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Canadian police identify family found frozen to death near U.S.-Canada border

Following autopsies by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of Manitoba, the cause of death was determined to be due to exposure.

MINNEAPOLIS — Editor's note: The video above first aired on KARE 11 Jan. 25, 2022.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in Manitoba have confirmed the identities of four family members who were found frozen to death last week near the U.S.-Canada border.

The Indian nationals were identified as Jagdishkumar Patel, 39; Vaishaliben Patel, 37; Vihangi Patel, 11; and 3-year-old Dharmik Patel. Following autopsies by the Chief Office of the Medical Examiner of Manitoba, the cause of death was determined to be due to to exposure.

Their bodies were found Jan. 19 within feet from the border, on the Canadian side where North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota converge. Law enforcement said the family arrived in Toronto, Canada a week earlier, and made their way to Emerson, Manitoba on or around Jan. 18.

The RCMP said the preliminary investigation gives them reason to believe the discovery to be a case of human smuggling.

According to a criminal complaint, investigators believe the four family members may have become separated from a larger group of India natives, all working with an individual, later identified as 47-year-old Steve Shand, to cross into the United States in northwestern Minnesota. Special Agent John Stanley wrote that “most had limited or no English language speaking ability” and appeared to hail from Gujarat, a state in western India. One of the migrants told investigators that “he paid a significant amount of money to enter Canada from India under a fraudulently obtained student visa,” with the goal of crossing into the U.S. to reunite with an uncle in Chicago.

It is not clear from the criminal complaint how Shand, who is charged with human smuggling, became connected with the family members, but investigators said they believe he’s involved in a “larger human smuggling operation.” Shand appeared in federal court on Monday, but no further court dates have been set and he was given an order for release without bond. He will be released with restrictions “when transportation is coordinated,” according to a federal court spokesperson. Shand declined to speak with investigators, according to the criminal complaint.

On Wednesday, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar wrote a letter to the Department of Homeland Security asking for more information about how they're combatting human smuggling. 

In the letter, Sen. Klobuchar asked a series of questions, including what the department is doing to identify individuals involved in human smuggling, and what steps, if any, Congress could do to help.

"I have long advocated for the expansion of federal anti-trafficking and anti-smuggling efforts. As a former prosecutor, I know how important it is for the federal government to closely coordinate with state and tribal law enforcement, as well as with international governments, to combat this threat and to provide resources to officials working on the front lines of the fight against smuggling and trafficking.," Sen. Klobuchar said in her letter.

There is no exact data on human smuggling, but federal statistics show there is much more border activity in the South as opposed to the North. In fiscal year 2021, the government reported more than 1.7 million “encounters” at the Southwest land border, compared to just 27,000 on the Northern land border.

Although human smuggling attempts are less common in parts of northern Minnesota or North Dakota, they can still pose incredible risks to immigrants because of the frigid temperatures. Last week, the wind chill hovered around negative 40 degrees.

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