A man accused by police in India of helping smuggle a family of four through Canada just before they froze to death on the Manitoba border with the United States has been found living freely in a suburb outside Toronto, an investigation by CBC’s The Fifth Estate has found.
Indian police allege Fenil Patel was one of two men who helped transport Jagdish Patel (no relation) and his family to the border during a blinding snowstorm and –35 C temperatures two years ago.
The Patel family died of exposure on Jan. 19, 2022, while attempting to cross illegally into Minnesota, near Emerson, Man. The frozen bodies of 39-year-old Jagdish Patel, his 37-year-old wife, Vaishali, their 11-year -old daughter, Vihangi, and three-year-old son, Dharmik, were found just 12 metres from the U.S. border.
Fenil Patel is facing charges in the Indian state of Gujarat of culpable homicide and human smuggling for his alleged role in the death of the Patel family.
Watch the full documentary, “Search for the Smugglers,” from The Fifth Estate on YouTube or CBC-TV Friday at 9 p.m. ET. It will also stream on CBC Gem.
The charges were announced in January 2023. Indian media have reported that he has lived or fled to numerous places, among them the U.S., Toronto, Ottawa and Vancouver.
But The Fifth Estate found him living a quiet life in a bedroom community outside Toronto.
Fenil Patel did not respond to a number of attempts to interview him. When a Fifth Estate crew questioned him in front of his home, he turned and walked inside without any response.
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From driving his children to school to weekend family outings, Fenil Patel’s life seems indistinguishable from that of his suburban neighbours. To protect his family’s privacy, CBC News is not identifying the specific area.
Nothing in the daily routine observed by The Fifth Estate hints at the serious charges he’s facing overseas.
Fenil Patel is alleged to have driven a number of migrants from Toronto to British Columbia and then to Manitoba. There, they met up with the Patel family and were driven to a remote area of the border near Emerson during a severe winter storm on the night of Jan. 18, 2022.
In an interview with The Fifth Estate, Chaitanya Mandlik, deputy commissioner of the Gujarat state police, Ahmedabad crime branch, confirmed the man found by the CBC investigative program is the same Fenil Patel they’re seeking.
“Fenil Patel is basically an agent in Canada,” he said. “He drove them to the border area.”
Mandlik said they had requested the RCMP’s help in locating Fenil Patel and arresting him in Canada so he could be returned to India to face the charges.
But it’s not clear if an official request has been made.
Last spring, a report emerged saying India had requested that Canada extradite Fenil Patel to face the charges.
At the time, a Canadian Justice Department spokesperson would not confirm that a request had been made, writing via email that “requests are confidential state-to-state communications.”
In response to a followup email from The Fifth Estate last week, a Justice Department spokesperson wrote: “We cannot confirm or deny the existence of a potential request until made public by the courts. We can confirm that neither of these individuals currently has an extradition case pending before the courts.”
The RCMP would be responsible for making the arrest, but despite repeated queries from The Fifth Estate, the RCMP in Manitoba, which is leading the investigation into the family’s death, won’t say why an accused human smuggler, who Indian police say was one of the last people to see the Patel family alive, is living freely in Canada.
The RCMP has not made any public comment on their ongoing investigation into the Patel deaths since they credited The Fifth Estate a year ago for helping to generate new leads.
Deepak Ahluwalia, an immigration lawyer in California who grew up in Brampton, Ont., has represented migrants seeking asylum who have crossed into the U.S. illegally from the southern and northern borders. He says there’s a number of reasons why Fenil Patel may not be in custody.
“The RCMP may not have the actual minimum that they need to actually go ahead and charge this individual. The Indian authorities may still be collecting information and don’t have enough to actually put forward an extradition request.
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Ahluwalia says it can take years for a suspect to be arrested and extradited and points to the case of Jassi Sidhu, the 25-year-old British Columbia woman who was brutally murdered in Punjab in 2000.
In the Sidhu case, also covered extensively by The Fifth Estate, it would take more than a decade for Sidhu’s mother and uncle to be arrested in Canada for allegedly plotting her murder and another seven years before they were extradited to face charges in India.
The Indian High Commission in Ottawa, which would play a role in any extradition request, did not respond to interview requests for this story.
In the death of the Patel family, Ahluwalia says the RCMP should act quickly.
“If there’s reason to believe and there is evidence that this individual was doing all of this in Canada, well, to be honest, then you don’t need India,” he said.
“You don’t need the government of India to do the extradition request. You try that person in Canada. The crime was committed in Canada by someone who was on Canadian soil.”
The RCMP did send a statement to The Fifth Estate, but would not comment specifically on Fenil Patel’s case, saying the investigation is “progressing.”
“We appreciate there’s much public interest in this investigation and that the public is looking for answers. The RCMP are following all relevant avenues of investigation and continue to work diligently on this case,” an RCMP spokesperson wrote in an emailed response to a list of detailed questions submitted by The Fifth Estate.
