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A border marker outside of Emerson, Man., on Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022. American investigators believe the deaths of four people are linked to a larger human smuggling operation.JOHN WOODS/The Canadian Press

Two adults, a baby and a teenaged boy are dead and two other people are seriously injured after apparently trying to walk south across the Manitoba border into the United States in extreme winter conditions, through an area that has become notorious for frequent and treacherous illegal border crossings.

A Florida man has been charged in the United States in relation to the case, though not specifically in connection with the deaths, and RCMP say the investigation is ongoing in Canada.

“We are very concerned that this crossing may have been facilitated in some way and that these individuals, including an infant, were left in the middle of a blizzard when the weather hovered around minus 35 degrees centigrade,” said Manitoba RCMP Assistant Commissioner Jane MacLatchy. She described the situation as tragic and infuriating.

According to information in a criminal complaint against Steve Shand, who is from Deltona, Fla., American border patrol officers pulled over a white, 15-person van on a rural road on the U.S. side of the border, just south of Emerson, Man., on Wednesday morning. The officers were acting based on a tip from the driver of a snow removal vehicle, who had helped get the van out of a snowy ditch in blizzard conditions.

The document says Mr. Shand, a 47-year-old Jamaican-born American citizen, was the driver of the van, and that he had told the snowplow operator he was travelling to Winnipeg to visit friends. With him were two people from India who had allegedly entered the U.S. illegally. There were also rental agreements for the car and a cache of snacks.

Mr. Shand is facing a charge of transporting the two undocumented people in the van, and is being held in custody until a hearing on Jan. 24.

The criminal complaint says that while the American officers were taking Mr. Shand and his passengers to a border patrol station, officers saw five people walking on the road in the extreme cold in the isolated rural area. Most of the group were wearing identical black winterwear, including black parkas, balaclavas and lined rubber boots.

The document says the people spoke Gujarati, a language from Western India, and most of them had little or no ability to communicate in English. One of the men told officers the group had been dropped off in Canada, had been walking for over 11 hours, and were expecting to be picked up by someone on the U.S. side of the border.

Officials have not said whether they believe Mr. Shand was the one who was supposed to pick the group up, but the charging document says American authorities suspect him of being part of a larger human smuggling operation.

The man who spoke to officers was carrying a backpack that contained baby clothes, a diaper and toys. He told authorities they belonged to a family of four that was also walking across the border but had become separated from the group overnight.

A man and woman from the group were taken to hospital with frostbite. The woman stopped breathing several times during transport and later had to be moved to another hospital to have her hand partially amputated.

Assistant Commissioner MacLatchy said RCMP were contacted about the missing people by American authorities at 9:23 a.m. on Wednesday. Officers from the Integrated Border Enforcement Team, the Major Crime unit and area detachments immediately began searching the vast terrain north of the border for the family.

The region was under an extreme cold warning at the time, with deep snow and a northern wind ripping across the southern Manitoba grain fields. Temperatures were around -35 degrees, dropping into the -40s with the wind chill.

At about 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, RCMP officers found the bodies of an adult man, an adult woman and an infant on the Canadian side of the border, about 10 kilometres away from the town of Emerson. The body of another male, believed to be a youth in his mid-teens, was located after that.

“We don’t know any specifics as to when they were actually trying to make the crossing, but the assumption was it was dark, it was nighttime,” said Assistant Commissioner MacLatchy. “So blowing snow, dark, freezing cold. Very disorienting, I have no doubt. It’s just a very dangerous situation.”

The four victims found in Manitoba are believed to have died from cold exposure, but autopsies are being completed to confirm their identities and causes of death. Officers continued searching the area, but RCMP confirmed on Thursday afternoon that a grid search had been completed, and that they believe there were no other victims.

Dave Carlson, the reeve of Emerson-Franklin, which incorporates both the town of Emerson and the rural area around it, said he was in shock to learn of the deaths.

“I was in disbelief that this has happened,” Mr. Carlson said. “It’s been a while since we’ve had any real cross-border issues, and to have something like this happen, it’s tragic and it’s heartbreaking. And it’s a little bit frustrating, too, because it’s something that’s preventable.”

The Emerson crossing has been an ongoing concern in recent years, and many people have been seriously injured trying to make the trek across the border in extreme winter temperatures.

Previously known cases have all involved asylum seekers travelling north into Canada. Mr. Carlson noted that this situation, in which people were travelling south into the U.S., was unusual.

In late 2016, two men from Ghana lost their fingers to frostbite while attempting to make the crossing, and in 2018 a man from Togo suffered severe frostbite making the same trek. In March 2019, a pregnant woman who had walked across the border called 911 and was rescued by local firefighters while trapped in deep snow and in apparent labour. That same year, a woman’s body was found on the U.S. side of the crossing. She is believed to have perished during the trip.

“This kind of takes it to another level, with this many people that didn’t make it,” Mr. Carlson said. “It’s really tough.”

Deputy Patrick Klegstad with the Kittson County Sheriff’s Office in Minnesota said the weather has been so cold it “takes your breath away,” and that there are no trees or shelter near the border, only quiet and inaccessible farm roads.

The criminal complaint document says border officials were aware of two previous incidents believed to be related to human smuggling in the area last month. In one of the cases, a backpack with a price tag in rupees was found at what was believed to be a drop-off spot.

“I am saddened there was loss of life, and the fact a small child died makes it even more difficult. Our hearts go out to the families and loved ones,” Grand Forks Sector Chief Patrol Agent Anthony S. Good said, in a written statement released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

“Anyone thinking of crossing the border illegally in these treacherous conditions should not do it,” he said. “Smugglers only care about the money they are going to make and have zero regard for lives lost.”

Speaking before the American charges were announced, Assistant Commissioner MacLatchy said RCMP know criminal organizations have been part of such crossings in the past, and that Canadian charges are possible. She said the investigation is still in its early stages, and she stressed that people should not attempt to cross the border in Manitoba.

“And you should not listen to anyone who tells you that they can get to that destination safely, because they just can’t,” she said. “It doesn’t matter how good your winter clothing is. It doesn’t matter how short a distance you think you have to go. You can imagine yourself in the dark in blizzard conditions and blowing snow at 40 below getting disoriented. And without shelter, you will not survive. And unfortunately, that’s what happened here. It’s terribly tragic, and upsetting for everyone involved.”

With a report from Canadian Press

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