His Own Private Berkeley

Anita Chabria is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles

A dozen customers pick over the idlies, dosas and curries that fill a stainless steel buffet in Pasand Madras Cuisine, an Indian restaurant in downtown Berkeley. Twelve people may not seem like much of a midday rush, but on this recent Saturday, Pasand is lucky to have them.

Last year at this time, picketers protesting sexual slavery and the death of a teenage girl who worked in the restaurant kept most patrons at bay, leaving the eatery and attached bar empty except for the handful of Indian immigrants who serve as waiters and cooks. Not even the owner--64-year-old Lakireddy Bali Reddy--was around. After federal prosecutors charged him with importing and employing illegal immigrants, and using the young girls among them as his concubines, he was released on $10-million bail in January 2000 and confined to his brother's house in Merced.

A federal indictment charged that during a 13-year period, Reddy--L.B. to his friends--and members of his family used fraudulent visas, sham marriages and fake identities to bring at least 33 men, women and children into the United States. In Berkeley, this most progressive of California communities, Reddy ruled over his victims like a feudal lord, imposing his law rather than U.S. law by keeping his targets isolated and afraid--of him, and of their tenuous position as illegal immigrants--and by importing the rules of the caste system, an apartheid that India has fought to eradicate but that still governs the daily lives of many Hindus.

In the rural southern Indian village of Velvadam, where Reddy was born, villagers consider him the king because of his power and generosity. Reddy used his status to convince poor villagers, mostly from the lowest rung of India's social system, that he could better their lives by bringing them to America. Once here, he used them to build a shadowy world where he reigned as lord of his own private Berkeley.

Reddy's victims worked as menial labor in his businesses for little or no pay, helping to make Reddy one of Berkeley's wealthiest landlords and entrepreneurs. They lived in Reddy-owned apartment buildings. (He owns more than 1,000 units in Berkeley, which bring in more than $1 million in monthly rents.) And they owed Reddy money that would take years to pay off. Prosecutors say that many of the young girls were required to have sex with Reddy, sometimes in groups.

But despite two years of investigation, a trial and an eight-year jail sentence, Reddy's case is still not closed. There is even a chance his plea bargain could be overturned. New facts--such as an interpreter who apparently encouraged witnesses to lie--continue to emerge, while old facts dissolve into fiction. Reddy's transgressions and the flawed investigation of those offenses are so culturally complex that, in the end, U.S. law may be unable to punish him fairly. He committed his crimes in an ethnic community where culture and law can often collide, leaving truth in pieces.

lakireddy bali reddy might have ruled his california kingdom

forever if it hadn't been for the accidental death of one of his concubines, 13-year-old Sitha Vemireddy, on Nov. 24, 1999.

Longtime Berkeley resident Marcia Poole was driving along a side street in downtown that day when she noticed four Indian men carrying what she at first thought was a green rug out the side door of a shabby apartment building. Their anxious and hurried manner struck Poole as "suspicious," she remembers. They headed toward a Reddy Realty van parked at the curb. At least a half dozen other Indians nervously watched their progress from the sidewalk. In the crowd was a young Indian girl dressed in traditional baggy pants and long overshirt called a salwar kameez. With her long hair in a single braid, she looked to Poole to be in her early teens. She was crying and pleading with the people around her. When Poole got closer, she noticed a "dip in the center" of the bundle the men were carrying, as if there was something heavy in it.

"Then I saw this leg descend from it," says Poole. "I realized they were carrying a body, and then they just threw it in the van."

The men then turned their attention to the pleading girl and pulled her toward the vehicle's open doors. But she was "resisting with all her might," says Poole, who jumped out of her car and planted herself between the struggling girl and the van. Inside, she saw that the body was moving and realized that it was another young girl. She was semiconscious and confused. Poole ordered the men to stop.

A man with a round face and balding head answered. Poole later identified him as Reddy. He told her to leave, that "this is none of [your] business," but she ran to another car and begged the reluctant driver to call 911.

As sirens approached, the men let the pleading girl go and acted as if nothing was amiss. The crowd melted away. "Then I knew something was really wrong," says Poole.

