Frozen in terror, frozen in time RCMP officers, U.S. border agents affected by Indian family’s American dream that ended in a tragic -35 C nightmare
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KITTSON COUNTY, MINN. — Kathryn Siemer still remembers the feeling of dread when U.S. agents opened a backpack full of children’s items after rescuing seven Indian nationals trying to cross the Manitoba border during a -35 C blizzard last January.
The bag contained a diaper, clothes, toys and medication, yet there were no kids in the exhausted and frostbitten group of migrants who’d set off from the Emerson area the previous evening.
One of the migrants revealed he was carrying the backpack for a missing family of four who became separated from the larger group while trudging through snowy fields and deep drifts in darkness.
“Your heart kind of drops, especially when kids are involved,” said Kathryn Siemer, the acting patrol agent in charge of the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol station in Pembina, N.D. “Children don’t have a choice.”
A search led to the RCMP’s discovery of the frozen bodies of Jagdishkumar Patel, 39; his wife Vaishaliben Patel, 37; their 11-year-old daughter, Vihangi; and their three-year-old son, Dharmik, in a field about 10 kilometres east of Emerson.
Some 11,000 kilometres from their home village in India, they died of exposure just steps from the Canada-U.S. border, while trying to walk across in pursuit of a better life.
Investigators believe the 11 migrants were victims of a larger human smuggling network that profits from desperation.
Wearing newly purchased winter clothing, the migrants were dropped off about a kilometre north of the border to attempt the illegal crossing in unforgiving and unfamiliar conditions.
For the RCMP officers and U.S. border agents who took part in the rescue and search on Jan. 19, 2022, the tragic things they witnessed will likely stay with them the rest of their lives.
RCMP Cpl. Pierre Demers learned the victims were a family when he arrived at the scene to help with the investigation.
It was one of the toughest scenes of his nearly 14-year career.
“Of course, everyone is going to be affected by it,” Demers said during an interview at the RCMP detachment in Emerson, about 90 kilometres south of Winnipeg. “It stays with you after that. You just think about it — this is a whole family, overnight, gone.”
A child’s blanket was in the snow near the bodies.
Demers recognized it in October while he watched newly released surveillance video of the Patels arriving at Toronto Pearson International Airport following a journey via Dubai.
“It’s a tough situation to deal with,” he said.
In the footage, the blanket was draped across luggage on a trolley pushed by Jagdishkumar, while his wife and children walked behind him.
Siemer tries to not let the tragedy affect her daily work, but she doesn’t want to forget it.
“It’s a reminder of how important our job is,” she said during a visit to the spot in Kittson County, Minn., where the seven survivors were found about a half-kilometre south of the border.
Following the incident, there were official debriefs and informal conversations among co-workers. Counselling was available, if needed, to help officers process what they experienced.
The international response began around 8:30 a.m., when a local resident pulled a 15-passenger rental van out of a ditch about 11 kilometres northeast of St. Vincent, Minn.
The hamlet is home to 57 people, according to a road sign, and is across the Red River from Pembina. Like their cross-border neighbours in Emerson, locals are all too familiar with illegal crossings.
When border patrol arrived, the van was occupied by two Indian nationals and driver Steve Shand, 48, of Deltona, Fla., according to investigators.
Siemer said the driver was trying to leave the scene.
Agents soon spotted the figures of five migrants walking through a ground blizzard with howling winds, after getting lost in whiteout conditions during the night.
They were on a dirt road that doesn’t get plowed.
“At that point, it becomes a rescue,” said Siemer. “(The agents) noticed two of them were not doing well with hypothermia and frostbite. Safety is the main priority at that point.”
“Of course, everyone is going to be affected by it… It stays with you after that. You just think about it — this is a whole family, overnight, gone.”–RCMP Cpl. Pierre Demers
A woman’s injuries were so severe part of her hand had to be amputated in hospital.
“Is anyone else still out there?” is a question agents ask when they intercept people. No one mentioned the missing family until they returned to the station and asked questions about the backpack.
Often, said Siemer, people are afraid to talk.
About four hours later, the Patels were discovered roughly 200 yards from an unplowed road that stops just short of the border.
The family was from Dingucha, a farming village of about 3,000 people in the western Indian state of Gujarat. The seven others were from the same state.
Demers was in Morris when he received a call that three bodies had been found by the RCMP’s integrated border enforcement team.
IBET officers found a fourth body nearby while following tracks in the snow.
Police had to use a side-by-side ultra terrain vehicle to get through the snow and access the remote scene.
The sparsely populated landscape is unforgiving in winter. There is nowhere to hide in wide-open fields, and farm yards or clusters of trees are kilometres apart.
It is easy to get lost or end up walking off course or in circles, especially at night or in severe weather, according to officials on both sides of the border.
“The weather is harsh out here. It doesn’t take any prisoners,” said Siemer.
The migrants who survived had been wandering for more than 11 hours after they and the Patels were dropped off about a kilometre north of the border.
While the blizzard raged overnight, the survivors took refuge near an unstaffed natural gas plant on the Canadian side of the border, said Siemer.
She believes they were instructed to walk toward the lights of an unstaffed plant on the U.S. side, close to where the van was found and the others were discovered on foot.
It is a “high incident” area for illegal crossings.
The survivors were placed into deportation proceedings and released from custody. U.S. officials declined to comment on the status of the proceedings.
People involved in immigration and refugee work in Minnesota believe the survivors left the state and travelled to their final destination in the U.S. to litigate their removal proceedings.
One of the migrants told officials he planned to visit family in Chicago after spending a large sum of money on a fake student visa to enter Canada. The Patels also had family in Illinois.
Shand, meanwhile, is scheduled to stand trial on human-smuggling charges in Minnesota in April. His case has been delayed because his home in Florida was hit by Hurricane Ian in September, according to court documents.
The RCMP has not announced any arrests in Canada, while piecing together the Patels’ movements following their arrival in Toronto Jan. 12, 2022.
The family was picked up at the airport by private vehicle, stayed in hotels and private accommodation and used ride-hailing apps before somehow travelling 2,000 kilometres to Emerson.
Detectives, who’ve checked with air, rail and bus companies, believe the Patels left Toronto shortly before the attempted crossing.
They also believe the migrants and smugglers communicated via secure text-messaging apps.
On Sunday, police in Ahmedabad, India arrested two men who allegedly arranged visas for the Patels as part of the human-trafficking network.
The men are charged with culpable homicide not amounting to murder.
Two others — alleged to be “crossing agents” — are wanted in Canada and the U.S., according to police in India, who said the migrants were charged about $9,000 each.
Approaching the one-year anniversary, the tragedy is an occasional topic in and around Emerson, a town of about 700. The return of frigid weather has served as a reminder for residents.
“It’s just so horrible, so awful — that they would come here to be safe, and that would happen to them,” said Marnie Beninger. “The brutality of the people who (dropped) them off knowing how far it is from the border and how cold it was is unbelievable.”
Sherry Weir still thinks of the desperate lengths the migrants went to in a bid to reach the U.S.
“These people aren’t bad,” she said. “They want a better life.”
As a general assignment reporter, Chris covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.