FARGO, N.D. – Under cover of darkness, strafed by bitter winds and obscured by a swirling blizzard, four people plodded through deep snow and deadly cold, aiming to cross an invisible threshold that held the promise of a better life.
Believed to be a family from India, all four, including an infant and a teen, perished in the towering drifts, just metres from the Canada-U.S. border and the warmth of sanctuary on the other side.
Investigators believe they were bound for a waiting passenger van, found laden with provisions purchased in nearby North Dakota city of Fargo, the famous namesake of Hollywood’s dark 1996 fusion of hapless criminal conspiracy and folksy Midwestern charm.
On Monday, the cameras will shift from the forbidding moonscapes of northern North Dakota and Minnesota to a courthouse in Minneapolis-St. Paul and the man who was allegedly behind the wheel.
Steve Shand, 47, will appear by video before a Minnesota judge for a detention and preliminary hearing. Shand, of Deltona, Fla., faces a single charge of transporting or attempting to transport illegal aliens.
A court file from Florida that dates back to 2018 shows that Shand, a naturalized citizen originally from Jamaica, filed for bankruptcy more than three years ago, reporting assets worth $193,343 and liabilities of nearly $160,000.
Describing himself as an Uber driver, Shand’s assets at the time included two vehicles, a 2016 Toyota SUV and a 2014 Honda Civic, and the $161,957 single-family home in the central Florida community where he lives.
Investigators say the deaths are likely linked to a larger human smuggling operation, a phenomenon that’s practically a fact of daily life in the southern U.S., but rarely seen up north.
Court documents say there were two other undocumented Indian nationals in the van with Shand when he was pulled over Wednesday, and a group of five more were spotted making their own way south at around the same time.
Shand was encountered driving “in a rural area on a dirt road in an area far away from any services, homes or ports of entry into Canada,” the documents say.
“He was driving through blowing snow and snow drifts. The weather was severe at the time, with high winds, blowing snow and temperatures well below (-34 C).”
Evidence detailed in the documents also suggest the group was not the first to recently make the perilous trek: twice in December and once in January, border patrol agents found bootprints in the snow prior to Shand’s arrest near where the van was pulled over.
On Jan. 12, agents found prints that “matched the brand of the types of boots worn by five of the seven foreign nationals arrested in the current smuggling event,” the documents say.
On or about Dec. 12 and Dec. 22, “two groups of four appeared to have walked across the border into the U.S. and were picked up by someone in a vehicle.”
In the first incident, RCMP officers found a backpack at a location in Manitoba “believed to be the drop-off point.” It contained a price tag in Indian rupees.
One expert on the Canada-U.S. border described last week’s developments as a “warning shot” about a growing risk of transgressions at the more remote, forbidding sections of the frontier.
“Who knows how many other people have made it across through these organized efforts?” said Kathryn Byrk Friedman, a border expert and professor of law and planning at the University at Buffalo.
“Smugglers are smart … and they will always work around laws that are in place to try to make money and get what they want.”
Department of Homeland Security officials refused over the weekend to disclose any additional details about the investigation, including whether any of the victims or the survivors have yet been identified.
Consular officials met Saturday in Winnipeg to assist with the investigation, while members of the India Association of Manitoba were continuing efforts to identify the migrants and track down family members.
There is still no word on their identities, said association co-ordinator Ramandeep Grewal.
“They’re waiting for some RCMP process,” he said Sunday. “There are no updates.”
Officials believe the scheme used a remote gas pipeline compressor station, located outside the tiny hamlet of St. Vincent, Minn., and barely more than a football field away from the border, as a meeting spot.
The weather in the area has been a fearsome combination of bitter winds, blowing snow and bone-chilling cold for nearly a week. Overnight temperatures Sunday reached -32 C, with gusty winds and flurries.
Minnesota residents ‘shocked’ over border deaths
Residents in Kittson County, Minnesota are shocked by the news of the tragic deaths near the Canada-U.S. border. Kittson County is just over the border, and was the area where the group was allegedly heading. It’s also where border patrol officers apprehended Steve Shand and a group who had just crossed over the border illegally from Canada.
“It was a big shock at first that a family would go wandering out like that,” one man, who didn’t want to be identified, told Global News. “And it’s also kind of eye opening to what issues they’re facing.”
The man says he’s lived in the area for nearly three decades, and illegal border crossings have been an issue in the past.
“The last five years or so there’s been reports of people crossing the border in this area,” he said. “Going down the interstate and getting caught at the border.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 23, 2022.
— With files from Rob Drinkwater in Edmonton, and Marney Blunt, Global News.