Fenil Patel’s alleged role
The story of how The Fifth Estate tracked down Fenil Patel involves late-night calls, dozens of documents from India and Canada and hours of surveillance to ultimately establish that the man living near Toronto was the same man wanted by Indian police.
Through its investigation, The Fifth Estate pieced together more information about the route the group of migrants took to reach the border and the role Indian police allege Fenil Patel played.
Indian police believe that after arriving at Toronto’s Pearson Airport via Dubai on Jan. 12, 2022, the Patel family was shuttled between hotels and a private residence in the Greater Toronto Area before they were transported to a motel in Manitoba sometime between Jan. 16 and 18, 2022. There, they joined other Indian migrants the smugglers were moving to the border.
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One of the other migrants in Manitoba was Varshil Dhobi, an acquaintance of the Patels from their home state of Gujarat.
According to statements to Indian police from Dhobi and his father Pankaj, Jagdish Patel called Dhobi’s father in India to reassure him the Patel family was with Varshil and that they were crossing the border together.
According to Dhobi’s statement to Indian police, on the night of Jan. 18, 2022, Fenil Patel and another man, known only as Bitu Paji, drove the Patel family and seven other migrants to a remote stretch near the Manitoba border with Minnesota and North Dakota east of Emerson during a bitter storm.
The smugglers allegedly provided the migrants with cellphones loaded with a GPS app to guide them to a rendezvous point just over the border, where they were supposed to be picked up.
On the morning of Jan. 19, 2022, U.S. Border Patrol agents arrested Florida resident Steve Shand and two migrants in a rented 15-seater passenger van on a snowy highway in Minnesota, just south of the Canadian border near Emerson.
Varshil Dhobi and four other migrants were caught by the Border Patrol walking down the same highway shortly after. Shand is awaiting trial in federal court in Minnesota for transporting illegal migrants.
“Basically, they just forced them to go to that site,” Mandlik said.
“Their plan was to cross from the Vancouver border but I think there was some issue at the Vancouver border. That’s why they drove them to Manitoba and then forced them to walk through that in that chilly temperature and that ice,” Mandlik told The Fifth Estate, further explaining police believe that “to save the money and to save time, they told them to cross from the Manitoba side.”
Tracking an accused human smuggler
Fenil Patel’s name first surfaced when Indian police announced arrests in January 2023, just a few days before the one-year anniversary of the deaths of the Patel family members.
Three men, Yogesh Patel, Bhavesh Patel, neither a relation to any others involved in this case, along with Dashrath Chaudhary, were arrested and charged in India with culpable homicide not amounting to murder, attempted culpable homicide, conspiracy and human trafficking.
Indian police allege Fenil Patel and Bitu Paji ran the Canadian arm of the smuggling network, co-ordinating and controlling the final days of the journey by the Patels to the border.
While the announcement of the Indian arrests initially made headlines in Canada, Indian police did not publicly release any photos of Fenil Patel or identifying information.
Sources tell The Fifth Estate that at the time, Gujarat state investigators gave the RCMP detailed information on Fenil Patel, including his passport information.
The message from Indian police to the RCMP, according to a source familiar with the meetings: “Fenil is in Canada, do something.”
Piecing the clues together
In the spring of 2023, The Fifth Estate obtained, through sources, an Indian police report detailing the charges against Fenil Patel, including part of migrant Varshil Dhobi’s witness account.
The police report described the accused human smugglers as men driven by greed who knew the risks of sending migrants into dangerous weather without adequate clothing, but chose to anyway. Dhobi said he paid smugglers the equivalent of $100,000 for the journey.
The document also contained addresses in India and phone numbers both in India and in North America that were possibly connected to Fenil Patel. One number had a Toronto-based 647 area code.
When The Fifth Estate called that number, the person who answered denied any knowledge of the Patel family case.
“Maybe somebody give you the wrong information, maybe because I don’t know anybody,” said the person who claimed they didn’t know the Patel family or about any possible charges.
A few months later, The Fifth Estate was able to obtain more details on Fenil Patel, including photos as well as his full legal name and date of birth.
Using open source property and business records, The Fifth Estate was able to locate a home outside Toronto connected to Fenil Patel.
After days of surveillance, journalists with The Fifth Estate were able to connect Fenil Patel to the photos and information gathered.
Smuggler a flight risk
Ahluwalia says what happened to the Patel family did not stop the flow of migrants from India.
In March 2023, another Indian family of four drowned while trying to cross from Canada into the United States via the St. Lawrence River, near Akwesasne, Que. The smugglers in that case are also still at large.
In the case of the Patel family’s death, Ahluwalia said Varshil Dhobi’s witness statement is enough evidence for the RCMP to act.
“I believe the biggest smoking gun in this investigation is the fact that Fenil was placed at the border, alongside with the Patel family, before they made that trek to the United States.”
He said he’s concerned about what may happen if the RCMP wait too long.
“Unless there’s an arrest warrant issued for this individual, there’s nothing that stops him from leaving Canada. He could end up wherever and then we’ll really be at a loss for the investigation.”