Four people found frozen in a Manitoba field near the Canada-U.S. border last week have been officially identified as a family from India.
The bodies of husband and wife Jagdish Baldevbhai Patel, 39, and Vaishaliben Jagdishkumar Patel, 37, were discovered in a field just north of the border on Jan. 19, alongside their three-year-old son, Dharmik Jagdishkumar Patel.
The body of their other child was also found nearby, officials said last week. She has now been identified as their 11-year-old daughter, Vihangi Jagdishkumar Patel.
The identities of the family were confirmed by the High Commission of India in Ottawa in a news release Thursday.
At a news conference later Thursday afternoon, Manitoba RCMP Chief Supt. Rob Hill confirmed that while Mounties initially identified the people found as a man, woman, teenage boy and infant, the children who died were actually a girl and a toddler.
"We apologize for that error, but please understand that the frozen state in which the bodies were found and the clothing worn by the family made the initial confirmation difficult. It is also why the process to confirm the names took an extended period of time," Hill said.
Autopsies of the four were done on Wednesday by Manitoba's chief medical examiner and confirmed that the family members died of exposure to extreme weather conditions.
RCMP have been working on the investigation closely with liaison officers in New Delhi, India, and Washington, D.C., Hill said.
They've also been in regular contact with Indian consular officials, who arrived in Winnipeg on Saturday and helped to notify the family's next of kin in India earlier Thursday morning.
The Consulate General of India in Toronto has been in touch with the family and is providing support, the High Commission release said.
Police seeking tips
Hill said investigators have determined the Patel family arrived in Toronto on Jan. 12 — their first point of entry into Canada.
They then made their way to the Manitoba community of Emerson, near the international border, around Jan. 18.
Police are still trying to determine the details around their arrival in Toronto and how they got to Manitoba, he said.
No abandoned vehicle was found on the Canadian side of the border near where the bodies were discovered, which indicates someone drove the family there and left, Hill said.
Investigators believe the case involved human smuggling and would like to speak to anyone who may have helped or seen the family while they were in Canada.
"We need anyone who had interaction with the Patel family or has information about their journey to the border to think about what they went through and step forward," Hill said.
He added that Mounties believe the family's interactions could have included hotel, gas station and restaurant employees.
"This is an extended period of time for a family who is unfamiliar with Canada to be travelling across the country," he said.
Anyone with information is asked to call the RCMP's major crime services tip line at 431-489-8551.
Tipsters can also call Crime Stoppers anonymously at 1-800-222-8477 or submit a secure tip online at manitobacrimestoppers.com.
Other Indian nationals released
Authorities have said they believe the family members died while trying to walk across the international border into the United States.
Shortly before the bodies were discovered in Manitoba last week, U.S. officials had detained seven other Indian nationals on the other side of the border.
Two of those people were travelling in a van with 47-year-old Steve Shand of Florida, who has been charged with transporting or attempting to transport undocumented migrants.
The other five Indian nationals were taken into custody around the same time, very close to where Shand was arrested, a document filed in court last week said.
It's believed the 11 Indian nationals were all part of the same group, but that the family of four had gotten separated from the rest during the journey.
Six of the seven people detained were placed under an order of supervision, while one was released on an order of recognizance for humanitarian purposes, U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesperson Kris Grogan said in an email on Thursday.
All seven were either administratively processed for removal or placed into removal proceedings and have since been released from U.S. Border Patrol custody. They've all been ordered to report to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, also known as ICE, as a later date, Grogan said.
Little else is known about the Indian nationals taken into custody in the U.S. The court document filed last week said they speak limited or no English, but are fluent in Gujarati, a language spoken in western India.
Hemant Shah, a member of the Gujarati community in Winnipeg, said he was shocked to learn the news last week about the four people who died — as were friends and colleagues in both Canada and India.
"My heart is crying. What they may have gone through crossing this border, you know, we can't visualize. We can't imagine this," said Shah, urging anyone who knows anything about the family's journey to come forward.
"Maybe it will help other people who are coming this way. They may stop this. Because this is not — the loss of four lives, it's not easy. Especially two kids."
Shah, who is also the trade director for Overseas Friends of India Canada, said he hopes the tragedy spurs Canadian and Indian governments and organizations to do more outreach and education about the risks of trying to cross the Canada-U.S. border on foot.
The High Commission of India in Ottawa and the country's consulate in Toronto are working closely with authorities in Canada on the investigation, the High Commission release said.
A special team led by a senior consular officer is in Manitoba to help those investigations and offer consular services for victims.
Canada is a preferred destination for Indian immigrants and students, the news release said, and the two countries work together to ensure the safety and well-being of Indian immigrants in Canada.
"The two countries have a regular consular dialogue which takes up issues related to migration and welfare of citizens in each other's territories," the release said.
The death of the family discovered last week has highlighted the need to ensure migration and mobility between countries are made safe and legal to avoid similar tragedies, the release said.
A number of ideas to prevent irregular migration, human smuggling and trafficking are being discussed by the two countries, it said. That includes a comprehensive migration and mobility partnership agreement with Canada, which the release said remains under the consideration of the Canadian government.