Indian cops hunt suspects in illegal crossing deaths of family to U.S. from Akwesasne
Police in India say they are looking for three men in connection with the deaths of a family from Gujarat who perished trying to cross into the United States by boat through Akwesasne, Que., in March.
Achal Tyagi, superintendent of police for the city of Mehsana, in the western state of Gujarat, says authorities have issued a "lookout circular" for three men: Nikulsinh Vihol, Sachin Vihol and Arjunsinh Chavda. The notice is used at checkpoints, borders and immigration ports to look out for a person wanted by law enforcement.
Indian police allege the men were involved in running immigration firms some people use to enter countries with fake documents.
Four Indian nationals whose bodies were among eight people pulled from the St. Lawrence River had been travelling in Canada on a tourist visa from their home state of Gujarat. They included Praveen Chaudhari, 50; his wife Daksha, 45; their daughter Vidhi, 23; and their 20-year-old son Meet.
Tyagi said a police complaint was registered against the three wanted men and the case is still in the early stages of investigation. They face charges of culpable homicide not amounting to murder, criminal breach of trust, cheating and dishonestly inducing delivery of property and criminal conspiracy.
"Charges would happen at a much later date," Tyagi said in an interview this week. "We are trying to trace them."
The complaint sets the criminal case in motion and was filed by Praveen Chaudhari's younger brother, Ashwin Chaudhari.
According to the complaint, translated by The Canadian Press from Gujarati and known as a First Information Report, at least one of the alleged brokers, Sachin Vihol, was living in Canada and acted as the point person.
The allegations in the report, which have not been tested in court, provide some details about the final movements in the Chaudhari family's journey.
The report alleges the brokers received the equivalent of about C$100,000 to have Praveen Chaudhari and his family cross into the U.S. by taxi. Later, family members were reluctantly convinced at the last minute to travel by boat and were reassured there would be no issues, despite poor weather.
Ashwin Chaudhari, a 40-year-old farmer, said in the complaint that he was in touch with the family through phone calls and WhatsApp.
According to the complaint, his brother Praveen told him in January he was travelling to Canada and had received a visitors visa. It's unclear how he obtained the travel document, but the family boarded a flight from Ahmedabad, India, to Toronto on Feb. 3, 2023 and later wrote to say they were staying at a hotel near a Toronto airport.
The Chaudharis were allegedly contacted around March 10 by Nikulsinh Vihol, who said he could get them into the U.S. for about C$100,000. Praveen asked his brother to help finance the trip, so he went to relatives to raise the amount. Ashwin said he made the payment near a temple.
That day, Sachin Vihol, who was allegedly living in Canada, arranged for the Chaudhari family to fly to Winnipeg and on to Montreal on March 23, and moved them around to different locations over the next six to seven days. During that time, the complaint alleges, they could not bathe, were given little food and were repeatedly told it was not safe to cross the border.
The complaint said Sachin Vihol, who had been in Canada for about five years, told them the plan was changing and the family would have to make the crossing over water via a five to seven minute boat ride. Praveen Chaudhari initially refused but was eventually persuaded to make the trip.
When a vehicle came to pick them up, the complaint said a Romanian family was also inside and wanted to cancel due to weather.
"After an hour or so, I received a call from my brother saying that we have to leave today, and as Sachin said so, if you don't go there will be trouble," the complaint reads, quoting Ashwin Chaudhari.
He later received a text from the boat from his niece, Vidhi, who said it wasn't working properly and the weather was poor.
"After that, I had no contact with them," the report reads.
The bodies of the two families were pulled from the St. Lawrence River in Akwesasne, about 130 kilometres southwest of Montreal, on March 30 and 31.
The four other people who died were a Romanian family from the Toronto area who were fleeing after receiving a deportation order. They were identified as Florin Iordache, his wife Cristina (Monalisa) Zenaida Iordache, and their Canadian-born children, two-year-old daughter Evelin and one-year-old son Elyen
According to the complaint, Ashwin Chaudhari called one of the alleged smugglers in India after his brother failed to call back and was told to wait. A few hours later, he was then told his relatives had been arrested by U.S. authorities and was reassured that someone would pay their bail.
Eventually, everyone went silent and the brokers vanished. News of the deaths began circulating on the news and social media by April 1.
"So we came to know about this tragic incident that my brother and his family died at that time," the report reads.
Speaking in an interview from India this week, Ashwin Chaudhari blamed the alleged immigration brokers for the tragedy and expressed confidence they will be brought to justice.
"We are still in shock," he said. "Nothing is left. We lost our family."
He added the last time he spoke to his brother, the family was "very happy."
"They were visiting places. He promised to come back home," Ashwin said of his brother, adding the family had not wanted to go to America.
He also reiterated what another family member told The Canadian Press earlier; his older brother was mortally afraid of water.
"I don't know what happened and why," he said, breaking down. "I just don't know."
His elderly mother breaks down several times daily and hasn't eaten a proper meal since the news of her older son's death, he said.
"We are not able to think. We are not able to function. We just want answers. What happened? Why?"
Tyagi said he spoke with Canadian police once so far but did not elaborate. No one has been charged in Canada.
A spokesperson for the federal Justice Department said this week that extradition requests are confidential, state-to-state communications and it cannot comment on any such request until courts make them public.
The Canadian Press has not been able to confirm that Sachin Vihol is in Canada. Police forces including the RCMP referred questions to the Akwesasne Mohawk Police, who said this week they are continuing to investigate and would not provide any further comment.
"(The force) has communicated with the next of kin regarding the investigation and will directly provide them with information when the investigation concludes or when there are significant updates that can be shared," it said in a statement.
Authorities are still searching for Casey Oakes, 30, an Akwesasne resident who was last seen on the night of March 29 operating a boat that was found next to the bodies of the two migrant families.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 13, 2023.
Hina Alam and Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press