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Man charged in U.S. in case of family from India who froze to death in Manitoba

Authorities in the United States have charged another man in an alleged human smuggling operation that led to a family from India freezing to death while trying to enter the country from Manitoba.
A view of the landscape outside the hamlet of St. Vincent, Minn., looking north towards the Canada-U.S. border, is shown on Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022, not far from where RCMP officers recovered the bodies of four unidentified Indian nationals. THE CANADIAN PRESS/James McCarten

Authorities in the United States have charged another man in an alleged human smuggling operation that led to a family from India freezing to death while trying to enter the country from Manitoba.

A court document filed Thursday in Illinois says Harshkumar Ramanlal Patel is charged with transportation of an illegal alien along with conspiracy to bring and attempting to bring an illegal alien to the U.S.

No details were provided on his arrest. An arrest warrant for Patel, which says he was also known as "Dirty Harry," was filed in Minnesota court in September.

A Homeland Security investigator, in an affidavit, alleges Patel recruited, directed and paid a man in Florida, Steve Shand, to pick up several Indian nationals after they illegally crossed the border from Canada into the U.S.

Shand was arrested in a rented passenger van with two Indian nationals on Jan. 19, 2022, on a rural Minnesota road near the border.

Court documents say border agents soon after found five Indian migrants trudging through snow during a blizzard as temperatures dipped to -35 C.

Later that day, the frozen bodies of Jagdish Patel, 39; his wife Vaishaliben Patel, 37; their 11-year-old daughter, Vihangi; and their three-year-old son, Dharmik, were found in a field near Emerson, Man., just metres from the border.

Investigators have said they believe the deaths were linked to a human smuggling operation.

Shand, from Deltona, Fla., pleaded not guilty to human smuggling and has yet to stand trial.

The affidavit alleges Shand told investigators after his arrest that Patel was the manager of a gambling establishment in Orange City, Fla., whom he met while gambling and picking up clients for his taxi business.

"Shand said (Harshkumar Ramanlal) Patel initially tried to recruit him to pick up Indian nationals who were illegally crossing the U.S.-Canada border into New York, but Shand declined," the document says.

"Shand agreed to pick up Indian nationals illegally crossing the border into Minnesota and this led to his arrest in January 2022."

The document alleges Shand had a phone with him that showed texts with "Dirty Harry," who is alleged to be Patel. The texts discussed the severe weather and the time and co-ordinates for pickup.

The affidavit says Patel was previously known to authorities on both sides of the border for attempting to enter the U.S. He was denied on numerous occasions going back several years. 

The document says that while investigators were looking to arrest Patel, he was in the U.S. illegally. 

The Canadian Press attempted Sunday to reach a lawyer in Chicago who is representing Patel but did not receive an immediate response.

Last year, police in India said other charges had been laid in the case.

Chaitanya Mandlik, deputy commissioner of police for Ahmedabad's crime branch in the state of Gujarat, said in May they had begun the process to extradite two men from Vancouver to face charges in India.

He said police had earlier charged three others in India with culpable homicide not amounting to murder, attempting culpable homicide, human trafficking and criminal conspiracy. It's alleged the three arranged for the family to land in Canada on a tourist visa.

It's alleged the two accused in Vancouver took over planning and logistical support to help them cross the border, Mandlik said.

The family who died was from Dingucha, a village of about 3,000 people in the Gujarat state of western India.

Baldev Patel told The Canadian Press he wasn't sure how his son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren decided on the route from Canada to the U.S., or from whom he sought help.

He said his son held different jobs, including teaching, farming and selling kites, but nothing worked out in India.

His son reached out when the family got to Canada, and he was happy they were going to the U.S., Patel said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 25, 2024.

—With files from Brittany Hobson in Winnipeg and Hina Alam in Fredericton

Rob Drinkwater, The Canadian Press