• Sunday, April 21, 2024

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Two men accused of smuggling Indian family who froze to death near US-Canada border plead not guilty

Harshkumar Ramanlal Patel and Steve Shand have been found guilty of smuggling Indian migrants into US and then driving them illegally to Chicago in exchange of money.

Representational Image (Photo by DON EMMERT/AFP via Getty Images)

By: Twinkle Roy

A MAN accused of aiding in the smuggling of individuals across the US-Canada border into Minnesota, including four members of an Indian family who tragically perished in freezing conditions in 2022, on Wednesday (27) pleaded not guilty to seven counts of human smuggling, Canada’s CBC News reported.

Twenty-eight-year-old Harshkumar Ramanlal Patel, 28, purportedly known by the alias “Dirty Harry”, entered his plea during a concise teleconference with US magistrate judge Leo Brisbois of the city of Duluth in the North Star State.

Prosecutors alleged that Patel had been warned of blizzard conditions before he arranged the journey for the Indian family to cross the border. The deceased included the parents and their two minor children. 

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According to authorities, Patel roped in a person named Steven Shand to drive the Indians to the Chicago area from the Canadian border, the report added. Shand, 49, also pleaded not guilty during the same hearing to four counts outlined in an updated indictment against him, which was unsealed last week.

Shand, who is from Daytona in Florida, was arrested and charged with human smuggling a few years ago. According to the report, the former continues to be free on his own recognizance.

Proceedings in his case had been delayed multiple times before Patel’s arrest in February. The latter is in federal custody.

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As per a recent court document filed by an agent with the US department of homeland security, Patel has been denied an American visa on minimum five occasions, including four rejections at American consulates in India and one refusal at the US consulate in Ottawa, Canada, the CBC News report added.

The agent said that Patel is residing in the US illegally.

His involvement came to light only when he was apprehended in Chicago last month on a previously sealed warrant issued in September last year.

Unsealed court documents link Patel to a human trafficking ring operating in the western Indian state of Gujarat. The group purportedly facilitated the entry of Indian nationals into Canada using student visas, after which they were transported to the Chicago area in the US.

According to the court papers, the migrants were compelled to work at Indian restaurants for substandard wages while repaying their debts to the smugglers.

A member of the group informed authorities that he paid approximately $87,000 to get smuggled into the US. Additionally, he was found carrying a backpack containing children’s clothing and a diaper, although no kids were present in the group.

He explained to authorities that he was carrying these items on behalf of a family of four with a small child, who had become separated from the group during the night. Tragically, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police discovered the four deceased individuals, including Jagdish Patel (39), his wife Vaishaliben (34), their 11-year-old daughter Vihangi, and three-year-old son Dharmik, just 10 metres from the border near Emerson in Manitoba. All of them were from Dingucha village of Gujarat.

In a series of WhatsApp messages, Shand instructed Patel, “Make sure everyone is dressed for the blizzard conditions please.” Patel responded, “Done.” Shand then commented, “We’re not losing any money.”

Yet, the family was dead.

While the victims shared the surname Patel, a common one in India, it remains unclear if they were related to the defendant.

Jagdish Patel and his wife had worked as teachers, but sought a better life in the US, their relatives said.

(With AP inputs)

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