DULUTH, Minn. — A Florida man pleaded not guilty to human smuggling charges Friday 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-U.S. border.
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, Minn.
"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 U.S. illegally and of transporting them inside the country.
A jury trial had been scheduled for July 17 in Fergus Falls, Minn., an hour's drive southeast of Fargo, but Brisbois — who has yet to rule on a number of discovery and production motions — said the final date depends on the trial judge.
Shand, from Deltona, Fla., was arrested in January 2022 in a remote area of northern Minnesota, where U.S. Border Patrol officers encountered him with two Indian nationals in a rented passenger van.
Just over the border, near Emerson, Man., RCMP officers discovered the bodies of four people authorities believe died of exposure while trying to slip into the U.S. on foot. Shand is not charged in the deaths.
Court documents filed at the time say it wasn't long before agents encountered a group of five Indian migrants as they trudged through a forbidding blizzard and -35 C temperatures toward the location where 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 had become separated from the larger group during their 12-hour overnight odyssey.
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.
Police in India say they have since charged three men who allegedly acted as immigration agents for the family and provided them with paperwork.
All three — Dashrath Chaudhary, Yogesh Patel and Bhavesh Patel, no relation — face charges of culpable homicide not amounting to murder, attempting culpable homicide, human trafficking and criminal conspiracy.
Authorities in the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 during 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.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 26, 2023.
— By James McCarten in Washington, D.C., with files from Hina Alam in Fredericton
The Canadian Press