Manop Kaeoka said he was shocked when he read about the owner of a popular Thai restaurant who was charged last week with helping a young man come to the United States to study, then forcing him to have sex and to work for less than $1 an hour.
“I used to be one of the victims, too,” said Kaeoka, a 31-year-old Thai immigrant who’s now a legal resident. “The way he treats people is just like a slave.”
Kaeoka said he’s spoken to federal investigators and is willing to testify against Pisanu “Pat” Sukhtipyaroge, the 71-year-old owner of the Royal Orchid restaurant in Columbia Heights.
“I just feel bad, what he did to that boy,” Kaeoka said, explaining why he stepped forward. “I don’t want him to get away with this.”
Sukhtipyaroge, who lives in Maplewood, was charged Aug. 3 in Anoka County District Court with labor trafficking and criminal sexual conduct. Those charges stemmed from a referral from the National Human Trafficking Hotline about a Dominican Republic teenager who had worked at the Royal Orchid. Bond was set at $300,000 without conditions in that case, or $125,000 assuming Sukhtipyaroge met certain conditions that include no travel outside the state, and no contact with minors. Either way, he was barred from contacting the alleged victim.
Federal authorities also charged Sukhtipyaroge on the same day in a criminal complaint in St. Paul with forced labor, which ensured that he would be held in jail even if he made bail. Federal prosecutors expect to file additional charges soon, a spokeswoman said.
Adam Goldfine, who represents Sukhtipyaroge in the Anoka County case, declined to comment. He said his client does not yet have a lawyer representing him on the federal complaint.
According to court filings, Sukhtipyaroge spent three years getting to know the family of the Dominican teenager and finally convinced the young man, then 18, to come to the United States for an education. The young man, who has not been identified in court records, attended Thomas Edison High School briefly, but said that Sukhtipyaroge pulled him out and put him to work at the restaurant for less than $1 an hour. He told investigators that his sponsor had threatened him with a knife and demanded sex, and withheld his passport from him. He said Sukhtipyaroge put him up in squalid conditions in his basement and later, at the Royal Orchid restaurant.
Kaeoka, who lives with his wife and their four children in Elk River, said the teenager’s story struck home. When Kaeoka was 17, he said his parents had separated and his mother was struggling to support him and his two sisters in northeast Thailand. Kaeoka said Sukhtipyaroge, a friend of his father’s, offered to help him go to school and get a job in the United States.
“America, you know, people want to come over here and experience freedom,” Kaeoka said.
He said his mother bought him a plane ticket and he flew to Minneapolis in September 2005, a couple of months after his 18th birthday, on a student visa that Sukhtipyaroge helped arrange. “He pretty much knew all the paperwork,” Kaeoka said.
Kaeoka said he enrolled at Hill-Murray Catholic school in Maplewood and lived in a dingy storage room in Sukhtipyaroge’s basement. He also worked part time at Royal Orchid, which at that time had operations in the Minneapolis skyway and in a Roseville strip mall.
Kaeoka said Sukhtipyaroge told him he had to quit high school after a semester because he was too old, then put him to work six days a week at his restaurants, and at his Maplewood home. Kaeoka said he was told he’d be paid $7 an hour, “but I never get paid.”
Kaeoka said that Sukhtipyaroge, who his married with three children, touched him repeatedly and tried to convince him to have sex, but he fended him off.
It was no way to live, Kaeoka said, who considered going right back to Thailand. But Sukhtipyaroge refused to return his passport, he said.
Finally, Kaeoka said, after living with Sukhtipyaroge for about eight months, “I just walk away.”
A friend steps up
Daniel Tan, an owner of Willow Gate II Chinese restaurant in Roseville, met Kaeoka when he missed the bus and asked for a ride. He said he knew Sukhtipyaroge because their restaurants at that time were close to one another. He said at first he thought that Kaeoka was related to Sukhtipyaroge. But Tan said the way the older man treated Kaeoka made him sad.
“He promised one thing, then when he [Kaeoka] came over, he work him to death,” Tan said.
Tan said when Kaeoka quit working at Royal Orchid, he moved in temporarily with a friend. “It was very tough for him because he [had] no money,” Tan said.
He said he sympathized with Kaeoka.
Tan’s parents, who are Chinese, were put into a concentration camp in Vietnam when he was a boy because the two nations were at war, he said. “I know what it’s like — no food,” he said. So he spoke with his wife about taking Kaeoka into their home.
“He was teenager. He had no place to stay. I give him room and board,” Tan said. “I pay for his school, his insurance, his gas, and food.”
Kaeoka says Tan did much more than that: “He just gave me a new life, pretty much.”
Tan said Sukhtipyaroge demanded that he stop helping Kaeoka or he would turn the young man over to authorities. Tan refused, and said that he and Sukhtipyaroge severed ties.
Tan said he helped Kaeoka get a new passport and bought him a Honda Civic for $800. After Kaeoka fixed it up, it was stolen, Tan said, so he bought him a Volkswagen for about the same amount. Kaeoka got his GED and enrolled at St. Paul College. He lived with Tan and his wife for four years until he graduated with an automotive technician degree and got married. He now has legal resident status, and works as a mechanic at a Plymouth automobile dealership.
“I came from my country with $100. Now I have kids, wife, house, car,” Kaeoka said. “I have a good life now.”
Tan has never asked for anything in return, Kaeoka said. “He said, ‘The next time you see somebody who needs help, you help them out.’ ”
Dan Browning • 612-673-4493