Like just about all of Berkeley, Marcia Poole never knew Chanti Prattipati.
Graphic designers and sex slaves don’t necessarily cross paths in the normal course of events. But, by sheer coincidence, one November afternoon nearly five years ago, Poole was on the scene when Berkeley police and firefighters yanked open a darkened stairwell door on Bancroft Way and found the 17-year-old Prattipati, slumped over and unconscious.
Prattipati would soon be pronounced dead at Alta Bates Hospital, the victim of carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a blocked heating vent in the apartment she shared with two other teenage girls also under the control of Berkeley real estate mogul Lakireddy Bali Reddy.
Prattipati’s death ultimately blew the lid off the Reddy family’s plot to smuggle young Indians into the country for sex and cheap labor, but much to the chagrin of Poole and others, it hasn’t toppled the family’s real estate empire or yielded heavy prison sentences.
“Justice has not been done,” Poole said. “Chanti was brought in powerless to a country that was supposed to protect her. Instead she was raped, forced into servitude, and when she died no one cared.”
Poole has followed closely the criminal case against the Reddys which ended Monday when Reddy’s son, Prasad Lakireddy, received no jail time for his role in the family plot. Lakireddy was the fifth member of his family to accept a plea bargain and the third to avoid prison.
“It’s part of the same theme,” Poole said. “Money talks and the rich walk.” She said she wasn’t quite so cynical before the November day she happened past the scene she’ll never forget.
Poole was driving down Bancroft Way past Shattuck Avenue when she spotted a group of Indian men carrying what looked like a carpet towards a van parked at the curb. Something about the scene struck her as strange, so she slowed down and noticed that the load was sagging in the middle.
“Then, a leg descended from what I thought was the carpet,” she said.
Poole pulled over and joined the fray. She saw several other men trying to push and pull a hysterical teenage girl who kept trying to fall back on the ground.
“I ran over and told them to stop and let her go,” she said. Then a man, who Poole later identified as Reddy, approached Poole. He said, “Go away, this is a family affair,” Poole recalled.
She refused and ultimately managed to get a passing motorist to dial 911. When the sirens first blared, Poole said, “the Reddys melted into the background.”
Soon thereafter, authorities found Chanti Prattipati in the nearby stairwell. Her sister, who had been wrapped up in her own clothing that Poole thought was a carpet, survived.
The ensuing police investigation was marred from the beginning. Since most of the witnesses spoke Telugu, an Indian language common in the south-central region, and translators were hard to find, the police picked Reddy as an interpreter.
Given that Reddy was later charged in the case, it was, of course, an error.
“We needed someone to translate and he offered his services because we had an emergency situation on the street,” Lt. Cynthia Harris, the former Berkeley Police spokesperson told the Los Angeles Times in 2001. “Of course, in hindsight we should not have done that.”
Reddy insisted that a colleague was the surviving girl’s father, and that they were rushing the two of them to the hospital when Poole had spotted them.
Despite Poole’s efforts to tell her side of the events, for more than a month the Reddy tale was the official story.
Even a highly publicized article that December in the Berkeley High School newspaper from students Megan Greenwell and Iliana Montauk questioning why neither of the sisters was enrolled in school failed to reopen the case. (Greenwell later worked as a reporter for the Berkeley Daily Planet.)
Finally, in January, federal authorities received a letter from India claiming that the Reddys were running an illegal smuggling operation.
A renewed investigation with different translators yielded different results. Girls in both America and Reddy’s hometown of Velvadam, India, stated that they were forced to work for Reddy for almost no pay and satisfy his sexual desires.
Although the victims spoke to investigators, many refused to testify in court. They told investigators they feared the for their safety and for their families in India.
Last October, six of the 10 plaintiffs originally represented by Michael Rubin dropped out of the civil suit against the Reddy family after conversations with family members in India. All of the plaintiffs had been offered cash settlements by the Reddys before they eventually abandoned the cases.
“For someone to have gone through years of deposition and then drop out for no money, I’d say that’s pretty unusual,” said Rubin. In a settlement agreed to last March, the Reddy’s agreed to pay $2 million in overall criminal restitution and $8.9 million to the family of Chanti Prattipati.
With few witnesses willing to testify, prosecutors opted to plea bargain the cases. In 2001 Reddy pled guilty to four counts, including the transportation of minors for illegal sexual activity, and was sentenced to 97 months in jail—nearly two years more than the original plea bargain, but just a fraction of the 38-year maximum sentence he potentially faced.
The case against Reddy’s sons—prosecuted after their father—unraveled when prosecutors alerted defense attorneys that federal translator Uma Rao had told victims to embellish their claims of abuse.
Following that revelation the Justice Department dropped all sexual misconduct charges against the sons, Vijay and Prasad Lakireddy.
Poole blamed prosecutors for “giving up” when the girls refused to testify.
“They needed to find a way to get to the truth and not let these people get away with it. But the government doesn’t care,” she said.
Not only did prosecutors plea bargain sentences, but they refused to invoke the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) which has been used to confiscate the property of mobsters and marijuana growers who amass wealth through illegal means.
However, Lucus Guttentag, who worked on the civil case as part of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrants Rights Division, defended the efforts of John Kennedy, who prosecuted Lakireddy Bali Reddy, and blamed the failure to win big sentences on Justice Department brass.
“The problem is that Washington doesn’t provide the resources for the enormous amount of commitment and understanding that goes into a case like this,” he said.
One person conspicuously absent from the Reddy case is Assistant District Attorney for Berkeley, John Adams. He never filed charges against the Reddys, which the attorney close to the case said is not unusual, since with high profile cases where state and federal laws are violated, the Justice Department takes over because it has better resources to prosecute.
“The Reddy’s probably would have preferred to be tried in state court,” Adams said. Still, he added, “that could have been a serious state case no doubt about it.”
Although the plea bargains on federal charges don’t preclude a state case on rape or involuntary manslaughter charges, Adams said he remembered little of the case and didn’t recall there being sufficient evidence to press charges.
“What I do remember leads me to believe there was a bunch of speculation, but nothing to substantiate the charges on the state’s side. Otherwise we would have filed,” he said.
Although Reddy and his sons have faced jail time, their real estate empire remains intact, said Tom Brougham, Senior Management Analyst for the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board. Tracking the family’s properties is always difficult, he said, because they register them under different business names, but the family is still believed to own over 1,000 units worth an estimated $50 million.
The Reddy empire often found itself in trouble with the rent board for making substandard repairs, and not returning security deposits, especially to foreign tenants, but Brougham said since Reddy was arrested there have been “far fewer” tenant complaints.
Reddy emigrated to Berkeley in 1960 and started fixing up shabby apartment complexes in the early 1980s and quickly built his fortune partly off the backs of his smuggled employees.
“He had indentured servants by the scores. That’s a lot of capital,” said Brougham. “If anyone else had so many working for nothing they’d have an empire too.” ˇ