Alleged U.S. human smuggler under investigation by RCMP in death of Indian family at Canadian border

The RCMP is investigating a convicted fraudster and alleged human smuggler in connection with the death of an Indian family at the U.S.-Canada border in January, The Fifth Estate has learned. But questions are being asked about why the RCMP took so long to investigate this individual who was under surveillance by U.S. authorities for four years.

Surveillance captures convicted fraudster discussing smuggling people through Winnipeg in January

Surveillance footage from a U.S. federal court complaint shows alleged human smuggler Rajinder Pal Singh, a man RCMP in Manitoba are investigating for possible connections to the death of the Patel family in Manitoba in January. (U.S. Department of Justice)

The RCMP is investigating a convicted fraudster and alleged human smuggler in connection with the death of an Indian family at the U.S.-Canada border in January, CBC's The Fifth Estate has learned.

The discovery of the Patel family, frozen to death in southern Manitoba, just metres from the U.S. border, put a spotlight on human smuggling operations involving Indian migrants using Canada as a stopover before illegally crossing south.

On Jan. 19, the bodies of three-year-old Dharmik Patel; his 11-year-old sister, Vihangi Patel; their mother, 37-year-old Vaishali Patel; and their father, 39-year-old Jagdish Patel; were found in a snow-covered field east of Emerson, about 100 kilometres south of Winnipeg.

But nine months after their deaths, the RCMP still haven't established basic details about the family's journey to the border and are looking at an accused human smuggler who was operating in Washington state.

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Rajinder Pal Singh, a 48-year-old Indian citizen living illegally in the U.S., was previously convicted of bank fraud and forging documents. He was arrested in Washington state in May by special agents with U.S. Homeland Security after a four-year investigation and was charged with conspiracy to transport and harbour certain aliens for profit.

Jagdish Patel, left; son Dharmik; wife Vaishali and daughter Vihangi are shown in this family photo released to the media at the time of their death in January. (Vaishali Patel/Facebook)

U.S. prosecutors allege that Singh was part of a network that smuggled Indian migrants over the British Columbia border near Blaine, Wash. 

Once the migrants crossed, Singh allegedly used the rideshare app Uber to pick them up near the border and transport them to safe houses around the Seattle area, according to the U.S. government complaint. He then arranged for flights or rides to the U.S. Midwest, including the greater Chicago area. Singh allegedly charged as much as $11,500 US per person for arranging the shuttle service.

Singh came to Manitoba RCMP's attention because of comments he made in January that were overheard as part of surveillance by U.S. Homeland Security investigators. 

'We have to do it from Winnipeg'

According to a complaint filed in U.S. federal court, in January Singh is heard discussing recent U.S. Border Patrol arrests of illegal migrants entering the U.S. from Canada.

"[T]hey know from where these people are f--king coming. One hundred per cent (100%)," Singh is quoted as saying, according to the complaint.

"[S]o now if we [Indian smuggling organizations, generally] want to do this work, then we have to do it from Winnipeg. I spoke to [deleted] in Toronto. He has two drivers who can pick up people from that side," Singh said.

The conversation allegedly took place the same month the Patel family was being moved to the Canadian border in Manitoba.

A complaint filed in U.S. federal court in Washington state details how investigators tracked Uber rides carrying migrants who had crossed illegally into the U.S. from Canada. (U.S. Department of Justice)

In another recorded conversation that same month, Singh is allegedly caught talking about setting up safe houses in Canada: "I keep telling them that we need a person to house these people and to drop them off … in Canada. Then the entire game is in our hands." 

Canada is mentioned again in another January recording, when Singh is overheard talking about his smuggling fee.

"[F]rom now on make it [$11,500] because there are a lot of expenses," Singh is heard saying. "I'll give you a separate account number, so deposit the money in that account…. I have to give this money to [deleted]. He is in Canada."

Sgt. Gary Bird, an experienced homicide investigator in Manitoba, is leading the RCMP's investigation into the deaths of the Patels.

In an interview with The Fifth Estate, Bird confirmed his team is looking at Singh: "I can't comment in great detail on an investigation done by another organization, however, it certainly piqued our interest." 

Immigration lawyer Deepak Ahluwalia has represented migrants who’ve crossed illegally from Canada into the U.S. and says smugglers don’t prepare them for the risky and dangerous journey. (Steven D'Souza/CBC)

California-based immigration lawyer Deepak Alhuwalia reviewed the Singh court filing for The Fifth Estate. Alhuwalia, who represents migrants who have crossed illegally from Canada into the U.S., said Singh's comments, coming around the time the Patels were in Canada, could show he knows something. 

