Men charged with smuggling Indian family who died near Canada-U.S. border plead not guilty

Manitoba

A man accused of helping smuggle people across the U.S.-Canada border into Minnesota, including four members of an Indian family who froze to death in 2022, pleaded not guilty Wednesday to seven counts of human smuggling.

Harshkumar Ramanlal Patel, Steven Shand face charges of human smuggling Steve Karnowski · The Associated Press

· Posted: Mar 27, 2024 2:43 PM EDT | Last Updated: March 27

Harshkumar Patel (a.k.a. ‘Dirty Harry’) has pleaded not guilty to multiple charges in the deaths of an Indian family who died of exposure while crossing the Canada-U.S. border in January 2022. (Sherburne County Sheriff) A man accused of helping smuggle people across the U.S.-Canada border into Minnesota, including four members of an Indian family who froze to death in 2022, pleaded not guilty Wednesday to seven counts of human smuggling.

Harshkumar Ramanlal Patel, 28, who prosecutors say went by the alias “Dirty Harry,” entered his plea during a brief teleconference with U.S. Magistrate Judge Leo Brisbois of Duluth, Minn.

Steven Shand, 49, was hired by Patel to drive the Indian nationals from the Canadian border to the Chicago area, authorities said. Shand, of Deltona, Florida, pleaded not guilty during the same hearing to four counts contained in an updated indictment against them that was unsealed last week.

Shand was arrested and charged with human smuggling two years ago. He remains free on his own recognizance. Proceedings in his case had been put on hold several times before Patel’s arrest last month. Patel remains in federal custody.

In a recent court document, an agent with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said Patel has been refused a U.S. visa at least five times, including four at U.S. consulates in India and once at the U.S. consulate in Ottawa, Canada. He is in the U.S. illegally, the agent said.

Patel’s name didn’t emerge until he was arrested in Chicago last month on a previously sealed warrant issued last September. Defence attorney Thomas Leinenweber did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Unsealed court papers connect Patel with a human trafficking group based in the northwest Indian state of Gujarat. The group allegedly would get Indian nationals into Canada on student visas, then move them on to the Chicago area.

The migrants would work for substandard wages at Indian restaurants while they paid off debt to the smugglers, according to the court documents.

Steve Shand, of Deltona, Fla., pleaded not guilty to four counts of human smuggling during the same hearing as Patel. (Steve Shand/Facebook) Prosecutors allege Shand was driving a rented 15-passenger van when he was stopped by the U.S. Border Patrol in Minnesota just south of the Canadian border on Jan. 19, 2022.

Inside the van were two Indians from Gujarat who had entered the U.S. illegally, while five others were spotted walking nearby. According to court documents, they told officers they had been walking for more than 11 hours in temperatures below -34 C.

One person was hospitalized with severe cold-related injuries.

A man with the group told authorities he paid the equivalent of about $87,000 US to get smuggled into the U.S. He also had a backpack that contained children’s clothes and a diaper, but there were no children in the group.

The man told authorities he was carrying the items for a family of four with a small child, all of whom had become separated from his group during the night. Later that day, RCMP officers found the four dead, just 10 metres from the border near Emerson, Man.

The Patel family: Jagdish, left, Dharmik, Vaishali and Vihangi, are shown in this family photo released to the media at the time of their deaths in January 2022. (Vaishali Patel/Facebook) According to a series of messages sent via WhatsApp, Shand told Patel, “Make sure everyone is dressed for the blizzard conditions please.” Patel replied, “Done.” Then Shand remarked, “We not losing any money.”

The victims were identified as Jagdish Patel, 39; his wife, Vaishaliben, 34; their 11-year-old daughter, Vihangi; and three-year-old son Dharmik, all from the village of Dingucha in Gujarat state. It’s not clear whether they were related to the defendant because Patel is a common name in India.

Jagdish Patel and his wife were educated and had worked as teachers, but sought a better life in the U.S, relatives have said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said their deaths were “mind blowing.”

The victims faced not only bitter cold, but also flat, open fields, large snowdrifts and complete darkness, the RCMP have said. They were wearing winter clothing, but it wasn’t enough to save them.

A court filing unsealed last month said Shand told investigators he first met Harshkumar Patel, whom he also knew by the nickname “Dirty Harry,” at a gaming establishment Patel managed in Orange City, Fla.

Shand said Patel originally tried to recruit him to pick up Indian nationals who were illegally crossing the U.S.-Canada border in New York. Shand said he declined, but agreed to pick up others in Minnesota.

Shand said Patel paid him about $25,000 altogether for five trips to the border in December 2021 and January 2022. He said he dropped off his passengers at an Indian supermarket in Chicago, a residence in a wealthy part of the Chicago area, and at a suburban Chicago motel.

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