Owner of Pasand restaurent arrested on sex charges  

Source: San Jose Mercury News; January 20, 2000

The arrest of a prominent Berkeley businessman on charges of smuggling girls out of India for labor and sex has shaken the Bay Area's Indian community, where Lakireddy Bali Reddy is widely known as a prosperous landowner and founder of the popular restaurant Pasand.

Reddy was charged in federal court Tuesday after an investigation sparked by the carbon monoxide death of a 16-year-old girl in November in one of his apartment buildings. He also is accused of fraudulently bringing Indian immigrants into the United States under the guise of employment at high-tech firms.

In an unusual joint effort, authorities are turning for help to Indian women's groups, which recently have emerged across the Bay Area in a grass-roots effort to help South Asian female crime victims. The women hope to encourage other possible victims -- who may be illegal, afraid of authorities or unable to speak English -- to come forward, in a case that investigators say could extend to other cities or counties.

``A lot of people might not come forward if they have to deal with a language problem or a cultural problem with police,'' said Shobha Menon, a volunteer with Narika, an East Bay Indian women's group. ``There is definitely a reticence -- a concept of shame.''

Reddy, 62, has not entered a plea. He is being held without bail pending a hearing on Friday. A message left at his real estate office Wednesday was not returned.

Documents filed in federal court in Oakland say Reddy brought at least three young women to the United States ``for the purpose of prostitution and for other immoral purposes.''

Investigators say he helped arrange the entry of adults and children from India into the United States using false identities, jobs and family relationships. Prosecutors say at least 21 applications for high-tech visas were filed on behalf of Active Tech Solutions, owned and managed by Reddy's son, but fewer than five employees have appeared on the company's payroll in the past two years.

The investigation was prompted by anonymous letters police received after the death of a 16-year-old, known by the false name of Sitha Vemireddy, who was found unconscious -- along with her 15-year-old sister -- at the Reddy-owned Berkeley Park Apartments on Nov. 21.

Sitha's death was ruled the result of carbon monoxide poisoning, likely caused by a blocked heating vent in the roof. Her sister recovered, but her name is not being released by authorities because she is a minor and the victim of an alleged sex crime.

At first police believed Sitha and her sister emigrated to the United States in August with their parents, known as Venkateswara and Padma Vemireddy, who lived in a nearby apartment.

According to the affidavit, the couple were not husband and wife but a brother and sister whom Reddy financially compensated. Reddy allegedly paid Venkateswara Vemireddy's debts in India and loaned him $6,500. The woman who claimed to be Vemireddy's wife is actually his sister, Lakshmi Garireddy, authorities said.

Sitha's sister told police she had been given to Reddy at age 12, and had sex with him in India and the United States, according to the affidavit. The document also says the teen's Berkeley roommate, who is from India, told investigators that ``her father had sold her to Reddy because of economic hardship'' about four or five years ago at age 14.

The roommate allegedly told investigators she lived and had sex with Reddy before moving to an office near his office.

Berkeley City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque, who is of Indian descent and has been advising the police on the cultural aspects of the case, said her suspicion was aroused because the girls were not living with their ``parents.''

``Things didn't add up because Indian parents would not be living in a different house. In this kind of situation, Indian parents are more protective, not less,'' Albuquerque said.

Reddy, an engineer from the Andhra Pradesh region, opened the Pasand restaurant in Emeryville 20 years ago and since has expanded into the South Bay. He owns more than 1,000 apartment units.

Reddy has long been known for his controversial role in bringing Indian immigrants to the United States to staff his restaurants and ventures.

``He has helped a lot of people in the community,'' said Kalathil Pappachan, a member of Fremont's Indian Chamber of Commerce. ``He may also have benefited, too.''

However, Hina Shah, an attorney with the Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco, said she was not shocked by the charges.

``It's a sensitive issue in the Indian community. We saw it happen, but we couldn't take action until someone came forward,'' she said.

The Indian women's groups hope to help bridge the gap between authorities and Indian immigrants and bring out more information in the case.

When Indians were very small in number, there was no help available. Going to a mainstream organization -- women were too scared. They were coming from a culture that is completely different,'' said Vandana Kumar, 35, managing editor of the San Jose-based monthly magazine India Currents. ``I'm very glad . . . that the women have a voice.''