"I don't know if it's a coincidence as much as these agents have a vast network — they know which checkpoint is hot right now, and which one is maybe not being used as much or frequented and they will shift them from side to side," said Alhuwalia, who grew up in Brampton, Ont., before moving to the U.S.

A missed opportunity?

While Singh could possibly shed new light on the Patel investigation, there are questions about why it took months for Manitoba RCMP to learn about him. 

U.S. Homeland Security investigators and U.S. prosecutors declined to comment on the Singh case. But according to the U.S. government's complaint, they were investigating him for four years, going back to 2018.

In an interview with The Fifth Estate, the U.S. Border Patrol's chief patrol agent in Blaine, Wash., David BeMiller, said they do maintain close ties with the RCMP.

"Working with our RCMP partners, the information sharing of both the intelligence as well as the activity that we see, is critical for us targeting the criminal activity," BeMiller said.

David BeMiller, chief patrol officer for the U.S. Border Patrol’s Blaine sector in Washington state, says people from India are among the main groups of migrants they find crossing from Canada into the U.S. (Steven D'Souza/CBC)

Indeed, The Fifth Estate has learned that British Columbia RCMP were aware that Singh was allegedly smuggling Indian migrants through Canada while the U.S. investigation was ongoing.

In a statement emailed to The Fifth Estate, B.C. RCMP confirmed they "were made aware of the American investigation" into Singh but that "our involvement was limited to the sharing of intelligence and we were not required to assist their investigation nor was there sufficient evidence of an offence in Canada to support a parallel investigation."

LISTEN | Steven D'Souza and immigration lawyer Deepak Alhuwalia talk with The Current about the investigation into the Patel case:

On Jan. 19, a family of four, originally from India, died on a frigid night trying to cross the border on foot from Manitoba into the U.S. The CBC’s The Fifth Estate has been investigating what happened to this family — and they’ve learned some exclusive details.

According to B.C. RCMP, an offence only occurs when migrants illegally cross into the U.S.

"Our assessment of the intelligence suggests that individuals are entering Canada legally, with legally obtained travel and identity documents," B.C. RCMP spokesperson Sgt. Kris Clark said in the statement, adding that the RCMP is "aware of the presence of human smuggling, both into and out of Canada, by organized crime groups and investigates these and other related offences, and supports investigations by its partner agencies where necessary."

Three provinces away, however, Manitoba RCMP tasked with investigating who led the Patels to their deaths in January say they only learned of U.S. Homeland Security's four-year probe into Singh in late May when his arrest made news in the U.S.

"I became aware of the case as it unfolded in the media, as I'm sure others did," Bird said.

The RCMP recovered the frozen bodies of the Patel family just metres inside the Canadian border in southern Manitoba on Jan. 19. (RCMP)

The questions raised by the Singh case pose an agonizing "What if?" Given that U.S. investigators have compiled more than 25,000 pages of evidence against Singh, was there something in there that U.S. Homeland Security and the RCMP could have acted on sooner?

Could the Patels' journey have been stopped?

"I'm not aware of the full scope of that investigation and I can't comment on how that investigation took place," Bird said. "That's ultimately up to Homeland Security in the United States to speak to. However, that's a fair question."

Immigration lawyer Alhuwalia said U.S. authorities had more than enough evidence to arrest Singh going back to 2018, suggesting they were trying to find other members of the alleged smuggling network. 

"Reading the entire complaint, I would say that we didn't find that person or those persons."

The possibility that the Patels' lives could have been saved if Singh had been arrested sooner is "a very scary thought," Alhuwalia said.

Who is Rajinder Pal Singh?

Living in the U.S. under a number of aliases, Singh did stints in prison in 2003 and 2009, in between he was deported back to India. He then smuggled himself back into the U.S. and was living in northern California and Washington state before being arrested this fourth time. 

In 2003, Singh was sentenced to 21 months in a U.S. federal prison for bank fraud and making false statements on a passport application. After serving his prison time, he was deported back to India in 2004. 

Not long after, Singh, who had left a girlfriend and two children living legally in Olympia, Wash., smuggled himself back into the U.S. through Canada, according to court documents. 

In 2008, inspectors at JFK airport in New York discovered a package containing more than two dozen fake passport pages and forged U.S. immigrant visas. Using a tracking device, U.S. Homeland Security investigators followed the package to a house in Olympia. When Singh's girlfriend opened the package, authorities moved in. 

