A 15-passenger van stranded in a snow-filled ditch would have stuck out as odd to winter-hardy Minnesotans living along the Canada-U.S. border.

A 15-passenger van stranded in a snow-filled ditch would have stuck out as odd to winter-hardy Minnesotans living along the Canada-U.S. border.

All too familiar with stories of illegal crossings, alarm bells were likely ringing when a snow-removal operator who came to the driver’s aid spotted the vehicle’s three occupants and Missouri licence plates.

<p>FACEBOOK</p><p>Steve Shand of Deltona, Fla.</p>

FACEBOOK

Steve Shand of Deltona, Fla.

Wednesday morning’s chance encounter on a treacherous rural road northeast of St. Vincent, Minn., set off a chain of events that led to the tragic discovery of four frozen bodies on the Manitoba side of the border hours later.

The Indian family — a man, woman, teenage boy and infant — died in a field 10 kilometres east of Emerson as they attempted, in the dark, to trudge through fields of deep snow drifts over the border in -35C blizzard conditions.

One of the survivors, a woman, nearly died after being rescued, and will now likely have part of her hand amputated due to frostbite. Authorities were told the group had been walking for hours.

The RCMP were working to confirm the victims’ identities Friday. Floridian Steven Shand, arrested behind the wheel of the van with two of the survivors, is in custody in Grand Forks, facing human-smuggling charges.

Law enforcement agencies on both sides of the border are investigating what is believed to be a wider smuggling operation involved in earlier crossings in the same area.

A 10-page affidavit obtained by the Free Press offers a timeline and harrowing portrait of the fateful journey, along with details of some of the planning that allegedly went into it.

As the 11 undocumented Indian nationals made final preparations on the Canadian side of the border, Shand, 47, allegedly picked up the white van at an Enterprise Rent-A-Car lot at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport Monday. It was due to be returned Thursday.

From there, he embarked on a 650-kilometre drive north to the border, where he was expecting to collect the migrants who had illegally crossed into the U.S., according to the affidavit written by Homeland Security Investigations special agent John Stanley.

Along the way, Shand allegedly stopped at a Walmart in Fargo to buy bottled water, juice and snacks for the group he was due to meet.

On Tuesday night, the group arrived at a drop-off spot in Manitoba. One of the survivors, named as V.D. in the document, told a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent the spot was about a kilometre north of the border.

The group battled unforgiving, blinding conditions, including high winds and an extreme wind chill, as they walked through deep snow drifts in wide-open fields. The four family members became separated from the others.

While the two adults and two children suffered horrific deaths, the seven others entered Minnesota and pressed on in the early morning hours Wednesday, looking for the white van they expected to take them deeper into the U.S.

Two, identified in the affidavit as S.P. and Y.P., were picked up by Shand, wrote Stanley.

But things went further awry when the van veered off a road in a rural area not far from the border.

“(Shand) was driving through blowing snow and snow drifts,” Stanley wrote. “The weather was severe at the time, with high winds, blowing snow and temperatures well below zero (Fahrenheit).”

The driver of a snow-removal truck alerted U.S. border patrol after he pulled the vehicle out of a ditch about 11 kilometres northeast of St. Vincent on Wednesday morning, the affidavit stated.

The man told a CBP agent he saw two passengers he believed were of Indian or Pakistani origin, and Shand, the driver, claimed he was on his way to visit friends in Winnipeg.

Ronald Gatheridge, who has a snow-removal business in nearby Humboldt, Minn., didn’t know the identity of the driver, but said it isn’t normal to see a vehicle in a ditch in the sparsely-populated area.

“Most people here know how to drive in these conditions,” he told the Free Press Friday. “It’s usually the people who aren’t familiar with the area.”

CBP agent Christopher Oliver stopped Shand’s rental van at about 8:30 a.m. on Minnesota Highway 75, between the Pembina, N.D., and Lancaster, Minn., border stations, according to the court document.

As Shand, S.P. and Y.P. were taken to the CBP station in Pembina, agents found five other Indian nationals nearby, about a half-kilometre south of the border.

They were walking in the direction of where Shand and the others were arrested, Stanley wrote.

All five were suffering from hypothermia and frostbite.

One of them, a woman, stopped breathing several times, was airlifted to a hospital in St. Paul, Minn., and will likely lose part of her hand, according to Stanley and the CBP.

The remaining migrants, including a man who was briefly hospitalized for frostbite, were in CBP custody for processing.

After being taken to the Pembina border station Wednesday morning, one of the migrants, named only as V.D., said they had been walking for more than 11 hours. He was carrying a backpack containing diapers, children’s clothes, toys and medication.

That’s when U.S. agents learned the family was missing.

Members of the RCMP integrated border enforcement team were alerted just before 9:30 a.m. A grid search east of Emerson came to a tragic conclusion when the four bodies were found at about 1:30 p.m., roughly a dozen metres north of the boundary.

Five of the survivors were wearing identical winter clothing — jackets with fur-trimmed hoods, gloves and balaclavas that were all new and in black — and insulated rubber boots.

Shand was allegedly carrying gloves and a balaclava that matched.

The two other migrants also had winter clothes that looked new.

All seven speak Gujarati, a language native to the state of Gujarat, which is on India’s northwest coast and borders Pakistan. Most had limited or no English, according to Stanley.

In an interview, one of the migrants allegedly said he had paid a “significant” amount of money to enter Canada from India under a fraudulently obtained visa.

He did not intend to study and, after crossing illegally into the U.S. on foot, he expected to be picked up and driven to his uncle’s home in Chicago, Stanley wrote.

Agents claim they also found evidence suggesting Shand was involved an illegal crossing just days earlier

An Alamo rental agreement for a “full-size passenger van,” dated Jan. 10, was found inside the Enterprise van Shand was driving, Stanley wrote.

The Alamo van was due to be returned Jan. 13.

Agents also found a receipt dated Jan. 11 for a room at the La Quinta by Wyndham hotel in Grand Forks.

Shand, a naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in Jamaica, refused to speak to investigators after he was arrested, Stanley wrote.

Shand was charged with human smuggling. He is due to return to court Monday.

“The investigation into the death of the four individuals in Canada is ongoing along with an investigation into a larger human smuggling operation of which Shand is suspected of being a part,” Stanley wrote.

Shand is from the Florida city of Deltona, which sits on a lake about 40 kilometres north of Orlando. It is 3,000 kilometres from the desolate spot where he was arrested.

Three previous human-smuggling incidents have taken place northeast of St. Vincent recently, wrote Stanley, who is based in Pembina.

On Jan. 12, border patrol agent Kevin Backes found boot prints from three people who had walked into the U.S. from Canada.

Based on the tread, they were the same brand of boots worn by five of the seven Indian nationals apprehended Wednesday.

A man who lives east of Emerson previously told the Free Press the RCMP had stopped by his rural property after tracks were found in the area last week.

Two other incidents likely took place on Dec. 12 and Dec. 22. In the first one, the RCMP found a backpack at a suspected drop-off point. It contained a price tag in India’s currency, the rupee.

chris.kitching@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @chriskitching

Chris Kitching
Reporter

As a general assignment reporter, Chris covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.