Even for a guy charged with importing sex slaves from India to Berkeley, Prasad Lakireddy cut a rather pathetic figure at his sentencing. He arrived in Judge Claudia Wilken’s federal courtroom in Oakland last week looking frail, his suit jacket sagging in the shoulders. Lakireddy, 45, was there to find out whether he’d be shipped off to Lompoc to join his father, Lakireddy Bali Reddy, or if the judge would spare him and send him back home to Lafayette.
Reddy, one of Berkeley’s richest landlords, was already doing time in a federal prison for his role in smuggling young girls into the country and then using them for cheap labor and sex. In 1999, a fourteen-year-old Indian girl, dubbed “Vani Prattipati” in court documents, was found dead in one of Reddy’s apartments, the victim of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning. Her younger sister, now identified in court records as Jane Doe, later exposed Reddy’s scheme. His youngest son, Vijay Kumar Lakireddy, pleaded guilty to visa fraud two years ago, and is also behind bars.
Now stood Prasad, who had argued all along that he was only a restaurant manager, putting to work the young women his father sent his way. He was unaware, he’d claimed, of his family’s dreadful deeds. After Prasad was indicted for “importing immigrants for immoral purposes,” he offered the results from three polygraph tests that showed he told the truth when he said he never had sex with the girls. Assistant US Attorney Stephen Corrigan agreed the charges were a tough stick, and offered Prasad a plea agreement that spared him prison time.
In a rare move, Judge Wilken rejected the agreement. She wanted to know more about the victims, she said.
So Prasad returned last week. And considering Wilken’s mood toward the scofflaws who preceded him on the docket, he had caught the judge on the wrong day for sympathy. One dude, a middleman in a drug deal, showed up with his wife and four children for support — and was sentenced to a year in prison. A marshal led the man away to a side door as the sound of his wife’s wailing and children’s sobs filled the room.
In the next case, a shackled defendant in cornrows perturbed Wilken by interrupting his attorney, who was busy trying to win a handful of procedural motions. The mouthy defendant interrupted once too often.
“Motions denied!” Wilken blurted out from her perch. “All of them.”
A shocked defense attorney asked, “Even the — “
“All of them,” Wilken intoned. “You can’t pay attention to me if you’re listening to your client.”
The shackled defendant stared at the judge with his mouth open: Oh no she di’n’t.
Oh yes she did.
Prasad Lakireddy looked back at the clock — 3:17 p.m. — and sighed. He’d been there nearly an hour and a half now, waiting with his wife and attorneys.
Finally, Wilken called him to the podium. The judge wanted to know if Prasad had had sex with any of the girls, and US Attorney Corrigan reiterated that he didn’t have the evidence to get a conviction. Some of the victims were back in India, and others weren’t coming forward. The prosecutor didn’t need to remind the court that he’d lost leverage in the case when it was revealed that one of the court-hired translators who interviewed the victims, and served as a liaison to the city’s social services department, had embellished the girls’ answers.
One of Prasad’s attorneys, Susan Raffanti, used the opportunity to reframe the case for the judge. “Although this case has been referred to as a case of slave labor, it’s totally untrue,” she said. “These women were given free meals, free apartments, free clothes. Many of them said they were more financially stable having worked for the Lakireddy family.”
If what Raffanti said was true, none of the women who benefited from the arrangement showed up to say as much.
Wilken acknowledged Prasad’s polygraph test results. But still, she pressed, wasn’t he in a position to know what was going on?
Paul Wolf, another of Prasad’s attorneys, took a breath and answered. “I believe he was unaware, your honor,” the lawyer said. “Even if he did, as the son, he is probably in the worst position culturally to try and stop his father.”
Before sentencing Prasad, Wilken gave him the chance to speak for himself. “Well, I’m kinda nervous but I want to try,” he said in a quavering voice as he proceeded with a rambling speech that was difficult for court observers to follow.
“After the girl died, it was a very sad thing,” he said. “But the facts in this case have been misinterpreted quite a bit. … The charges … these are very, very silly charges … I thank God I’ve had the strength to face this and put up some resistance … against my family’s wishes.”
Prasad laughed nervously. “Everybody has been kind. … My lawyer has been kind, you have been kind. … I’m being treated like a politician, but I’m not. I’m very private. … Still, I have good values …”
The accused then thanked his family. “And I hope I’ll raise my children better than my father,” he said. “I’ll give my children their freedom as they turn eighteen. … A lot of the people in Berkeley have been sympathetic, especially after the girl died, and everybody started jumping on the bandwagon, the whole story took on its own way of walking …
“The prosecutors were confused,” Prasad went on. “The interpreters were lying … It’s a very difficult language to understand, I speak it myself … I speak Telugu and I can’t even understand what they’re taking about …”
He told the judge he wished she could go to India, to visit his home. The suggestion was that Prasad wanted Wilken to see for her own eyes how revered his family is. “I sent my attorney to India to give him a chance to see,” he said. “We wanted to give you the chance to go to India.”
Prasad let out more anxious laughter. Attorney Wolf patted him on the back and rubbed a small circle on the shoulder.
“Now we all want this to end,” Prasad said. “I want to move forward and forget the last four years. It’s been like a nightmare. I want to move on.”
Claudia Wilken put her hand on her chin and remained silent for a few moments. “As you know, I was displeased with the plea agreement,” she said. “But I guess that one needs to look at each person separately and not draw conclusions about someone else.”
She noted that no further evidence had been brought to her attention that suggested the defendant’s role had run any deeper. Prasad Lakireddy nodded in agreement.
And with that, the judge let his plea deal stand: Prasad would serve one year of house arrest at his Lafayette residence and pay a $20,000 fine, which Wolf offered to pay on the spot.
Prasad’s wife smiled and bowed her head in relief. Her husband grinned, then stood near the defense table, waiting to sign papers. He’d get to go home.
On the other side of the wall, back near the corner of the courtroom, sat Jane Doe, older now. She had a tissue at her eyes and she began to weep.