U.S. Homeland Security investigators tracking alleged human smuggler Rajinder Pal Singh watched suspected illegal migrants come and go from this residence in Lacey, Wash. (U.S. Department of Justice)

In 2009, Singh pleaded guilty to bank fraud and illegal reentry after deportation. He was sentenced to another 27 months in U.S. federal prison.

Singh's trial on the current charges is scheduled for March 2023. He is being held in a federal prison in Seattle.

His lawyer, Chris Black, declined to comment for this story.

Constructing a timeline

The Singh lead comes after the RCMP has hit numerous roadblocks in their attempts to reconstruct the Patels' journey from India to the spot where Jagdish's body was found frozen, huddled with his two children, his wife nearby. They were 12 metres from the U.S. border.

Just days into their investigation last January, the RCMP disclosed publicly that the Patels had arrived in Canada at Toronto's Pearson airport on Jan. 12.

WATCH | The Patel family arriving at the airport in Toronto:

Patel family arrives at Pearson airport

4 months ago
Duration 0:30
Exclusive video obtained by The Fifth Estate shows the Patel family arriving at Toronto’s Pearson airport on Jan. 12. A week later, their bodies would be found along the Canada-U.S. border in Manitoba.

But over the last nine months, the RCMP has not provided any further information — until now.

Bird revealed to The Fifth Estate that a private individual picked up the Patels at Pearson. 

From there, Bird said, the family spent a few days in the Greater Toronto Area in "a couple of hotels, a private residence, and utilized different forms of transportation … a ride-sharing service as well as personal rides from people that they were associated to." 

"The last location we're aware of for the Patel family in the Greater Toronto Area was at a hotel on the 15th," Bird said. "So we're left with a gap between the 15th and ultimately up until their deaths on the 19th when their bodies were found."

Bird would not reveal who sheltered and shuttled the Patels in the Toronto area. 

Other witnesses

The RCMP have also had difficulty speaking with likely the last people to see the Patels alive: seven other Indian migrants who made it across the Canada-U.S. border in southern Manitoba the morning of Jan. 19.

U.S. Border Patrol took them into custody and took statements, but released them before the RCMP could conduct interviews for their Patel investigation. 

Bird said they have spoken to some of the migrants — but others have disappeared into the U.S. immigration court system.

"They have proven to be difficult to locate," Bird said, adding that "we have worked with a number of agencies through the United States including Homeland Security, including U.S. Border Patrol, in an attempt to locate these individuals."

So far, the only person arrested with any connection to the Patels is Steve Shand, a former Uber, Lyft and taxi driver from Deltona, Fla.

He was stopped by U.S. Border Patrol on the morning of Jan. 19 with two of the seven Indian migrants in his rented 15-seat passenger van in northern Minnesota, just southwest of where the Patels' bodies were found in Canada. 

Shand is charged with bringing in and harbouring certain aliens. He was conditionally released and allowed to return to Florida while he awaits trial in Minnesota. His trial is scheduled for early December.

A perilous journey

Police believe the Patels were dropped off near the border in southern Manitoba on the night of Jan. 18. It was –35 C overnight. With nothing but open, snow-covered fields, the Patels had no shelter and likely no idea where they were or where they were going.

"I don't believe the Patel family understood the scope of the dangers they were facing," Bird said. "Our officers had difficulty utilizing vehicles to even follow the same path they were walking on."

Their bodies were discovered more than four hours after U.S. Border Patrol agents discovered Shand and the seven other Indian migrants who had made it across the same stretch of border the morning of Jan. 19. Two were suffering from hypothermia and one would need to have her hand partially amputated. 

One migrant told investigators they had been wandering for more than 11 hours. One of the group members had items meant for an infant, but when police saw there was no small child with the group, they contacted RCMP and began a search. 

"The fact that the Patel family attempted to cross that evening was completely unnecessary and dangerous," Bird said.

"And I believe that the person or persons that facilitated that travel need to be held responsible."

Sgt. Gary Bird of the RCMP’s major crime services says investigators still have a black hole when it comes to how the Patel family travelled from the Toronto area to the Manitoba-U.S. border in late January. (CBC)

The Patels were found wearing the same basic winter clothing as the other seven migrants.

"It was winter clothing I may consider to wear in [–5 C] shovelling a driveway. In no way were they prepared clothing wise to attempt to make that journey," Bird said

Alhuwalia agrees that the Patels likely had no idea of the conditions at the crossing.

"I don't think any parent in their right mind would have said: 'I'm going to continue this journey' and walk for the number of hours that they did," Alhuwalia said, noting that safety isn't the smuggler's first concern.

"That's what makes this journey all the more dangerous, because [the smuggler'] motive is just financial. Their motive is to get your money, their motive isn't to get you across safely."