The man charged with human smuggling in connection with a tragic incident near the border at Emerson, Man., remains in custody in North Dakota while investigations in both Canada and the U.S. continue.
The bodies of four people — two adults, a teen and an infant, believed to be a family — were found on the Canadian side of the U.S.-Canada border near Emerson on Wednesday.
According to U.S. officials, the four were part of a larger group of Indian nationals who were attempting to cross into the U.S. illegally.
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One of the Indian nationals who survived the trek across the border told U.S. Border Patrol he had paid a large sum of money to come to Canada from India under a fraudulent student visa. He said he had no intention of staying or studying in Canada but was instead intending to cross into the U.S. illegally.
In addition to the four people who died during the attempt to cross the border, two others were seriously injured — a man and a woman suffering from severe frostbite.
The injured man was treated and released, but the woman is likely facing partial amputation of a hand. She has been flown to a hospital in St. Paul, Minn for treatment.
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Investigators said the group that survived all spoke the Gujarati language, spoken in western India.
According to an affidavit by US Special Agent John D. Stanley, five members of the group were decked out in matching outdoor gear.
“I observed that five of them were outfitted with identical cold weather gear. They each had what appeared to be new black-in-color winter coats with fur trimmed hoods, black gloves, black balaclavas and insulated rubber boots,” Stanley said in his affidavit.
One person in the group had a backpack he told officials he was carrying for a family of four that had become separated from the larger group. The backpack contained children’s items such as clothes, a diaper and toys.
RCMP would not say what the four who died were wearing.
U.S. border officials said the area where suspect Steve Shand, 47, was arrested is known for frequent border crossing attempts, including an incident on Dec. 12 in which border agents found sets of footprints in the snow as evidence of the illegal crossing.
The tread patterns on those footprints match the type of boots worn by five of the seven Indian nationals who survived the border crossing Wednesday, said Stanley.
Another incident on Jan. 12 found a backpack in the snow, which contained Indian currency.
Asked why RCMP didn’t ask local services for help searching for the missing quartet, Cst. Julie Courchaine said officers near the border regularly search the area already.
“We had sufficient resources and had all the required equipment (ATV/UTV/Snow machines etc) to do a thorough search. In that area you do need the required equipment in order to access a lot of the area.”
“A thorough grid search was conducted and thankfully no other victims were located.”
Both Canadian and U.S. officials have said people should not attempt to cross the border in either direction because it can be deadly.
Shand is charged with human smuggling — specifically, one count of knowing or in reckless disregard of the fact that an alien had come to, entered, or remained in the United States in violation of law, having transported and moved or having attempted to transport and move such aliens.
Shand was found in possession of a balaclava and gloves that matched the group that was rescued, said Stanely.
Originally from Jamaica, Shand became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2010 and is listed in court documents as a resident of Deltona, Fla.
American officials said Shand, who declined to speak to police upon his arrest, is alleged to be part of a larger human smuggling operation.
Court documents show that Shand, who is currently being held at Grand Forks County Correctional Center in North Dakota, declared bankruptcy in 2018 with debts between $100,000 and 500,000.
Global News reached out to Shand’s lawyer, federal public defender Douglas Micko, but did not receive an immediate response.
Manitoba RCMP tell Global News that further charges against Shand may be possible, but are more likely to come from the US in relation to the alleged smuggling. Charges involving the deaths of the four would have to come from Canada.
RCMP also said that Shand is facing significant charges that come with hefty jail time in the US, and if convicted, he would have to complete his sentence before extradition to Canada to face possible charges.
Winnipeg attorney Bruce Macfarlane told Global News that his initial impression is that Shand could potentially be exposed to a manslaughter charge here in Canada, rather than murder.
“Murder requires proof of an intent to kill,” he said. “I don’t think that’s the case here.
“His intent was to smuggle them in a very reckless way. But if the evidence eventually shows that he actually set them adrift in a calculated ‘death march’, that may be a different story.
“Proof of that would be tough.”
The department of justice at the US attorney’s office has declined comment.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau commented on the border tragedy during an unrelated news conference in Ottawa Friday, saying the country is doing all it can to prevent people from crossing the border illegally.
“It is so tragic to see a family perish like this, victims of human traffickers, misinformation, and people who have taken advantage of their desire to build a better world,” Trudeau said in French when asked about the deaths.
“That is why we are doing all we can to discourage people from trying to cross the border irregularly or illegally. We know that there are great risks in doing so. That is why there are regular patrols to try to prevent and support people who take these unacceptable risks.”
With files from The Canadian Press.