By Dennis Romero - NBC News
A Florida man who was arrested near the U.S.-Canada border last year while transporting two migrants in a rented passenger van pleaded not guilty Friday to federal human smuggling charges.
The U.S. Border Patrol apprehended Steve Anthony Shand, 48, of Deltona, Florida, on the morning of Jan. 19, 2022, as he stood near the border, about 11 miles northeast of St. Vincent, Minnesota.
Road signs outside of Emerson, Manitoba, in January 2022. That month, the bodies of four people were found very close to the U.S. border. John Woods / The Canadian Press via AP
He was charged with two counts of human smuggling, one for each person in the van, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Minnesota.
Shand pleaded not guilty Friday at a Zoom conference with Judge Leo I. Brisbois.
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According to court documents, he has not been charged in connection with the deaths of the four migrants or the discovery of other migrants in the area.
His attorney, who was present during Friday's video conference, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Saturday night.
Hours after his arrest last year, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police said the bodies of four people believed to be migrants from western India were found nearby, about 12 meters from the Canadian border, authorities said in a criminal complaint filed in connection with the case.
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Authorities identified the deceased as Jagdish Patel, 39; Vaishaliben Patel, 37; and their children, Vihangi, 11; and Dharmik, 3. They had separated from a group of migrants crossing the border amid blizzard-like conditions and sub-zero temperatures, U.S. and Canadian authorities said.
A group of five Indian migrants who had been separated from the family was discovered alive that same day 400 meters south of the border and in the direction of where Shand was detained, according to the complaint.
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One of those five survivors said he was carrying a backpack for the family that died, according to the complaint.
Two other migrants who were also in the area were hospitalized, and one had her hand amputated due to cold temperatures, according to the complaint.
Like many other migrants, the Patels may have faced harsh economic conditions in India and believed the journey to the United States, which included a flight to Toronto, was worth it, friends and family have said.
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Shand was arrested in a rural area between the Lancaster, Minnesota, and Pembina, North Dakota, ports of entry. He was detained for five days before being released by order of a judge with multiple conditions, including that he not travel beyond Minnesota or Florida.
After his arrest, Shand invoked his right to remain silent, according to prosecutors.
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Shand is a naturalized citizen of Jamaica who rented the 15-passenger van at an agency at Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport two days before his arrest, according to the document.
The van contained plastic cups, water jugs, snacks and juice bottles, and was scheduled to be returned the next day, according to the complaint.
Some of the migrants were wearing winter clothing that looked new and similar to items in Shand's possession, according to the complaint.
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Five of the seven surviving migrants from that day were wearing the same model of boots, and similar shoe prints were found at the border the week before, according to the complaint.
The group of five that broke up began their journey right on the Canadian side. They traveled less than a mile but had been walking at zero degrees for more than 11 hours when they were discovered in the United States, according to the complaint.
One of those people told authorities she expected to be picked up on the U.S. side.