A smuggling arrest is made, 2 years after family froze to death on the Canadian border

Road signs in canada
Road signage is posted just outside of Emerson, Manitoba, Jan. 20, 2022.
John Woods | The Canadian Press via AP

A man accused of recruiting the driver in a human smuggling operation has been arrested, more than two years after a family of four from India froze to death trying to enter the U.S. from Canada, authorities said.

Harshkumar Ramanlal Patel, 28, was arrested Wednesday in Chicago on human smuggling charges stemming from a warrant issued in September.

Patel allegedly hired Steve Shand of Deltona, Florida, to drive migrants from the Canadian border to the Chicago area. Shand, who allegedly told authorities Patel paid him a total of $25,000 to make five such trips in December 2021 and January 2022, has pleaded not guilty to human smuggling charges and awaits trial on March 25.

Patel's attorney, Michael Leonard, said Monday that so far he's been told very little about the allegations.

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“Based upon the fact that, at this point, we have been provided with nothing more than accusations in the form of a Criminal Complaint that recites hearsay statements, we are not in a position to legitimately evaluate the Government’s allegations," Leonard said in a statement to The Associated Press.

Shand was at the wheel of a 15-passenger van stopped by the U.S. Border Patrol in North Dakota, just south of the Canadian border, on Jan. 19, 2022. Authorities spotted five other people in the snow nearby. All Indian nationals, they told officers they’d been walking for more than 11 hours in frigid blizzard conditions, a complaint in Shand's case said.

One of the men was carrying a backpack that had supplies for a small child in it, and told officers it belonged to a family who had become separated from the group overnight. Canadian Mounties began a search and found three bodies together — a man, a woman and a young child — just 33 feet (10 meters) from the border near Emerson, Manitoba, which is on the Red River that separates North Dakota from Minnesota. A second child was found a short distance away. All apparently died from exposure.

The migrant with the backpack told authorities he had paid the equivalent of $87,000 in U.S. money to an organization in India to set up the move, according to a federal complaint from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Federal prosecutors believe Harshkumar Patel who organized the smuggling operation. The victims were identified as Jagdish and Vaishaliben Patel and their children, 11-year-old Vihangi and 3-year-old Dharmik.

It wasn’t immediately clear if the family was related to Harshkumar Patel, a common name in India.

Federal authorities believe Patel himself entered the U.S. illegally in 2018 after he had been refused a U.S. visa at least five times, the complaint said. Shand told investigators that Patel operates a gambling business in Orange City, Florida, and that he knew him because he gambled there and operated a taxi business that took people there.

The complaint cited cellphone records indicating hundreds of communications between Shand and Patel to work out logistics for illegal trafficking. One text message from Shand to Patel on Jan. 19, 2022, stated, “Make sure everyone is dressed for blizzard conditions please.”