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One year after family's death at U.S.-Canada border, questions remain

The bodies of the Patel family, originally from India, were found on Jan. 19, 2022, near Emerson, Manitoba. The investigation continues for U.S. and Canadian law enforcement.

Border death family
Jagdishkumar Patel, his wife, Vaishaliben, and their children, 11-year-old Vihangi and 3-year-old Dharmik.
Contribute / Vibes of India
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GRAND FORKS — One year after a family was found dead about 40 feet from the U.S.-Canada border, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police again is asking the public to come forward with information.

The bodies of the Patel family, originally from India, were found on Jan. 19, 2022, near Emerson, Manitoba. They were identified as 39-year-old Jagdishkumar, 37-year-old Vaishaliben, 11-year-old Vihangi and 3-year-old Dharmik.

The family died from exposure, according to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Investigators believe the family planned to illegally cross into the U.S. and were dropped off with a larger group, but then separated from them.

“We know people have information,” said Julie Courchaine, of the RCMP. “[We are] pleading for them to come forward and talk to us. I mean, this was really a preventable tragedy.”

As the RCMP continues to investigate, the agency's main goal is to fill in the timeline of the Patel family’s movements in Canada. A news release issued on the one-year anniversary of the tragedy outlines what investigators know about the journey and what is still missing.

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For example:

  • At approximately 2:30 p.m. on Jan. 12, 2022, the Patel family arrived at Toronto Pearson International Airport. There is video footage of the family in the Toronto airport. They traveled internationally from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
  • The family was picked up from the airport by a private vehicle. They stayed at a hotel in the Mississauga area between Jan. 12 and 13. The Patels traveled within the Toronto area using private vehicles as well as a ride-sharing service.
  • Between Jan. 14 and 16, the family moved between the Mississauga area and the city of Welland, Ontario.
  • It is believed the family left Mississauga shortly before arriving in Manitoba. 
  • They arrived in Emerson, Manitoba, late in the evening on Jan. 18 to begin their journey into the U.S. Investigators are unsure if the family was in Manitoba earlier than Jan. 18.
  • The Patel family’s bodies were found on the morning of Jan. 19, 2022.

The timeline has a gap of two days between when the Patels left the Mississauga area and arrived at the Emerson border. Investigators don’t know how the family traveled from southern Ontario to Manitoba.
The RCMP will be traveling nationally as well as internationally in the coming weeks, as the agency tries to “move the investigation forward.”

“We want to find out if there’s people responsible here within Canada. That’s our main priority,” Courchaine said.

At the border

It remains unclear why the Patel family was attempting to enter the United States. Clues into how their journey unfolded, however, may lie with a Florida man named Steve Shand.

The same day the Patel family’s bodies were found in southern Manitoba, Shand was arrested near the U.S.-Canada border, in northwest Minnesota, for allegedly transporting two people originally from India who were in the U.S. illegally.

Shand is suspected to be a “smuggler of undocumented foreign nationals,” according to a U.S. Border Patrol agent’s statement in an affidavit in Shand’s federal case.

STEVE SHAND.jpg
Steve Shand, in a booking photo from the Grand Forks County Correctional Center, is being charged with one count of human smuggling, after being arreste dby Border Patrol agents on Wednesday. Jan. 19.
Submitted / Grand Forks County Correctional Center

A group of five Indian people were arrested for being in the U.S. illegally near the same time and place of Shand’s arrest, the affidavit said.

One from the group of five was carrying a backpack. According to the affidavit, he told law enforcement it belonged to an Indian family of four who had been walking with them earlier. He also said “his group had become separated from the family during the night, and he did not know where the family was,” the affidavit said.

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The four frozen bodies of the Patel family were found later that day. According to the affidavit, they were “tentatively” identified as the family that had been separated from their group the previous night.

It was a treacherously frigid day.

“It was so cold. … Our officers were outside for maybe a couple of minutes and they had to go in — you know, to a vehicle that was running, or something — to warm up. It was so, so cold,” Courchaine said.

Shand is charged with human smuggling, which has a maximum penalty of 10 years in federal prison. His court hearings have been postponed multiple times following his conditional release. A sixth motion for continuance was accepted by the court in December.

Shand’s arraignment is scheduled for Feb. 21.

Lure of the U.S.-Canada border

Though it’s unclear what draws smugglers to the U.S.-Canada border, there are a few theories. Part of the reason, according to Courchaine, could be because the border is “so long” and much of it is “unmanned.”

030922 Border Patrol.jpg
Katie Seimer, deputy patrol agent in charge of the Pembina Border Patrol station, and David Marcus, border patrol agent who manages strategic communications for the Grand Forks Sector, show the Herald reporters the rural area near the Canadian border where Steve Shand was arrested on January 19, 2022. Shand was arrested for smuggling Indian nationals into the country. A family of four died while attempting to cross the border.
Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

“We patrol to the best of our abilities with the manpower that we have. … The best we can do is try to identify [smuggling] when it happens,” said David Marcus, of the Grand Forks sector of the U.S. Border Patrol.

The Grand Forks sector covers 861 miles of border. The agency collaborates with other law enforcement agencies for intelligence, but civilians also play a major role.

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“Those small communities up there, they are our eyes and ears. They know when something’s out of place. They are oftentimes our best resource for when there may be a smuggling incident of some kind that’s happening,” Marcus said.

According to Marcus, it's likely that illegal border crossing stays at a fairly consistent rate throughout the year. However, the winter weather makes people more vulnerable to being caught.

“It seems like we do catch more people in the winter because of the weather. They get stranded and they end up reaching out for assistance by calling 911 and things like that,” Marcus said.

Another federal case was filed after two men from Georgia were arrested in Pembina County for conspiracy to commit human smuggling in November of 2022 . Ernesto Falcon Jr. and Rodolfo Arzola-Carrillo were found with seven people who were in the U.S. illegally.

According to an affidavit in the case, Falcon and Arzola-Carrillo had to call for assistance after their vehicle got stuck in the snow, because “weather conditions were rapidly deteriorating due to the temperature, snow, and wind,” according to an affidavit in the case.

“This is not an easy journey. It’s not worth risking your lives,” Courchaine said.

For years, the RCMP has seen people crossing between the U.S. and Canada “in a manner that is not safe,” according to Courchaine.

“Our big concern is we don’t want anyone to die from trying to cross the border, and to get the message out there that it’s … not a journey that anyone should take. It’s just not worth it,” Courchaine said.

Read more
The Great North Innocence Project got involved in the case after the autopsy report for 3-week-old Starlight Black Elk showed she died from sudden infant death syndrome or SIDS.

Sav Kelly joined the Grand Forks Herald in August 2022.

Kelly covers public safety, including local crime and the courts system.

Readers can reach Kelly at (701) 780-1102 or skelly@gfherald.com.
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