A U.S. Homeland Security agent believes the four people found dead on Wednesday in a field on the Manitoba side of the Canada-U.S. border may have been victims of a wider human smuggling operation.
The bodies of a man, a woman and a baby were found together in one area near the town of Emerson, while the body of a teen boy was found a few metres away, RCMP said on Thursday.
Before their bodies were discovered, U.S. Border Patrol officers had stopped a 15-passenger van about one kilometre south of the international border in a rural area between the official ports of entry at Lancaster, Minn., and Pembina, N.D., according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney's Office for the district of Minnesota.
The driver of that van, 47-year-old Steve Shand of Florida, was arrested and charged with human smuggling.
According to court documents filed on Thursday with the U.S. District Court in Minnesota, Shand is suspected of being part of three other recent smuggling incidents. Court filings also show Shand filed for bankruptcy in 2018.
"The investigation into the death of the four individuals is ongoing along with an investigation into a larger human smuggling operation of which Shand is suspected of being a part," Homeland Security special agent John Stanley said in an affidavit filed Thursday.
Larger group being transported
Shand was transporting two undocumented Indian nationals in the passenger van when he was arrested.
Five other undocumented Indian nationals were also arrested around the same time, very close to where Shand was arrested, the affidavit said.
It's believed that those seven people, and the four who died in Manitoba, were all part of the same group, but that the four had become separated from the rest.
The group of five people were all wearing the same type of clothes — new black winter coats with fur-trimmed hoods, black gloves, black balaclavas and insulated rubber boots, Stanley said in his affidavit.
The two people who were in the van with Shand wore similar clothes, but were not identical to the others.
Shand was also in possession of a set of black gloves and black balaclava that matched those the others were wearing.
Stanley's affidavit says a border patrol agent told him there had been three other recent incidents of human smuggling — on Dec. 12 and 22, 2021, and Jan. 12, 2022 — at the same location where Shand was arrested.
That border patrol agent had spotted boot prints in the snow made by three people who had walked across the border at that location on Jan. 12. All three prints were made by the same brand of boots, according to the court document.
The boot prints matched those made by the rubber boots the people arrested on Wednesday were wearing, it says.
Serious injuries from exposure
Little is known about the Indian nationals taken into custody in the U.S. The court document says they spoke limited or no English, but are fluent in Gujarati, a language spoken in western India.
The people in the group of five taken into custody near where Shand was arrested told officials they had walked across the border expecting to be picked up by someone. They estimated they had been walking around for more than 11 hours.
One man had paid a "significant amount of money" to enter Canada from India under a fraudulent student visa, and planned to enter the U.S., the affidavit says.
Two of those people were seriously injured from being out in the cold, according to the court document.
A man and a woman were both taken to hospital to be treated for suspected frostbite. Although the man was later released, the woman was airlifted to a larger hospital and will likely require a partial amputation of one hand, court documents say.
She stopped breathing several times while being transported by border patrol.
'Nobody deserves this'
Members of the Indian community in Manitoba are deeply disturbed by the deaths of the people found on Wednesday, who are believed to be members of the same family.
Ramandeep Grewal of the Indian Association of Manitoba said he became emotional when he heard about their deaths.
"It's unbelievable and nobody deserves this. And this little infant kid and the other young person we heard [of] in the family, they had their lives ahead [of them]," he said in an interview on Thursday.
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Grewal says the people who crossed the border must have been desperate to get to the U.S. to risk such a dangerous trip.
He has a message to people considering such crossings.
"The community should pursue only the legal ways to come and stay in any country they want to. Illegal routes … can be fatal."