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His Own Private Berkeley

For 13 Years, Lakireddy Bali Reddy's Demented Version of India's Caste System Thrived In One of California's Most Progressive Communities. But Truth Doesn't Always Survive a Collision of Culture and Law.

November 25, 2001|ANITA CHABRIA | 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.

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