps dotted the prairie as Barber drove down the county road. She reached several abandoned rail cars and looked to her right for a gravel lane that would take her to a housing development. An elementary school principal had told her he expects many new students to attend his school when a nearby RV park with 500 units is complete.

Barber is the Sidney Herald’s lone news reporter, and like so many of the stories she covers, this one is the consequence of a substance stored in shale 9,000 feet below her tires.

“When I came here I knew nothing about oil,” Barber said. “There was one day I was working on a story, and I just said aloud at my desk, ‘What’s an oil refinery?’ There was honest-to-God silence.”

The novice reporter had never set foot in Montana until she stepped off the train for an interview with the Herald in 2008, a recent graduate of Eastern Washington University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism.

Barber learned everything she knows about the oil industry while living in what was once a sleepy farming community. She continues paving her way in a time when the country is struggling to support her generation.

Sidney is no stranger to oil booms. Oil was first discovered here in the 1950s, and as technology improves, oil that was once impossible to reach is now at drillers’ fingertips.

From a stranger’s point of view Sidney looks like any small town in eastern Montana. It has a healthy ratio of churches to saloons and is surrounded by ranch land as far as the eye can see.

The RVs that line the outskirts of town are one visible sign of change, but the rest are more subtle. The locals remember a time when they could walk down Central Avenue and greet everyone they passed by name, but in today’s Sidney they no longer leave their car doors unlocked. Many lose prized employees to the oil patch. Their children make friends at school only to find they’re gone in a few weeks.

Like many oil-rich towns in the Bakken region, Sidney walks a fine line between maintaining its identity and cashing in on development.

“It’s a tightrope walk,” said Mayor Bret Smelser, a lifelong Sidney resident. “We’re doing what we can to make sure this community grows at a slow, sustained pace, but that’s not always easy in oil country.”

Thousands of people — mostly young, single men or men with new families — from across the nation have flocked to the area since oil development picked up again at the turn of the millennia. Sidney has become an oasis for the unemployed. There are job openings for everyone from truck drivers to welders to engineers in Richland County, which had an unemployment rate of 2.3 percent in December of 2011. If people can’t find work or a place to hitch a trailer in one town, they simply drive to the next.

“All they want is a better life,” Smelser said. “We’re trying to do what we can to make everyone feel welcome. But at the end of the day, I hardly have any of the tools in the chest to make that happen.”

Smelser’s grateful the town isn’t experiencing the same long lines and traffic jams as its neighbor to the northeast, whose population jumped from 12,000 to 30,000 over the past 10 years. Even though Sidney’s not expected to see nearly as drastic an increase as Williston, North Dakota, the mayor projects the city’s population, currently around 5,000, will double in size. With a population booming as quickly as oil reaches the earth’s surface, he must brace for repercussions.


In the three years that Barber has worked for the Herald, which publishes two times a week, she’s covered nearly every facet of the boom.

“You hear about the issues over and over,” she said. “It’s hard to put a new spin on it.”

In fact, she’s written so many stories about how oil impacts the region that her editor asked her to focus on more light-hearted features about seniors with interesting backgrounds and high school students with grand ambitions.

Barber, 25, is one of only a handful of young adults who work within city limits. There are many others her age, but they spend their time in the oil fields. She rarely crosses into their world unless a story calls her there.

“I still don’t really feel like I’m a part of this town because it’s a small, tight-knit community,” Barber said. “You have to penetrate your way in. You never feel fully accepted.”

Brandi Sorensen said her family feels the same. A year ago she buckled her two boys into the back seat of her car for a 13-hour drive from Bluebell, Utah, to join her husband. Now the family of four lives in a trailer about 10 feet wide and 26 feet long next to dozens of other RVs.

Sorensen doesn’t know many of her neighbors, but she has met several other mothers in similar situations. They provide support, but all are wary of their surroundings.

When Sorensen hears fighting outside she calls the police. There’s no space for her kids to play. RVs fill the gravel pit where her boys used to run, and she locks the trailer door at night.

She’s grateful for her home but knows the locals are wary of people like her family. She once overheard the checkout lady at the local grocery store cussing out the newcomers.

“It got me so irritated,” Sorensen said. “If none of us were here, your town would probably be just like the rest of America, where the economy is down in the dumps. If oil wasn’t here, where would your husband work? What job would you be going to the next town for? You’d be invading someone else’s space to pay your bills. I hope they wouldn’t treat you like that.”

She knows many oil workers with compassionate hearts. When news that a high school teacher had disappeared reached her trailer park, some of her neighbors went to search for the woman alongside the locals.


Sherry Arnold left her house before the sun rose for a jog on a frosty morning in January. The high school math teacher ran down a road next to an open field slated to become the site of a new housing subdivision.

A Ford Explorer pulled up next to Arnold and stopped just long enough for a man to grab her, according to documents filed in Richland County District Court. Arnold struggled to get away from the man and his partner, both high on crack cocaine. In the process she lost her tennis shoe in a ditch across from a church.

