EMERSON, MANITOBA — Dressed in new winter jackets, balaclavas and insulated rubber boots, a group of Indian citizens walked hours in the prairie darkness through fields of knee-deep snow hoping to get to the United States.
They tried to follow the same route taken by three people a week earlier through southern Manitoba. But any boot prints that had been there before would have been filled with snow.
They faced high winds and temperatures so severe that a family of four, including a baby and a teen, didn't make across the border and died in the snow.
Seven did, including a woman who had to be flown to hospital, where doctors were deciding whether to amputate one of her hands.
Court documents filed Thursday by the United States Attorney's Office for the District of Minnesota outline the harrowing journey and make allegations of a larger human smuggling operation.
U.S. investigators have charged Steve Shand, 47, of Florida with human smuggling. He is to appear in court again Monday.
Shand's lawyer, public defender Douglas Micko, said Friday he had no comment.
An affidavit from special agent John Stanley with Homeland Security says that on Wednesday morning border patrol agents stopped Shand, who was driving a 15-seat, white passenger van just south of the border in a rural area between Minnesota and North Dakota. Two passengers inside were undocumented Indian nationals. Shand was arrested.
The van had Missouri licence plates. Agents found plastic cups, bottled water and juice, and snacks in the back of the vehicle, say the documents. The items are detailed on receipts from a day earlier from a Walmart in Fargo, N.D.
A rental agreement in Shand's name shows the van was picked up from the Minneapolis airport on Monday, say the documents. A receipt shows he stayed in a hotel in Grand Forks, N.D., on Tuesday.
At one point Wednesday morning, the van ended up in a snow-filled ditch. The documents say the driver of a snow removal truck pulled the van out and spoke with Shand. The driver said Shand told him that he was on his way to visit friends in Winnipeg.
Shortly after agents stopped the van, they found five other Indian nationals in the area. They had "walked across the border expecting to be picked up by someone on the U.S. side," say the documents.
One person told officers they had been dropped off near the border in Canada and had been walking for 11 hours. A visit to the desolate area this week showed barren fields, roads covered in snow and inaccessible by vehicles, and few buildings.
They were all wearing the same winter clothing. Most were unable to speak English and spoke Gujarati, a language spoken in Gujarat, a region in western India.
One man had a backpack filled with children's clothes, a diaper, toys and some children's medication. He said he was carrying the pack for a family of four who had been separated from the group
Mounties in Manitoba were notified and quickly started a search. Officers found the four bodies. RCMP have said it's believed the four died from exposure.
One man who did cross told agents he paid a large amount of money to get to Canada from India on a fraudulently obtained student visa, say the documents. He said he did not intend to study in Canada but wanted to get to the U.S. He expected to be picked up across the border by someone who would drive him to a relative's home in Chicago, he said.
The documents say border agents reported three separate instances of human smuggling in the same location where Shand was arrested.
Twice in December, agents found footprints in the snow. The documents say two groups of four appeared to have walked across the border into the U.S. and were picked up by someone in a vehicle.
RCMP also found a backpack at what was believed to be the drop-off point in Canada. Inside was a price tag showing a price in rupees, Indian currency.
On Jan. 12, the documents say, agents found another set of prints in the snow made by three people who had walked across the border. The prints appear to have been made by the same brand of boots worn by those who tried to cross this week.
"The investigation into the death of the four individuals in Canada is ongoing along with an investigation into a larger human smuggling operation," Stanley said in the affidavit.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 21, 2022.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship
Brittany Hobson, The Canadian Press