When police arrived, they found Sitha Vemireddy's body at the bottom of the stairwell from which the men had exited. She was a slim girl with wavy black hair gathered in an 18-inch braid, and she wore cheap yellow earrings and bracelets on each wrist. Her sister Lalitha, who had been hidden in the folds of her own loose clothing, was alive but disoriented in the van. Lalitha was taken to a nearby hospital.

On a podium in pasand's main dining room is a statue of the hindu god Nataraj--Lord of the Dance--who ceaselessly creates and destroys the fiber of the universe through his movement. The constant flux of Nataraj's world seems to have infected the investigation of Lakireddy Bali Reddy from the beginning, leading authorities through a maze of false starts and dead-ends that required them to travel thousands of miles and thousands of years into India's past before unraveling the secrets behind Reddy's empire. The first problem investigators faced was language. Most of the witnesses spoke only Telugu, an Indian language of south-central India. Interpreters were hard to find even among Berkeley's large Indian population. So despite Reddy's involvement, investigators used him as an interpreter.

It was a bad decision.

"We needed someone to translate and he offered his services because we had an emergency situation out there on the street," says Lt. Cynthia Harris, chief of detectives and public information officer for the Berkeley Police Department. "Of course, in hindsight, we should not have done that."

Reddy told police that 18-year-old Laxmi Patati (the hysterical girl) shared a one-bedroom Reddy-owned apartment with Sitha and Lalitha Vemireddy. Patati came home that afternoon to find both girls unconscious. Because she spoke little English, she called Reddy's restaurant, where the three girls worked. Reddy came immediately with Venkateswara Vemireddy, one of the men carrying Lalitha to the van. Vemireddy claimed to be Sitha and Lalitha's father, and Reddy maintained that they were rushing the girls to the hospital when Poole stopped him.

Police accepted that story and the coroner ruled Sitha's death an accidental carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a blocked heating vent. Gas company inspectors found that the exhaust vent of the gas heater in the girls' apartment was not functioning properly, probably due to debris dropped by roofers several months earlier.

Reddy had Sitha's body cremated, a Hindu tradition, even though the girl's parents are Christian. Lalitha was released from the hospital, and the case was closed. Indeed, there seemed no reason to doubt Reddy--a man who appeared to be nothing but helpful, and who embodied the American Dream.

Reddy was born in 1937 in Velvadam, about an eight-hour drive from the nearest major city of Hyderabad in south-central India. He left India in 1960 to study engineering at UC Berkeley. Not satisfied with science, he turned to real estate and business. He opened an Indian restaurant in 1975, and eventually helped a sister start a successful spinoff. In the early '80s, he began buying shabby apartment buildings one after the other and made them livable, and partnered with a brother to create a construction company. Over the years, he earned a reputation as a savvy and generous entrepreneur. By 2000, his properties were valued at more than $69 million.

Velvadam, an agrarian hamlet of 8,000, is known as a "mini-U.S.A." because of Reddy's altruism, villagers claim. Reddy (who currently is divorced but has been married three times) built two elementary schools and a high school, created sources of clean drinking water and paid for a new wing at the local hospital. He spent more than $1 million to build the Lakireddy Bali Reddy College of Engineering, where more than 400 students study on state-of-the-art computers. He visits twice a year, and hosts an annual festival honoring his son Raj, who died in a motorcycle accident more than a decade ago.

The more money Reddy made in the States, the more good he seemed to do in his hometown. By 1986, he even began providing a back door into America for some of the village's poorest residents. He convinced them that coming to the U.S. represented a lifeline out of an ancient social system that promised only years of poverty and backbreaking labor. Although they shared a village with Reddy, their world was unlike his because of a single Hindi word: dalit.

Dalit literally means "broken people," but is often translated as "untouchable." It describes the 160 million people--one-sixth of India's population--affected by the country's hidden apartheid. It is neither a racial nor ethnic designation. The label is rooted in religion and based on birth, and it's passed from generation to generation. No one can determine when in history their family inherited the damning title. Dalits are treated as subhuman, so low that they are not even considered part of Hinduism's caste system. They're only allowed work that Hindus don't want, such as cleaning sewers and toilets, removing carcasses or digging graves. The Vemireddy sisters, Patati and most of Reddy's other alleged victims are all dalits.