A tipster told police the two suspects were in the area looking for jobs in the oil fields. When they couldn’t find work, they allegedly drove through town with one mission in mind: kill a woman. Once they spotted Arnold they forced her into the car, removed her clothes, and choked her to death.

Barber met Arnold at the beginning of the school year to do an interview about technology in the classroom. Arnold synced audio recordings of her lectures to notes she took on an interactive whiteboard and posted these podcasts to her website. That way, students who missed a day of class for a basketball tournament in Billings wouldn’t fall behind.

Four months later as journalists from ABC and CNN raced to the airport to catch the next flights to Montana, Barber went to Sidney High School armed with a notebook and camera. She had no idea the photographs she took that day would end up on national television.

She anxiously joined hundreds of others who paced down streets praying for the best but preparing for the worst as the town searched for the beloved teacher.

She will never forget that day in February when she walked into the new $19 million Richland County Law & Justice Center — paid for by oil revenue — to report on the suspects’ initial appearance in city court.

She sat down in the first row. The police escorted the two men, handcuffed and dressed in orange-and-white-striped jumpsuits, into the room. They took their seats three feet away from her.

Barber’s heart kept pounding. She had never covered such a high-profile case.

“I started to tear up because of what they had allegedly done, but I know I’m not supposed to do that,” she said, her voice trailing off. “It’s really hard when you think about what happened to her. I just wonder how a person can do such mean things.”

As news of Arnold’s disappearance broke, the phone kept ringing at Sidney Herald publisher Libby Berndt’s desk. The national media wanted photos, information, and even interviews from Herald staffers.

Berndt gave them what they wanted. The more media attention, the more likely someone would find Arnold, she thought.

When she agreed to be interviewed by HLN, the producers told her they simply wanted to get a feel for the town.

“I wanted to portray that we are a very caring and close-knit community,” said Berndt, who has worked at the Herald for 26 years. “We see someone on the street and we say hi to them. We know everybody. There are so many fundraisers that we do for each other.”

She wanted to explain that it wasn’t just Arnold’s family and students who were hurting, it was the entire town.

Instead, she was asked how many sexual predators had registered in the area.

“The minute I didn’t answer a question the way they wanted me to answer it they didn’t come back to me to answer another question,” she said.

She could tell the national media wanted to paint a picture of an innocent town infiltrated by dirty oil workers.


Arnold’s death left a scar on the town.

Owners of local gun shops struggle to keep shelves stocked. According to the Montana Department of Justice, the Richland County Sheriff ’s Office issued 97 concealed weapons permits in February alone. Only seven people applied for a permit during that time last year.

“I carry pepper spray in my purse,” said 25-year-old Katy DeMangelaere, a lifelong Sidney resident. “I’m a trusting small-town girl, but it scares me. There are people you can’t trust hanging outside the bars all the time. You used to be OK, but going outside them now, you fear for your life.”

Assistant Police Chief Robert Burnison said the 11 officers at the Sidney Police Department can’t keep up with the increase in crime. One new officer joined the department in 2011, and Burnison hopes to hire five more by 2017.

The force spends most of its time responding to domestic assaults, disturbances in bars, thefts, and traffic accidents. The number of people arrested for domestic assault more than tripled between 2004 and 2011and the number of DUI offenses jumped from 24 to 65 during that same period.

“Before, we were really proactive and tried to stop things before they happened,” Burnison said. “That’s still our objective, but we’re not able to meet that objective because we’re too busy reacting to the things that are happening.”

Sidney police officers try to maintain a visible presence to discourage criminal activity. But as more and more people enter city limits this method is becoming less effective.

Burnison doesn’t want community members to overreact, but he understands their fears. Even his wife now locks the door to their house while she’s inside.


The police aren’t the only ones struggling to keep up. Faced with increased demand for services, businesses are losing employees to lucrative jobs in the oil industry.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” said Garth Kallevig, president of Sidney’s Stockman Bank. “There are some businesses negatively affected by it simply because they have nothing to do with oil.”

He said residents might leave a job they held for the 20 years just because they can make $10 more an hour working on a rig.

Even at $9 an hour plus benefits, McDonald’s owner John Francis can’t find local employees. He contracts with an employment agency to hire foreign students from as far away as Thailand and Brazil to work three-month shifts.

“If people call in sick we don’t have anyone to replace them,” he said. “We close down the lobby and just run the drive-thru.”

Francis’ foreign workers pay $100 a week to live in trailers across the street from the golden arches.

That’s about the same price Barber pays for her one-bedroom apartment. She calls herself lucky when it comes to housing. The Herald keeps her apartment under its name, and rent has gone up only $50 a month to $400 since she moved to Sidney three years ago.

While reporters across the country file stories about foreclosures, Barber writes about a different kind of housing crisis: prices are skyrocketing.

Developers scramble to hire contractors to construct subdivisions. Oil companies book entire floors of new hotels before the ground breaks. Hundreds of workers congregate into trailer parks and metal shacks dubbed “man camps.”

