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Not guilty plea entered in fatal human smuggling case at Manitoba border

Charges connected to January, 2022 incident where family of Indian nationals died
A view of the landscape outside the hamlet of St. Vincent, Minn., looking north towards the Canada-U.S. border, is shown on on Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022, not far from where RCMP officers recovered the bodies of four unidentified Indian nationals. 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. THE CANADIAN PRESS/James McCarten

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.

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. Defense 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.

Prosecutors allege Shand was driving a rented 15-passenger van when it 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’d been walking for more than 11 hours in temperatures well below zero Fahrenheit (-34 Celsius).

One person was hospitalized with severe cold-related injuries.

A man with the group told authorities he paid the equivalent of about $87,000 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, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police found the four dead, just 10 meters (33 feet) from the border near Emerson, Manitoba.

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 3-year-old son Dharmik, all from the village of Dingucha in Gujarat state. It’s not clear if 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.

Canadian 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 Mounted Police 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, Florida.

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.

READ ALSO: Florida man pleads not guilty after Canada-U.S. human smuggling tragedy in Manitoba