India's Constitution of 1950 outlawed untouchability and created an affirmative action program called "reservations" that holds places for dalits in schools and government. But as black America knows, laws are easier to change than attitudes. In rural areas such as Velvadam, dalits often scrape by as coolies, or manual laborers. Sitha and Lalitha's father, Jarmani, was a coolie. The family lived in a segregated part of the village in a mud-walled hut with no electricity or running water. Jarmani could not afford the dowry required to allow his daughters to marry.

So when the king of Velvadam singled out destitute young girls such as the Vemireddy sisters to receive his aid, no one questioned his intentions.

"You go to India, to that village, and talk to anyone. They treat him like God," says Vijaya Lakireddy, a Reddy sister-in-law who lives in Merced. Even American investigators admit that many of the alleged victims view Reddy as a savior rather than a trafficker in human lives.

In December 1999, Berkeley police received an anonymous letter

that suggested Reddy had lied about Sitha's identity. Police teamed with the Immigration and Naturalization Service for a new round of interviews with 15-year-old Lalitha, Patati (the sisters' roommate) and the couple who claimed to be the sisters' parents--Venkateswara and Padma Vemireddy. This time, the investigators brought along independent interpreters.

After being questioned, Venkateswara Vemireddy broke and admitted he was not the girls' father. He and Padma had known Reddy in India. Padma was not his "wife," he said, but his sister. He claimed he had made a deal with Reddy in India. Reddy helped the Vemireddys obtain fraudulent visas by having Venkateswara pose as a computer programmer working for a Reddy company, and loaned him $6,500 for travel expenses. In exchange, the Vemireddys brought Sitha and Lalitha as their daughters.

Patati also had a new story, thanks to a different interpreter. She said that her father had sold her to Reddy when she was 12, making her one of India's estimated 15 million children kept as "bonded labor." Laxmi Patati was not her real name, and until coming to America, she had also worked as a servant on Reddy's estate in Velvadam and been in a sexual relationship with him there. According to documents filed by INS investigators, Patati "stated the primary purpose for her to enter the U.S. was to continue to have sex with Reddy."

Patati also said she was at the San Francisco airport when Padma Vemireddy arrived with Sitha and Lalitha posing as her daughters. (Venkateswara Vemireddy had traveled ahead of his fictional family.) Reddy and Patati picked up the girls and took them to the Bancroft Way apartment where Patati lived. Padma went with her brother to a nearby apartment. Reddy had sex with both Sitha and Lalitha that day, according to Patati, who told investigators she was in the apartment at the time.

For the next three months, according to court records, the girls worked in Pasand's white-tiled kitchen, cleaned Reddy's apartment buildings and serviced his sexual desires.

On Jan. 18, 2000, police arrested Reddy. Shortly after, his sons Prasad and Vijay, Reddy's younger brother, Jayaprakash, and his brother's wife, Annapurna, were also charged with related crimes. The original nine-count indictment charged Reddy with conspiracy to commit immigration fraud, transportation of minors for illegal sexual activity and false statements on a tax return. Reddy was jailed, but quickly released on bail.

Interviewed from the house of his brother Hanimireddy Lakireddy, a Yale-trained cardiologist, an upbeat Reddy claimed, "I am the unfortunate guy. . . . I've got all these troubles."

But his troubles were just starting. Lalitha and Patati were detained in an INS facility while investigators continued to untangle the story. With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union and private lawyers, they were released from custody, and through the government-hired interpreters who were now becoming familiar to them, began to tell of unwanted sex, beatings, emotional abuse, working for almost no pay.

Investigators also were sent to India, where they found other girls who told similar tales. Seven women, counting Sitha, Lalitha and Patati, became part of the government's case. The girls, along with their families, were brought to the U.S. as material witnesses and promised help with legal immigration in exchange for their testimony, which seemed to grow worse by the day.

