Four bodies were found frozen to death north a few dozen feet of the U.S.-Canadian border. Photo courtesy of Royal Canadian Mounted Police
Jan. 21 (UPI) -- Authorities in Manitoba said officers have found the bodies of four people who froze to death within yards of the U.S.-Canada border while prosecutors in the United States have charged a Florida man with human smuggling.
The bodies were all found fewer than 40 feet north of the Canadian border on Wednesday, Assistant Commission Jane MacLatchy of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police said during a Thursday press conference concerning the discovery, which she called "an absolute and heartbreaking tragedy."
The RCMP said in a statement that officers initially found the bodies of a man, a woman and an infant about 6 miles east of the city of Emerson. A fourth body, believed to be that of a teenage boy, was also found not long after.
MacLatchy made note to call them victims, stating they are "very concerned" that the border crossing was facilitated "and that these individuals, including an infant, were left on their own in the middle of a blizzard when the weather hovered around minus 35 degrees Celsius, factoring the wind."
"These victims faced not only the cold weather, but endless fields, large snowdrifts and complete darkness," she said. "We don't know how these individuals got to Emerson but our investigators are certainly going to look into every aspect of their deaths."
The nationalities, ages and identities of the victims may not be known for sometime, she said.
But based on information from U.S. authorities they appear to be a family of four from India that were traveling with a group of others when they got separated.
The RCMP said it initally conducted the search on information it received from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which had detained a group of people who had crossed into the United States from Canada near the city of Emerson on Wednesday.
The Canadian authorities were told that one of the people detained was carrying items for an infant though no infant was among the group.
Before the bodies were found, U.S. Border Patrol agents arrested Steven Shand, 47, near the border and charged him with human smuggling.
Shand was driving a white 15-passenger van less than a mile south of the U.S.-Canadian border between Lancaster, Minn., and Pembina, N.D., prosecutors said in a statement.
Authorities arrested Shand after performing a traffic stop and discovering two Indians in the vehicle along with cases of plastic cups, bottled water, bottled juice and snacks.
As the three men were being transferred to a North Dakota border patrol station, law enforcement can across five more Indians about a quarter mile south of the Canadian border walking in the direction of an unmanned gas plant in St. Vincent.
They told the authorities that they had been walking an estimated 11 hours and were crossing the border with expectations of being picked up by someone.
Authorities said that one of the Indian nationals was carrying a backpack containing children's clothes, a diaper, toys and medicine.
The person explained they were holding it for a family of four Indians who had earlier been with the group but had separated from them during the night.
MacLatchy explained the winter conditions made the area where the bodies were found "virtually impassable."
She said the victims were wearing winter clothing but at those temperatures "it would be pretty hard to wear anything that would be appropriate. Let's be honest."
There was nothing in the area for shelter, she said, explaining that even if there was it may not have mattered.
"The winds were severe, blowing snow, whiteout conditions, severely cold," she said. "If you're in that situation and you're disorientated you might have shelter a hundred meters away and you can't see it.
"It's just tragic. It's just really, really sad," she said.