A Florida man faces a federal charge of human smuggling after a family of four people, including a baby, was found frozen to death in a blizzard at the Minnesota-Canada border.
Steve Shand, 47, was charged Thursday in U.S. District Court. According to the criminal complaint, Shand was arrested Wednesday as he drove through a howling storm on a dirt road in remote northwestern Minnesota in a 15-passenger van that he rented at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
Authorities said Shand was planning to pick up 11 Indian nationals attempting to enter the United States illegally after walking across the border in subzero temperatures from Canada into Kittson County.
Two of the unauthorized immigrants were in the van with Shand when he was arrested about 7 miles northeast of St. Vincent, Minn., according to the complaint. Five others were taken into custody about a quarter-mile south of the border as they walked toward their meeting place.
Four others — a man, a woman, a teenage boy and the baby — died after becoming separated from the group during a night when the temperature hit 10 degrees below and windchills were likely at least 30 below. The four dead were all from the same family, said one of the unauthorized immigrants who was arrested.
According to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), the family didn’t quite make it to the United States. Their bodies were found in the snow on the Canadian side, about 6 miles east of Emerson, Manitoba, just 10 yards from the border.
One of the people arrested, a woman, stopped breathing several times while in custody and may need to have part of a frostbitten hand amputated, police said.
Federal authorities said they suspect Shand is part of a larger smuggling operation in what border patrol officials have called a high-volume trafficking area. One of the men detained told authorities he paid “a significant amount of money” to enter Canada illegally on a fraudulent student visa and planned to make his way to the home of an uncle in Chicago.
Shand, of Deltona, Fla., rented the van on Monday at the airport for three days, according to the complaint. He stopped at a Walmart in Fargo on Tuesday and stocked the van with bottled water, juice and snacks.
By Wednesday morning, Shand was in Kittson County, where he promptly got his van stuck in a snow-filled ditch. A passing snow-removal truck pulled the van out. The driver spoke to Shand, according to the complaint, and Shand told him he was on his way to visit relatives in Winnipeg. The driver noted that Shand was accompanied by two men who appeared to be of Indian or Pakistani descent.
Not long after, at about 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, Shand was arrested, and the group of five on foot were detained shortly after.
One man in that group had a backpack containing baby gear including clothing, toys, diapers and medicine. But there was no baby with them. U.S. officials alerted their Canadian counterparts, who launched a search about 9:30 a.m. Wednesday and found the bodies of the family about four hours later.
Authorities said the unauthorized immigrants were from Gujarat, a region in western India. Most spoke little or no English. All were wearing new cold-weather gear, much of it identical, including hooded coats, insulated boots, gloves and balaclavas.
It was Shand’s second trip to the area this month, the complaint said. Earlier in January, he had also rented a full-size van at the airport for three days, according to receipts police discovered. They also found a receipt from a stay at a La Quinta hotel in Grand Forks, N.D., during the time he had the first rental van.
Authorities said they recently found evidence of other border crossings in the area where Shand was arrested. Border patrol officers discovered footprints in the snow at the same time as Shand’s earlier January trip, and the footprints appeared to have the same tread pattern as the boots that several of the latest detainees were wearing.
Officers also discovered evidence of two border crossings in December, the complaint said.
Shand is in custody pending a court hearing Monday.
Here’s video from an RCMP briefing Thursday morning, as posted by Global News out of Canada: