Indian police are searching for suspects in connection with Akwesasne drowning deaths

Indian police said they were looking for three men in connection with the death of a family from Gujarat who perished while trying to cross the United States by boat via Akwesasne, Quebec in March.

Achal Tyagi, superintendent of police in the town of Mehsana in the western state of Gujarat, said authorities had issued a “surveillance circular” for three men: Nikulsinh Vihol, Sachin Vihol and Arjunsinh Chavda.

The notice is used at checkpoints, borders and immigration ports to search for 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 fake documents.

Four Indian nationals whose bodies were among eight people extracted from the St. Lawrence River had traveled to Canada on tourist visas 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.

Pravinbhai Chaudhari, 49, is seen in an undated photo alongside his family, including his wife Dakshaben, 45; son Meet, 20; and her 23-year-old daughter, Vidhi. (HO-Mehsana Police/The Canadian Press)

Tyagi said a police complaint has been filed against the three wanted men and the case is still in the early stages of investigation. They face charges of culpable homicide not constituting murder, criminal breach of trust, cheating and dishonest inducement to deliver property and criminal conspiracy.

“The charges would take place at a much later date,” Tyagi said in an interview this week.

“We are trying to find them.”

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

Dangerous travel conditions

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

The report’s allegations, which have not been tested in court, provide some details about the latest movements of the Chaudhari family’s trip.

The report alleges brokers received the equivalent of around C$100,000 to get Praveen Chaudhari and her family into the United States by taxi. Later, the family members were reluctantly convinced at the last minute to travel by boat and were reassured that there would be no problems, despite the bad weather.

Ashwin Chaudhari, a 40-year-old farmer, said in the complaint that he was in contact with the family by phone and WhatsApp.

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

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

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

The Chaudharis were reportedly contacted around March 10 by Nikulsinh Vihol, who said he could get them into the United States for around C$100,000. Praveen asked his brother to help fund the trip, so he approached relatives to collect 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 Montreal on March 23, and moved them to different locations over the next six to seven days.

During this time, the complaint alleges they could not bathe, received 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 around five years, told them the plan was changing and the family would have to cross 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 conditions.

“After about an hour I got a call from my brother saying we had to leave today, and like Sachin said, if you don’t go there will be problems,” the complaint reads, citing Ashwin Chaudhari.

Later, he received a text message from the boat from his niece, Vidhi, who told him that it was not working properly and that the weather was bad.

“After that, I had no contact with them,” the report said.

“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 a similar 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 fleeing after receiving an eviction order. They have been 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 did not call back and was told to wait.

Hours later, he was then informed that his relatives had been arrested by US authorities and was reassured that someone would bail them out.

Florin Iordache and his wife Cristina (Monalisa) Zenaida Iordache are seen in a composite image made up of two undated photos.
Florin Iordache and his wife Cristina (Monalisa) Zenaida Iordache. (The Canadian Press Document/Peter Ivanyi)

Eventually everyone fell silent and the brokers disappeared. News of the deaths began circulating in the media and social media on April 1.

“So we learned about this tragic incident that my brother and his family died at this time,” the report said.

Speaking in an interview from India this week, Ashwin Chaudhari blamed suspected immigration brokers for the tragedy and expressed confidence that they will be brought to justice.

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

He added that the last time he spoke to his brother the family was “very happy”.

“They were visiting places. He promised to come home,” Ashwin said of his brother, adding that the family didn’t want to go to America.

Casey Oakes, 30, is still missing following the discovery of eight bodies in the St. Lawrence River.
Casey Oakes, 30, is still missing following the discovery of eight bodies in the St. Lawrence River. (Akwesasne Mohawk Police)

He also reiterated what another family member told The Canadian Press earlier: that his older brother had a deathly fear of water.

“I don’t know what happened and why,” he said as he broke down. “I just don’t know.”

His elderly mother breaks down several times a day and has not eaten a good meal since news of her eldest son’s death was announced, he said.

“We are not able to think. We are not able to function. We just want answers. What happened ? For what ?

No fees in Canada

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

A spokesman for the federal Justice Department said this week that extradition requests are confidential state-to-state communications and that he cannot comment on such a request until the courts make them public.

The Canadian Press was unable to confirm that Sachin Vihol is in Canada. Police forces, including the RCMP, have referred questions to Akwesasne Mohawk Police, who said this week they were continuing their investigation and would not comment further.

“[The force] has communicated with next of kin regarding the investigation and will provide information directly to them when the investigation is complete or when there are important updates that can be shared,” it said in a statement.

Authorities are still looking for Casey Oakes, 30, an Akwesasne resident who was last seen on the night of March 29 driving a boat that was found alongside the bodies of the two migrant families.

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