WINNIPEG — American investigators believe the deaths of four people, including a baby and a teen, whose bodies were found in Manitoba near the United States border are linked to a larger human smuggling operation.
The United States Attorney's Office for the District of Minnesota said Steve Shand, 47, has been charged with human smuggling after seven Indian nationals were found in the U.S. and the discovery of the bodies.
Court documents filed Wednesday in support of Shand's arrest allege one of the people spent a significant amount of money to come to Canada with a fraudulent student visa.
"The investigation into the death of the four individuals in Canada is ongoing along with an investigation into a larger human smuggling operation of which Shand is suspected of being a part," John Stanley, a special agent with Homeland Security Investigations, said in court documents.
According to the documents, a U.S. Border Patrol officer in North Dakota stopped a passenger van just south of the border Wednesday. Shand was driving and court documents allege he was with two undocumented Indian nationals.
Around the same time, the documents said five other people were spotted by law enforcement in the snow nearby. The group, who were also Indian nationals, told officers they'd been walking for more than 11 hours in frigid conditions.
A woman stopped breathing several times as she was transported to hospital. Court documents said she will require partial amputation of her hand. A man was also hospitalized for frostbite but was later released.
One of the men in the group was carrying a backpack that had baby supplies in it. Court documents said he told officers it belonged to a family who had become separated from the group overnight.
RCMP Assistant Commissioner Jane MacLatchy told a news conference in Winnipeg that once Mounties were notified the family may still be in Manitoba officers immediately began to look in the area.
After a difficult search in nearly impassible terrain, she said officers found three bodies together — a man, a woman and a baby — just 10 metres from the border near Emerson, Man. The search continued and a teen boy was found a short distance away. It is believed they died from exposure.
"It is an absolute and heartbreaking tragedy," MacLatchy said.
They were wearing winter clothing, she said, but it would not have been enough to save them with the freezing conditions.
"These victims faced not only the cold weather but also endless fields, large snowdrifts and complete darkness," MacLatchy added.
Shand was arrested Wednesday and remains in custody. American authorities allege in that documents that Shand has likely been involved in other border crossings, including two in December.
Officials in both countries said it is more common to see crossings north from the U.S. into Canada. Border crossings into Canada on foot increased in 2016 following the election of former U.S. president Donald Trump.
That December, two men lost their fingers to severe frostbite after getting caught in a blizzard while walking from the U.S. into Manitoba. A few months later, a woman died of hypothermia near the border on the American side.
In 2019, a pregnant woman who walked across the border was rescued after she became trapped in a snowbank and went into labour.
Emerson-Franklin Reeve Dave Carlson said illegal crossings there have dropped significantly in recent years. He was surprised to learn of the four deaths.
"If you look at the political climate on both sides of the border, it's just mind-boggling to me that anyone had that sense of desperation to try and cross in extreme conditions."
Deputy Patrick Klegstad with the Kittson County Sheriff's Office in Minnesota said his department is supporting the American side of the investigation. Its officers patrol the "desolate" open fields near the border every day, he said, and the area where people crossed is treacherous, especially in the cold.
"Why they picked that spot to travel would be the million-dollar question."
Klegstad, echoing Canadian officials, said it's uncommon to have people make the harrowing journey from Canada into the U.S.
"It's not very often we do have southbounders."
Mounties warned that people should not attempt to cross the border outside a checkpoint, in either direction, because it can be deadly.
"Do not listen to anyone who tells you they can get you to your destination safely. They cannot," MacLatchy said.
Anthony Good, a sector chief border patrol agent in Grand Forks, N.D., said anyone thinking of crossing the border illegally in these treacherous conditions should not do it.
“Smugglers only care about the money they are going to make and have zero regard for lives lost,” he said in a statement.
— With files from Fakiha Baig in Edmonton and Brittany Hobson in Emerson
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 20, 2022.
Kelly Geraldine Malone, The Canadian Press