Despite speaking with authorities, the girls did not want to testify in court, perhaps fearing that even in America their status as dalits gave Reddy the power--maybe the right--to do as he pleased. They told investigators they were afraid for their safety and that of their families in India, where victims of sex crimes are considered as much to blame as the perpetrator. Court records say that Patati still suffers from a "relentless fear of retribution."

"Most people feel that being associated with this case is a mark or stigma," says Meera Trehan, a Bay Area attorney who says she plans to file a class action lawsuit on behalf of Reddy's victims. "There is a feeling that if you just did what you were supposed to do, maybe you wouldn't be involved."

Because the girls did not want to testify, the prosecution accepted a plea bargain. Last March 7, Reddy pleaded guilty to four felony counts: one count of conspiracy to commit immigration fraud, two counts of transporting a minor in foreign commerce for illegal sexual activity, and one count of subscribing to a false tax return. Two of the four co-defendants, Jayaprakash and Annapurna, also pleaded guilty to lesser charges, but both of Reddy's sons chose to go to trial.

Reddy faced a maximum sentence of 38 years, but received 97 months in prison--almost two years more than the prosecutors' recommendation. He also was ordered to pay $2 million in restitution, a sum divided between four victims: Sitha (paid to her family), Lalitha, Patati and Patati's cousin, whom Reddy had brought over years earlier. Crying in court, Reddy apologized to his brothers and children for bringing shame on them, but he never mentioned his victims.

The case seemed to be winding down over the summer. Reddy's younger brother and his brother's wife were due for sentencing hearings in July; Reddy's sons faced trial in the future. The principal victims were busy building new lives in America. Lalitha was even attending public school.

Then government prosecutors disclosed a problem to the Reddys' attorneys. One of the main independent interpreters--a woman named Uma Rao--had told the victims to "embellish" or "make bigger" their accusations against the Reddy family, according to court papers. Rao was one of the main interpreters used by both the prosecution and by civil attorneys working for the girls.

Four of the six living victims admitted Rao had told them to lie, and according to court documents, two said that they had. While Rao has not publicly given a reason for her actions, prosecutors have warned the Reddy family's defense attorneys that she asked the victims to "embellish" their cases by exaggerating the threats against them and the sexual charges against Reddy's sons. Some speculate that she may have felt she was helping the victims to articulate a situation that was beyond their understanding--in effect, shaping their stories for Western ears.

Many of the people working with the girls agree that they have had a difficult time putting the girls' experiences in an American context. Rao may have felt she was doing them a service by guiding them toward revelations that would have the greatest impact for prosecutors.

Another interpreter, Bharat Kona, also presented a problem. Kona, president of the Bay Area Telugu Assn., showed bias by raising funds for the victims and writing a letter to the court encouraging the judge to impose a harsh sentence. When Reddy finally went to jail, Kona posted a message on an Internet chat site proclaiming, "Finally, justice is served." The government dropped a rape charge against Vijay Reddy brought by a woman identified only as victim #7. The sentencing for Reddy's brother and sister-in-law was put on hold, and no trial date is scheduled for his sons Vijay and Prasad.

Although Reddy admitted to the sex charges and remains at Lompoc Federal Correctional Institution, the interpreters' bias throws into question much of the prosecution's evidence and the fairness of the proceedings. Reddy's plea agreement precludes appeals, but legal sources say Rao's and Kona's actions are serious enough that his case may be reexamined.

Still, a new trial presents the same old problems for the prosecution--Reddy's behavior is illegal, but his victims may never understand just how abhorrent sexual abuse of minors is in U.S. culture and may never make good witnesses. And perhaps the U.S. legal system may never be able punish Reddy for his worst transgressions in the eyes of some in the Indian community: stealing the promise of a better life in America from girls such as Sitha and Lalitha, and damaging the image of the Indian community at large.

Those, to many Indians, are his worst sins. But even if Reddy is given a new trial he remains a figure who committed his crimes in a kaleidoscope of mingling cultures, where truth can be a matter of perspective.

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