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'Dismantled' human smuggling group tied to dead migrants in St. Lawrence River: RCMP

MONTREAL — A human smuggling ring recently dismantled by members of the RCMP was connected to the deaths of eight migrants who drowned in the St. Lawrence River while trying to cross illegally into the United States last year.
A police boat searches the area in Akwesasne, Que., Friday, March 31, 2023. RCMP are confirming that the human smuggling ring they dismantled was connected to the deaths of migrants who drowned in the St. Lawrence River in March 2023 trying to cross illegally into the United States. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

MONTREAL — A human smuggling ring recently dismantled by members of the RCMP was connected to the deaths of eight migrants who drowned in the St. Lawrence River while trying to cross illegally into the United States last year.

Members of two families — four people from India and four of Romanian descent — died in March 2023 while trying to make the crossing in Akwesasne, a First Nations territory that straddles Quebec, Ontario and New York state. Their bodies were pulled from the water on March 30 and 31.

On June 6, Police announced they had arrested four people, including the alleged ringleader, and issued warrants for four others. They were all part of a "large-scale human smuggling ring that funnelled illegal migrants" into the United States, RCMP alleged.

“Two of the eight accused have charges that link them to the transport of the Indian family that perished,” Cpl. Angélique Dignard, operational support for the RCMP's detachment in Cornwall, Ont., said in an interview Friday.

“The RCMP has laid charges against all of the individuals that we will be laying charges against and therefore this group is no longer operating,” she said.

But police did not say whether the network was responsible for smuggling the Romanian family, who were allegedly on the same boat.

The four deceased Indians were members of the Chaudhari family from the western Indian state of Gujarat. They included 50-year-old Praveenbhai Chaudhari, his 45-year-old wife Dakshaben, their 20-year-old son Meet and their daughter Vidhi, 23.

The Romanian family was identified as Florin Iordache, 28; his wife, Cristina (Monalisa) Zenaida Iordache, 28; their two-year-old daughter Evelin and one-year-old son Elyen. Both children were Canadian citizens.

Akwesasne resident Casey Oakes, whose name surfaced in connection with the case from its earliest days, was last seen the night before the first victims were discovered operating a boat that was found near their bodies. His body was found on the afternoon of July 3 near Ross Island, just over three months after the migrants were found.

Authorities say Akwesasne's geography makes it a popular spot for smugglers of both humans and contraband.

RCMP laid the bulk of the charges against the alleged ringleader, 51-year-old Thesingarasan Rasiah of Montreal, who is now facing a total of 36 counts.

According to a briefing document provided by the RCMP, Rasiah was already in custody for “failing to comply with bail conditions from an unrelated human smuggling investigation" when the RCMP put out a warrant for his arrest in June 2023.

"The ongoing investigation revealed that approximately $1.4 million allegedly transited through accounts linked to Rasiah over a 1-year period," it reads.

Another Montrealer, 38-year-old Joel Portillo, was arrested on May 14 on 25 charges.

The counts for both men include conspiracy to organize, aid and abet people coming into Canada and the United States, conspiracy to transfer or deal with property or proceeds with intent to conceal them and possessing property, proceeds or things obtained from an offence.

But four people wanted for their involvement with the group are still at large.

Police have issued an arrest warrant for forty-three-year old Justin Rourke from Saint Regis, Que., but he is currently in custody in the United States on unrelated charges.

Authorities are still searching for suspected organizer Shawna Etienne from Kanesatake, 47, as well as alleged secondary transporters 51-year-old Cheyenne Lewis from Akwesasne and 21-year-old Tionna David from Saint Regis.

Two more individuals, Mary June Benedict from Akwesasne, 48, and Cornwall resident Michael McCormick, 47, turned themselves in last May and are waiting to appear in court.

“While the alleged organizers mostly live in Canada, the smuggled migrants primarily came from India, Romania and Sri Lanka,” the document reads, adding that migrants were charged up to $6,000 US each for crossing the border and up to $35,000 US each for international travel documents.

Dignard hopes the arrests will act as a deterrent and encourage the public to alert police to smuggling activities, but says it would be naïve to think others won’t try to transport people across the border.

“I think it's a crime that is unfortunately going to continue and the RCMP will continue to investigate,” she said.

The Canadian Border Services Agency declined The Canadian Press’s request for an interview.

Neither the Akwesasne Mohawk Police Service nor the U.S. Department of Homeland Security responded to requests for comment.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 15, 2024.

Joe Bongiorno, The Canadian Press