April Boehler grew up in Sidney and wants to move out of her $1,200 a month, two-bedroom apartment into a bigger home. The mother of two found a 1,200-square-foot house with a bright red door that sets the beige structure apart from others on the street, but the $189,000 price tag is out of her budget. Ten years ago that same home would have cost $85,000, said Leif Anderson, the owner of realty company Beagle Properties Inc.

“There’s no chance of us ever finding a house with the way prices are,” Boehler said.

Her parents are considering building on a lot they already own. That might be Boehler’s only option.

Boehler’s mother Karen said it’s been tough. She and her husband work at their printing and graphics business seven days a week until 9 or 10 p.m. because orders keep piling up, and they don’t have enough employees. April works for her parents and often brings the kids along to play with the family’s Boston terrier.

Karen said even though employees of small businesses put in many hours, the tiniest of homes are still out of reach. She admits the $12 an hour she pays to entry-level workers doesn’t cut it.

“I certainly can’t pay the wages that ConocoPhillips and all those guys do,” she said.

With more housing come more students.

The superintendent of Sidney Public Schools is looking to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for help.

Daniel Farr needs to hire about 15 new teachers over the next three years because he anticipates 800 new students will enter the district, though he doesn’t know where the teachers will live.

“If you’re fresh out of an education program anywhere in this country that’s not going to happen,” he said. “There’s no way you’re going to make a down payment, and there’s no way you can afford a house payment that’s probably going to be anywhere from $1,000 to $1,300 a month. That’s what a single-room apartment’s running for right now.”

Farr hopes he can convince the city to rezone part of the acreage outside an elementary school so teachers can live in FEMA trailers.

Class sizes are increasing, and teachers have to play catch-up as new students whose parents work in the oil industry filter in and out. During the winter the superintendent shoveled snow off the sidewalk of an elementary school every day because he couldn’t pay anyone else enough to do the job.

“You do what you have to right now,” he said with a shrug.

One of the elementary schools needs a $4 million renovation to meet fire code, and it also must install ADA-compliant bathrooms so an extra fifth-grade class can move into the building. But unlike the high school, which sports a new library that kids jokingly call “Barnes & Noble,” the middle and elementary schools lack adequate funding. They only serve students within city limits, whereas the high school serves students from throughout the county and receives the bulk of oil revenue. That means for every $4 of oil and gas revenue the high school receives, the elementary and middle schools see only $1.

The Montana Legislature passed a bill in 2011 redistributing oil revenue that previously funded schools in oil-impact regions to the state’s general fund. Farr said Sidney Public Schools does keep some oil money, which essentially supplants the state’s responsibility to the district, but it’s not enough to pay for new teachers or updated facilities.

“We’ve been asking our legislators to give us complete flexibility with our oil and gas money,” he said. “We’re being asked to run our schools off a commodity that goes up and down.”

The mayor is also frustrated with Helena.

Sidney faces a $48 million budget shortfall over the next five years as it tries to meet the demands of an ever-increasing population. Since 2005 the town has received only 0.1 percent of the county’s oil revenue.

When Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Hill stopped by the Sidney Chamber of Commerce in February, he told the mayor he was empathetic to the town’s problems and would work with him to find a solution.

But Smelser wanted options on the table.

“I’m not hearing it, Rick,” Smelser said, interrupting the candidate an hour and a half into the meeting. “I haven’t heard you say how we’re going to get there.”

Smelser is hopeful that new bills to assist areas impacted by the oil boom will pass the next legislative session in spring 2013. But, he said, the town won’t see any tangible benefits until the legislation can be implemented a year or two after it’s approved.

It’s even more difficult to predict how long oil production will last and what will happen to Sidney when it busts. The last boom ended abruptly in the 1980s when world oil prices skyrocketed and demand diminished.

“I’m a red-headed Republican and I just upset a Republican gubernatorial candidate because the state’s not paying attention,” Smelser said. “What options are left? What can I do?” While Smelser waits for answers, others in Sidney go about their daily routines. The townspeople expected a harsh winter, so churches opened their doors to transients. They served hot meals every night for three months. When February rolled around, more than 200 people congregated at the Elks Lodge for a Republican fundraising dinner that included meat, potatoes, prayer, music, and a rifle raffle. In March, three local wrestlers beat out 1,300 competitors to win state titles.

“I thought it was weird when I first came here that total strangers, old farmer men, would just wave to me on the county road,” Barber said. “Maybe it’s not so weird anymore.”

Barber feels pressure to do her job well because she’s in the public eye. She’s tried to integrate herself into the community by judging Halloween costumes and joining half the townspeople as they pack the high school gym to cheer on the basketball team.

She files story after story about a place she’s come to call home, but she knows that no matter how long she stays, she’ll never be a local.

Someday soon she’ll pack up her bags and drive down Highway 16 until she hits the interstate. She’ll head toward another new place to work for a different paper or attend graduate school, where she’ll once again find herself on the outside.