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A man from Florida has been charged with human smuggling after a family of four, including a baby and a teenager, were found frozen to death near the Minnesota-Canada border and five others were rescued during a blizzard. 

Steve Shand, 47, of Deltona, Florida, was arrested the morning of Wednesday, Jan. 19, after he was pulled over driving a 15-passenger van less than a mile south of the border, on Minnesota Highway 75 near Humboldt, authorities said.

He is accused of planning to pick up 11 Indian nationals who were trying to come to the U.S. illegally, court documents state. Two men were already in the van with him and authorities found five others walking in bitterly cold temperatures about a quarter-mile south of the Canadian border in the direction of where Shand was arrested.

Authorities in Canada and the U.S. began searching for others who may have been planning to meet Shand after baby items were discovered in a bag a man in the group was carrying. There was no baby with them. 

The man said he was carrying the bag for a family who had been walking with them, but they'd gotten separated during the night and he didn't know where they were, the charges state.

After about four hours of searching, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) found their bodies. A woman, man, teenage boy and baby were discovered about 6 miles from Emerson, Manitoba, and just short of 40 feet from the U.S.-Canada border. 

RCMP said it appears they died due to exposure to the cold weather.

Members of the group of five were suffering from hypothermia and frostbite due to the bitter cold, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said in a news release. A woman in the group was airlifted to a Twin Cities hospital for advanced treatment, with court documents saying she stopped breathing several times and may need part of her hand amputated due to frostbite.

A man with the group of five told investigators they walked about 11.5 hours from where they were dropped off in Canada and had expected to be picked up by someone in the U.S.

Most of the Indian nationals spoke Gujarati and could speak little to no English. They were all wearing new cold-weather gear, including coats, hats, gloves and balaclavas, some of which were identical. 

“Anyone thinking of crossing the border illegally in these treacherous conditions should not do it,” Grand Forks Sector Chief Patrol Agent Anthony S. Good said in a statement. “Smugglers only care about the money they are going to make and have zero regard for lives lost.”

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The charges

According to the federal criminal complaint, Shand rented the 15 passenger van at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on Monday, Jan. 17, and stocked it with water, juice and snacks that he bought at a Walmart in Fargo, North Dakota, on Tuesday, Jan. 18. Documents found in the van show Shand was to return it to the rental company on Thursday, Jan. 20.

Shand drove through severe weather, with high winds, blowing snow and temperatures below zero to get to the meeting place in Kittson County, charges state. A snowplow driver told Border Patrol he'd helped Shand get the van unstuck from a snow-filled ditch near where Shand was later arrested. 

The driver said Shand told him he was on his way to Winnipeg, Manitoba, to visit friends. The driver noticed two passengers in the van that he believed were of Indian or Pakistani descent, the complaint says.

Shand was then pulled over at about 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday less than a mile south of the U.S.-Canada border in a rural area about 7 miles northeast of St. Vincent, Minnesota, between official entry points in Lancaster, Minnesota, and Pembina, North Dakota. Two Indian nationals were in the van with him.

Shand was arrested, the two Indian nationals in his van were detained, and not long after the group of five was discovered and also detained, charges say. After learning there were four more people out in the cold, authorities in the U.S. and Canada began to search for them, discovering the family dead about four hours later, around 1:30 p.m., officials said. 

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Larger smuggling operation suspected

The area where Shand was arrested is known by border officials as a high incident area for human smuggling, and authorities believe Shand is part of a larger smuggling operation, charges state.

An Indian national told investigators he paid a "significant amount of money" to get into Canada from India under a fraudulently obtained student visa. He didn't intend to study in Canada — he was using it to illegally enter the U.S., charges state. He crossed the border on foot and expected to be picked up by someone who would then drive him to his uncle's home in Chicago.

In the area where Shand was arrested, there were recently three separate incidents of human smuggling, charges state. Authorities on Jan. 12 found footprints from three people in the snow that appeared to be from the same type of boots the Indian nationals detained this week were wearing. 

And Shand was in the area at that time. In his rented van, there was a rental agreement with Shand's name for a passenger van rented from Jan. 10-Jan. 13 and he had a hotel receipt from a La Quinta in Grand Forks, North Dakota, dated Jan. 11. 

Border Patrol also found footprints in the snow showing two groups of four had crossed the border into the U.S. and were picked up by someone in a vehicle on Dec. 12 and Dec. 22, 2021. 

RCMP reported a backpack was found at what was believed to be the drop-off point for the illegal border crossers in connection to the Dec. 12, 2021, incident. Inside the bag was a price tag showing a price for Rupees (Indian currency).

The charges state the investigation into the deaths of the family of four in Canada is ongoing, and authorities are investigating a larger human smuggling operation they believe Shand is involved in. 

Shand is charged with one count of knowing or in reckless disregard of the fact that an alien had come to, entered or remained in the U.S. in violation of law, the U.S. Attorney's Office said. He made his first court appearance on Thursday and was ordered to remain in custody pending a preliminary and detention hearing that is scheduled for Jan. 24.

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