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Police in India search for suspects in connection with Akwesasne drowning deaths

Indian police say they are looking for three men in connection with the deaths of a family from Gujarat who died trying to cross into the United States via Akwesane in Quesasi province in March.

Achal Tyagi, a police inspector in Mehsana, western Gujarat state, said authorities had issued a “wanted circular” for the three men, Nikulsinh Viholi, Sachin Viholi and Arjunsinh Chavda.

Notification is used at checkpoints, borders and ports of immigration to locate a person wanted by law enforcement.

Indian police allege the men were involved in running immigration companies that some people use to enter countries with false documents.

The four Indian nationals whose bodies were among the eight recovered from the St. Lawrence River were traveling to Canada on tourist visas from their home state of Gujarat. They included Praveen Chaudhary, 50; his wife Daksha, 45; their daughter Vidhy, 23; and their 20-year-old son met.

A family of four takes a selfie under the snow.
Pravinbhai Chaudhary, 49, is seen in the undated file alongside his family, including wife Dakshaben, 45; son Matt, 20; and 23-year-old daughter Vidhy. (HO-Mehsana Police/The Canadian Press)

Tyagi said that a police complaint has been registered against the three wanted persons and the case is still in the initial stage of investigation. They are charged with felony murder not amounting to murder, criminal breach of trust, dishonest inducement to commit fraud and transfer of property, and criminal conspiracy.

“The charges will come much later,” Tyagi said in an interview this week.

“We are trying to find their trace.”

The complaint initiates the criminal case and was filed by Praveen Chaudhary’s younger brother, Ashwin Chaudhary.

Unsafe travel conditions

According to the complaint, translated from Gujarati by The Canadian Press and known as a First Information Report, at least one of the alleged brokers, Sachin Vihol, lived in Canada and acted as a point person.

Allegations in the report, which have not been tested in court, provide some details about the Chaudhary family’s recent travel movements.

The report said brokers received the equivalent of about $100,000 Cdn to taxi Praveen Chaudhary and his family into the US. Later, family members reluctantly agreed to travel by boat at the last minute and were assured that there would be no problems despite the bad weather.

Ashwin Chaudhary, a 40-year-old farmer, said in the complaint that he was in touch with the family through phone calls and WhatsApp.

Searchers on a boat in the water.
The bodies were found near the Quebec-Ontario border on March 30 and March 31. (Ryan Remiortz / The Canadian Press)

According to the complaint, her brother Praveen told her in January that he was going to Canada and had obtained a visitor’s visa.

It is unclear how he obtained the travel document, but the family flew from Ahmedabad, India to Toronto on February 3, 2023, and later wrote that they were staying at a hotel near the Toronto airport.

The Chaudharies were allegedly contacted on March 10 by Nichols Wihol, who said he could get them into the U.S. for about $100,000 Cdn. Praveen asked his brother to help finance the trip, so he went to relatives to raise the money. Ashwin said he made the payment at the temple.

That day, Sachin Vihol, who allegedly lived in Canada, arranged for the Chaudhar family to fly to Winnipeg and Montreal on March 23, and shuttled them to various locations over the next six to seven days.

During that time, the complaint says, they were not allowed to bathe, given little food and repeatedly told it was not safe to cross the border.

The complaint says Sachin Vihol, who has been in Canada for about five years, told them the plan was changing and the family would have to cross the water via a five- to seven-minute boat ride. Praveen Chaudhary initially refused, but was eventually persuaded to make the trip.

When the car came to pick them up, the complaint said the Romanian family was also inside and wanted to cancel because of the weather.

“After about an hour I got a call from my brother that we have to go today and as Sachin said if you don’t go there will be trouble,” the complaint said, quoting Ashwin Chaudhary.

He later received a message from the ship from his niece, Vidi, who said it was not working properly and the weather was bad.

After that, I had no contact with them,” the message says.

“We just want answers”

The bodies of the two families were pulled from the St. Lawrence River at Akwesasne, about 130 kilometers southwest of Montreal and about the same distance southeast of Ottawa, on March 30 and 31.

The other four people who died were a Romanian family from the Toronto area who were on the run after receiving a deportation order. They have been identified as Florin Iordache, his wife Christina (Monalisa) Zenaida Iordache, and their Canadian-born children, two-year-old daughter Evelyn and one-year-old son Elaine.

According to the complaint, Ashwin Chaudhary 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 told that his relatives had been arrested by US authorities and was assured that someone would post their bail.

Florin Iordache and his wife Christina (Monalisa) Zenaida Iordache are seen in a composite image made from two undated reference photographs.
Florin Iordache and his wife Christina (Monalisa) Zenaida Iordache. (Canadian Press Release/Peter Ivanyi)

Eventually, everyone fell silent and the mediators disappeared. Rumors of the death began circulating in the news and on social media by April 1.

“Thus, we learned about this tragic incident that my brother and his family died at that time,” the message reads.

In an interview from India this week, Ashwin Chaudhary blamed the tragedy on alleged immigration brokers and expressed confidence that they would be brought to justice.

“We are still in shock,” he said. “There is nothing left, we have lost our family.”

He added that when he last 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 that the family did not want to go to America.

Casey Oakes, 30, is missing after eight bodies were found in the St. Lawrence River.
Casey Oakes, 30, is missing after eight bodies were found in the St. Lawrence River. (Akwesasne Mohawk Police)

He also echoed what another family member had previously told The Canadian Press. that his older brother was deathly 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 a day and has not eaten a proper meal since the news of her eldest son’s death, he said.

“We are not able to think, we are not able to act, we just want answers, what happened, why?”

No charges in Canada

Tyagi said he has spoken to Canadian police once so far, but did not elaborate. No one has been charged in Canada.

A spokeswoman for the federal Justice Department said this week that extradition requests are confidential, state-by-state communications, and it cannot comment on any such requests until the 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 Akwesasne Mohawk police, who said this week they were continuing to investigate and would not comment further.

“[The force] has been in contact with the next of kin regarding the investigation and will provide information directly to them when the investigation is complete or when there are important updates to share,” the statement said.

Authorities are still looking for 30-year-old Casey Oakes, a resident of Akwesasne, who was last seen driving the boat on the night of March 29, which was found next to the bodies of two migrant families.

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