A convicted sex offender and international drug dealer from Ontario was caught with an equally soaking wet fellow Canadian after they swam across a river and entered the U.S. illegally at the far northeastern corner of Minnesota, a strategy the felon had used previously without detection, according to federal prosecutors.
Walter D. Duncan, 53, was charged in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis with conspiracy to bring aliens into the U.S. illegally while on what can only be described as a highly unorthodox business trip in mid-August. John Craig Zdybal, 24, was Duncan's alleged swimming partner and protector from bears and other hazards of the wilds. Richard A. Davids, 26, was assigned to be waiting in a car in Minnesota for the soggy swimmers.
Prosecutors believe Duncan and Zdybal crossed the river at Middle Falls in the Pigeon River, either above the waterfall or in the rapids below. Once on the U.S. side, it was roughly a 5-mile walk to their rendezvous with Davids near Grand Portage, Minn.
All three men, from the Toronto area, remain in federal custody at the Sherburne County jail. They were charged Friday by what is called "information," meaning that they intend to acknowledge their guilt. Duncan is accused of a felony. The other two are charged with a misdemeanor.
Davids' lawyer, Mitchell A. Robinson, said his client admits he lied to border agents about his stateside intentions. Davids will receive a six-month sentence, then have the term suspended before being "put back on a bus" to Canada sometime this week and forbidden from ever returning to the U.S., Robinson added.
"I've been doing this for nearly 28 years," said the Minneapolis defense attorney, "and have probably handled 50 or more cases of alien smuggling, but it always has been from the south. This is the first time I've handled a case of someone sneaking in from our northern neighbor."
Davids told investigators the three flew from Toronto to Thunder Bay, Ontario, and registered at a hotel — all at Duncan's expense — before setting off on their plot. Ultimately, Duncan was to head on to Chicago for business. Robinson said Duncan is an executive in the transportation industry. Davids and Zdybal had worked for Duncan previously.
Zdybal told authorities he was brought along because Duncan "did not want to cross the Pigeon River and surrounding woods alone for fear of being attacked by a bear or falling in the rough terrain," the initial charging document against the three read.
Travis Novitsky has worked at Grand Portage State Park, with the Pigeon River on its northern edge, for the past 10 years and was surprised to hear that anyone would slosh their way into the U.S. in such a manner.
Novitsky, who has lived in Grand Portage for all of his 39 years, said, "We see Border Patrol agents occasionally. They hike the trails. They'll ask if we've seen anything."
The less perilous of spots near Middle Falls for sneaking in would be after the 20- to 25-foot drop-off, even though the river is at least 75 feet wide below vs. roughly 8 feet wide above, Novitsky said.
"I wouldn't want to do it above the falls because the current is running pretty good there on a downhill slope," said Novitsky, adding that the water is no more than 2½ feet deep in the summer around that area.
Meanwhile, Duncan's attorney, Erica Davis, said Monday that she was "hopeful" for her client's future ahead of his next court appearance in a week. Zdybal's attorney has yet to reply to messages seeking comment about the case.
On Aug. 10, an anonymous caller told a U.S. Border Patrol agent that Duncan was plotting to enter the U.S. illegally by swimming across the Pigeon River, explaining that Duncan couldn't cross at a standard checkpoint because of convictions for fraud, international drug trafficking and sexual assault, according to documents. Duncan had done this "four to five times in the past," the court document read.
About 6:15 a.m. on Aug. 15, Davids drove a rental car through the Grand Portage border checkpoint. He said he was heading to the nearby casino. Border agents tracked Davids and saw him leave the casino and go north on Hwy. 61 back toward the border. Later, Davids drove back south toward the casino and pulled into a gas station, with Duncan and Zdybal with him. Border agents drove up and arrested all three.