Florida man pleads not guilty in connection with 2022 deaths of 4 Indian migrants

Houston: A Florida man has pleaded not guilty to human smuggling charges in a case linked to the discovery last year of a family of four migrants from India found frozen to death just steps from the Canada-US border, according to media reports.

Steve Shand, 48, waived the reading of the indictment before entering the plea via videoconference as part of a brief but long-awaited arraignment in Duluth, Minnesota.

Shand is accused of illegally bringing migrants from India into the US during a frigid January night in 2022, the Grand Forks Herald newspaper reported.

“Not guilty,” Shand said when asked by Minnesota magistrate Judge Leo Brisbois how he was pleading to the charges — one count each of bringing people into the US illegally and of transporting them inside the country.

He was arrested in January 2022 in a remote area of northern Minnesota, where US border agents encountered him with two Indian nationals in a rented passenger van.

Just over the border in Manitoba, approximately 12 metres from the Canada-US border, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) discovered the bodies of four people authorities believe froze to death while trying to slip into the US undetected, The Canadian Press news agency reported. Relatives have identified the victims as Jagdish Patel, 39, his wife Vaishaliben, 37, and their two children: daughter Vihangi, 11, and three-year-old son Dharmik.

Three persons in India are facing charges in the deaths of the Patel family.

The family of four died from exposure.

Authorities also found five more Indians walking in dangerous conditions along the same road Shand was arrested.

One of them was carrying a backpack containing children’s clothes, toys and a diaper that he said belonged to a family of four that got separated from the larger group during their 12-hour overnight odyssey.

Shands faces up to 20 years in prison if he is found guilty.

A jury trial had been scheduled for July 17 in Fergus Falls, but Brisbois — who has yet to rule on a number of discovery and production motions — said the final date depends on the trial judge.

Authorities in the US suspect the case is linked to a larger human smuggling operation — a problem long associated with activity along the southern border with Mexico, but that some Capitol Hill lawmakers say is growing in scope up north.

The US Customs and Border Protection agency reported 11,583 “encounters” with non-Canadian citizens last month at or near the northern border, up from 5,317 in April 2022.

For fiscal 2023, similar encounters already total 76,471, more than the 68,935 recorded during all 12 months of the 2022 fiscal year.

In April this year, 8 people — believed to be two families of Indian and Romanian descent — drowned while trying to cross the St Lawrence River into the United States from Canada illegally.