A federal jury in Minneapolis decided Thursday that the man who raped a teenager in Laos will pay his victim $950,000 — the first judgment ever in a civil case involving sex tourism.
According to her lawsuit, Panyia Vang was a 14-year-old aspiring singer living deep in the Laos countryside in 2006 when a much older man from Minnesota flew to her home and offered her a music video audition. After a 12-hour bus ride to the capital city of Vientiane, Thiawachu Prataya took the shy girl to a hotel room and brutally raped her, the suit says.
Prataya was never criminally charged with the alleged sexual assault.
Even so, in 2011, Vang met Twin Cities attorney Linda Miller, who believed Vang’s case could help break through the legal roadblocks faced by young sex exploitation victims who confront their attackers. Miller, who has handled dozens of human trafficking cases in her long legal career, filed an unprecedented lawsuit in 2012 that attempted to recover monetary damages for violations of federal laws regarding child sex tourism and trafficking.
The jury took about 10 hours to find Prataya guilty and award Vang $950,000. Vang’s lead attorney, Patrick Arenz of Robins Kaplan, said it would be premature to comment on whether she could collect the money, “but we will do everything to continue to help her.”
“This verdict vindicates the courage Panyia Vang had to come forward with the truth and her pursuit of justice,” Arenz said. “The verdict also sends a message that sex tourism will not be tolerated. Any U.S. citizen who travels overseas to engage in illicit sexual conduct will be held accountable by a jury in federal court.”
Dee Yang, Prataya’s lawyer, couldn’t be reached for comment. In court documents, Prataya said he didn’t know Vang was a minor. In a deposition, he said he wasn’t worried if she was 12 or 13, because that’s why he paid her family $5,000 to be his “bride.” He said the sex was consensual and later argued in court that she was over 18.
Vang, now 24, declined to comment. Miller said she was just so happy she had gone through with the lawsuit.
“The verdict brings closure to all the accusations against her, and the belittling,” said Miller. “I think she realized the significance of this verdict.”
Arenz and Miller said they were not aware of any other civil suits resulting from sex tourism. They filed the case in 2012 citing Masha’s Law, a 2006 federal statute that gives children the right to sue anyone who produces, distributes or possesses pornographic images of them.
The act is named for a 5-year-old who was adopted from a Russian orphanage by a man who began sexually abusing her the night she arrived in the U.S. Masha’s Law also allows the plaintiff to sue anyone who has downloaded the pornographic images.
Prataya admitted to all of the elements of child sex trafficking and child sex tourism, the suit said. He lived in Minnesota and traveled to Laos in 2006, and he had repeated sexual contact with Vang that he paid for.
The suit got a boost from a 2013 federal Court of Appeals ruling that reinstated the convictions of two South Dakota men who had tried to pay for sex with minors over the internet. That ruling cleared the way to federally prosecute consumers as well as suppliers of commercial sex acts.
Miller said she believes the only other civil suit filed under Masha’s Law involved Thomas White, who died in a Mexican prison in 2013 while awaiting extradition to the U.S. None of the boys he was charged with molesting received money.
Twelve years before Prataya went to Laos in 2006, he pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a woman for whom he was interpreting. He had an office at a nightclub, where he received contact information for Vang’s family.
Vang was lured to an audition for a music video by Prataya’s former wife, who called herself a movie star, the suit says. Vang was offered beautiful clothes and the chance for fame, Miller said. She was able to flee the hotel after Prataya raped her, the suit says, but some of his friends tracked her down and raped her again.
“In a minute, my life changed,” Vang testified at trial. ”My body was ruined. My prospects for marriage, my family’s reputation ruined. How could this happen?”
She soon found herself pregnant and bound to Prataya through a traditional Hmong marriage. She gave birth to his child in 2007. She joined him in Minnesota in 2009, alleging that Prataya had threatened to deny her visitation rights to their child unless he could continue to have sex with her.
She has since received custody of the child.
Prataya, 54, now lives in Missouri. He couldn’t be reached for comment.
Few witnesses testified at the trial, but pictures and documents presented to jurors substantiated Vang’s age when she was allegedly raped. Vang testified for five hours.
“She’s a quiet person, but she was so vehement and so strong,” said Miller.
David Chanen • 612-673-4465