The bodies were found on Wednesday in barren, snow-covered terrain just feet from the U.S. border in Manitoba, Canada: a man, a woman, a teenager and an infant who appeared to have frozen to death while trying to cross into the United States, according to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
All four have been tentatively identified as members of a family who may have been victims of a human-smuggling operation, the authorities said. Their bodies were discovered about 30 to 40 feet from the U.S. border, in a remote area six miles east of Emerson, Manitoba, the authorities said.
“It is an absolute and heartbreaking tragedy,” Assistant Commissioner Jane MacLatchy of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police said at a news conference on Thursday, adding that it appeared that all four had died of exposure to the cold.
She emphasized that investigators consider the four to be victims.
“We’re very concerned that this attempted crossing may have been facilitated in some way, and that these individuals, including an infant, were left on their own in the middle of a blizzard when the weather hovered around minus 35 degrees Celsius, factoring the wind,” Commissioner MacLatchy said. “These victims faced not only the cold weather, but also endless fields, large snowdrifts and complete darkness.”
The bodies were found after U.S. Border Patrol agents stopped Steve Shand, 47, of Deltona, Fla., on Wednesday, while he was driving a 15-passenger van less than one mile south of the Canadian border in a rural area between the official ports of entry at Lancaster, Minn., and Pembina, N.D., federal prosecutors in Minnesota said. He was charged with human smuggling.
Law enforcement officials said that two passengers in the rented van that Mr. Shand was driving were undocumented citizens of India.
While Mr. Shand and his passengers were being taken to a Border Patrol station in North Dakota, law enforcement officers found five more Indian citizens walking in the snow about a quarter-mile south of the Canadian border, in the direction of where Mr. Shand had been arrested, prosecutors said.
The five Indian nationals appeared to be headed to an unstaffed gas plant in St. Vincent, Minn., and told law enforcement officials that they had expected to be picked up by someone, prosecutors said. They said that they had been walking for more than 11 hours and had crossed the border from Canada into the United States, prosecutors said.
All five were wearing identical winter gear, including fur-trimmed hoods, black gloves, black balaclavas and insulated rubber boots, court documents said. Mr. Shand had a set of the same black gloves and the same black balaclava.
All of the Indian citizens spoke Gujarati, a language spoken in Gujarat, on the western coast of India, court documents said.
One member of the group said he was carrying a backpack for a family of four Indian citizens who had become separated from his group during the night, court documents said. Inside the backpack were children’s clothes, a diaper, toys and children’s medication.
Canadian authorities then began a search with snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles that led to the discovery of the four bodies in Manitoba.
One Indian woman in the group that had survived the crossing into the United States stopped breathing several times while she was being transported by the Border Patrol, court documents showed. She was flown to a hospital where she will likely require partial amputation of one of her hands because of exposure to the extreme cold, the documents stated.
Prosecutors said that Mr. Shand made his first appearance on Thursday in U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota, where he was ordered to remain in custody until a hearing on Monday. It was not immediately clear if he had a lawyer.
In a criminal complaint, a special agent with Homeland Security Investigations said that the four deaths were being investigated “along with an investigation into a larger human smuggling operation of which Shand is suspected of being a part.”
According to the complaint, a Border Patrol agent said he knew of three other smuggling operations that happened in the same place where Mr. Shand was arrested. Two were in December and one was earlier this month, according to the complaint.
The complaint states that one of the Indian citizens detained on Wednesday said that he had paid a “significant amount” of money to enter Canada from India with a fraudulently obtained student visa.
The man said he had walked across the border into the United States and had expected to be picked up by someone who would take him to his uncle’s house in Chicago.
Commissioner MacLatchy said she had a message for anyone who was thinking of crossing the international border in Manitoba: “Just don’t do it.”
“Do not listen to anyone who tells you they can get you to your destination safely,” she said. “They cannot. Even with proper clothing, it is not a journey that is possible.”
Christine Chung contributed reporting.