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Year after death of Indian family at U.S. border, those left behind try to move on


Baldev Patel cannot remember much of the last conversation he had with his son and, while the memories are fast fading, the hurt remains.

Patel's son, 39-year-old Jagdish Baldevbhai Patel, was found dead along with his wife and two children on Jan. 19, 2022, near a border crossing between Manitoba and the United States.

The RCMP has said the family was trying to get into the U.S. during severe winter weather and died from exposure. Investigators also believe the deaths were linked to a human smuggling operation.

Jagdish Baldevbhai Patel's wife was 37-year-old Vaishaliben Jagdishkumar Patel. Their daughter, Vihangi Jagdishkumar Patel, was 11 years old and their son, Dharmik Jagdishkumar Patel, was three.

"We worried about him when we didn't hear from him. I talked to him two or three days before he died," Patel said of his son in an interview in Hindi from his home in Dingucha, a village of about 3,000 people in the Gujarat state of western India.

"I can't remember our last conversation very clearly. He had reached Canada. He was going to the U.S. He was happy."

He said his son lived in a single-storey house in Dingucha before leaving for Canada. That house is now locked and unoccupied.

His son held different jobs, including teaching, farming and selling kites, the father said.

"Nothing worked out."

He is not sure how his son decided on the route from Canada to the U.S., or from whom he sought help.

"He wanted to go, he went," Patel said. "He was a 40-year-old man. He knew what he was doing. He carved his own path. What could we say?"

Jayesh Chaudhary, a family friend from the village, said in an interview in Hindi that things have quietened down for the Patels since the deaths.

The family has returned to its ancestral profession of farming, he said.

"There is sadness."

Almost every household from Dingucha has someone living in Canada, the U.S., United Kingdom or Australia, he said.

Chaudhary said police officers have regularly been seen in the village talking to people since the deaths.

Anil Pratham, a high-ranking police official in Gujarat, was involved in investigating the case from January 2022 until September.

Pratham said "lots of people" want to go to a western country with expectations of a better life, financial security and might be willing to break the law to do so.

He said investigators spoke with people who had been questioned in the past for offences relating to fake credentials.

"We had to try to find out if they had any role (in the case)," he said. "Clearly nothing came out for those who were involved (in the investigation), but we saw the process … what documents were used."

The first step of coming to Canada would involve enrolment in a college or getting a job, Pratham said.

"Sometimes they show false documents at that place for admission or for a job," he said, noting their intention might be to cross into the United States.

During his investigation, he said officials followed the case of one man who falsified documents so he could go to the U.S. on a student visa. "He was not qualified to be admitted to the college," Pratham said. "His intention was not to study, not to do the job, but something else."

What surprised him most about the investigation was the lengths to which people would go to exploit loopholes in the system, he said.

Manitoba RCMP said earlier this week that they had no updates on the case.

Nearly a year after their deaths, Patel said he is still asked about the final hours of his son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren.

"We are here. We don't have all the details," he said. "How are we to know what actually went on?"

In February last year, U.S. officials said a 47-year-old Florida resident had been indicted by a federal grand jury on two counts of human smuggling in the case.

Steve Anthony Shand was identified as the driver of a white van near the U.S.-Canada border that was carrying undocumented Indian nationals. He was picked up just south of the border on Jan. 19, 2022, officials said.

Five others from India were spotted soon after in the snow walking in the direction of the van. They told border officers that they had been walking for more than 11 hours in the freezing cold and that four others had become separated from the group overnight.

One man in the group also said he had paid a large amount of money to get a fake student visa in Canada and was expecting a ride to a relative's home in Chicago after he crossed the border, U.S. officials said at the time.

Ajamal Thakor, a Patel family friend who lives in Dingucha, said the parents have suffered a huge loss.

"It's not easy to see your children die," he said in Hindi.

One of the family members arranged a breakfast at the local school to mark the nearly one-year anniversary of the deaths, he said.

"It's an Indian custom."

Chaudhary said most in the close-knit community are trying to move ahead.

"For most, it's just a memory."

But Patel said memories of his son are filled with despair and worry about the future.

His son was supposed to have found a job in the U.S. and help his parents financially in their old age, he said.

"Now, we just are,"

He paused.

"We are in a lot, a lot, a lot of pain."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 15, 2023. Top Stories

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