Florida man charged in Canada-U.S. human-smuggling scheme at Manitoba border to be released from custody

A Florida man charged with sneaking migrants across the Canada-U.S. border in a perilous human-smuggling scheme that cost the lives of four people, including an infant, will be released from custody on a number of conditions.

Steve Shand, 47, agreed to the conditions of his release, which means he will have to surrender all of his travel documents, refrain from obtaining any others and stay in the district of Florida where he lives, with the exception of attending court. He will also need to report any interactions with police, refrain from committing any crimes and not be in possession of any weapons.

U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Hildy Bowbeer said she believes these conditions will assure his appearance in court, and the safety of the community.

“It is very important to your remaining on release that you comply with every one of the conditions that’s laid out here,” Bowbeer said to Shand in a virtual hearing on Monday afternoon.

“Yes, ma’am,” Shand said, appearing in a room from Grand Forks County Correctional Centre wearing an orange jumpsuit, glasses and a black mask.

Four people, including an infant, were found dead in a Manitoba field near the Canada-U.S. border on Wednesday. A U.S. Homeland Security agent believes they may have been victims of a wider human smuggling operation. (Submitted by RCMP)

Shand, of Deltona, Fla., is charged with transporting or attempting to transport undocumented migrants after four people were found dead near Emerson, Man.

The victims, believed to be a family from India who perished in the cold, were found just metres from the border on the Canadian side.

Investigators believe they were part of a larger group of Indian migrants who were trying to get into the U.S. by way of Canada.

U.S. District Attorney Laura Provinzino said the government didn’t oppose Shand’s release after reviewing the conditions and speaking with his wife, though Provinzino didn’t say what that conversation entailed.

The man will be released once he signs papers outlining the conditions of his release and travel back to his home state is arranged.

During the 20-minute appearance, Shand also waived his right to a preliminary hearing, which would assess whether there’s probable cause.

Deaths likely linked to larger human smuggling operation

The four bodies were found Wednesday, shortly after U.S. Border Patrol agents pulled over a passenger van on the American side and found two other undocumented Indian nationals inside.

At about the same time, agents encountered another group of five migrants, one of whom told the agents they had been walking through the snow and bitter cold for more than 11 hours.

“All migrants who illegally entered the United States were administratively processed for removal and/or placed into removal proceedings as per the Immigration and Nationality Act,” Kris Grogan, a public affairs officer with U.S. Customs and Border Protection said in an email to CBC News.

Grogan said one male was treated and released back to U.S. border protection, and one female was admitted to hospital but that “she was doing better.”

Department of Justice officials say the deaths are likely linked to a larger human smuggling operation — a phenomenon that’s practically a fact of daily life in the southern U.S., but rarely seen up north.

Shand “was encountered driving in a rural area on a dirt road in an area far away from any services, homes or ports of entry into Canada,” U.S. court documents say.

“He was driving through blowing snow and snow drifts. The weather was severe at the time, with high winds, blowing snow and temperatures well below (–34 C).”

On Monday, the RCMP said it continues to work to confirm the identities of the four victims and are in regular contact with Indian consular officials who have arrived in Manitoba to assist with the investigation, to help identify the migrants and track down family members. 

“Once the identities have been confirmed, our priority will be to formally notify the next of kin,” RCMP said in a news release.

The Mounties are also working with U.S. authorities, including Customs and Border Protection and Homeland Security Investigations, and the release acknowledged there have been reports about possible identities published by some media.

“As a law enforcement organization, we will not be in a position to confirm these names until we have 100 per cent certainty of their identities and next of kin notification is completed.”

Not the first group to make the trek

Evidence detailed in the U.S. court documents also suggest the group was not the first to recently make the perilous trek: twice in December and once in January, border patrol agents found boot prints in the snow prior to Shand’s arrest near where the van was pulled over.

On Jan. 12, agents found prints that “matched the brand of the types of boots worn by five of the seven foreign nationals arrested in the current smuggling event,” the documents say.

On or about Dec. 12 and Dec. 22, “two groups of four appeared to have walked across the border into the U.S. and were picked up by someone in a vehicle.”

In the first incident, RCMP officers found a backpack at a location in Manitoba “believed to be the drop-off point” that contained a price tag in Indian rupees.

WATCH | ‘Sophisticated operation’:

‘Sophisticated operation’ suspected in family’s death near U.S. border

Human smuggling experts say the initial investigation and arrest connected to a family being found frozen to death near the U.S. border points to a “sophisticated operation.” 1:54

A court file from Florida that dates back to 2018 shows that Shand, a naturalized citizen originally from Jamaica, filed for bankruptcy more than three years ago, reporting assets worth $193,343 and liabilities of nearly $160,000.

Describing himself as an Uber driver, Shand’s assets at the time included two vehicles — a 2016 Toyota SUV and a 2014 Honda Civic — and a $161,957 single-family home in the central Florida community where he lives.

Consular officials met this past weekend in Winnipeg to assist with the investigation and to help identify the migrants and track down family members.

“A special team, led by a senior consular officer from the Consulate General of India in Toronto, is in Manitoba to assist ongoing investigations by Canadian agencies and to render any required consular services for the victims,” the High Commission of India said in a statement.

“Confirmation of identities will only be possible after investigations are completed this week.”

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