The 72-year-old owner of a popular Thai restaurant in Columbia Heights who was charged with recruiting a teenager from the Dominican Republic to work for him and then allegedly forced him to have sex pleaded guilty Tuesday morning in St. Paul to federal immigration charges.
Pisanu "Pat" Sukhtipyaroge, who lives in Maplewood, was charged Aug. 3 in Anoka County District Court with labor trafficking and criminal sexual conduct. He also was charged in a federal complaint the same day and was eventually indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of forced labor, aiding and abetting visa fraud, and harboring aliens.
Sukhtipyaroge pleaded guilty Tuesday to the visa fraud and harboring charges in exchange for the government dropping the forced labor charge. He is awaiting trial in Anoka County on the state charges.
Sukhtipyaroge entered the United States on a student visa and later became a U.S. citizen; he also remains a citizen of Thailand.
According to the plea agreement, he befriended a teenage boy and his family in the Dominican Republic in 2015 and offered to help him get a student visa in the United States, as he had done for at least one other individual. Sukhtipyaroge swore out an affidavit offering to provide the young man with food, housing, transportation, school supplies and the cost of tuition in America.
Sukhtipyaroge sent the young man detailed instructions of what he should say and should not say during the visa application process.
"Never tell them that you intend to stay longer than the period of time they allow you to stay," Sukhtipyaroge wrote.
Edison High School accepted the young man for just one quarter of study. Sukhtipyaroge told him that he must convince authorities that he planned to return to Santo Domingo when his term ended, but that he would try to find a school to accept him without pay after that.
Alternatively, the young man could take free English courses and study for a GED, Sukhtipyaroge told him, despite knowing that doing so would violate the terms of his visa.
"Don't worry, I told you already, you will be in USA many years," Sukhtipyaroge wrote to him.
He said his son might offer him some work at his restaurant, but that must remain a secret. "You must not tell them or let anyone know that you intend to work in USA, absolute [sic] not."
The young man, identified in court documents as A.M., turned 18 shortly before coming to the United States in mid-October 2015. He initially lived in a windowless furnace room off to the side of Sukhtipyaroge's bedroom in the basement of his single-family house on Cypress Street North in Maplewood.
The young man attended school until May 2016. He eventually moved from Sukhtipyaroge's home and was put up in another windowless room in the basement of Sukhtipyaroge's Royal Orchid Restaurant in Columbia Heights, where he worked as a dishwasher.
Sukhtipyaroge admitted he had offered to pay the young man $500 a month in cash for his work, but failed to do so, saying he was deducting the cost of bringing him to the United States.
He also had the young man work at his Maplewood house without pay. And he warned him that he would risk deportation if he were to work elsewhere.
The young man told investigators that his sponsor had threatened him with a knife and demanded sex, and withheld his passport from him.
Sukhtipyaroge admitted that he had a sexual relationship with the young man, though he says it was consensual.
Sentencing at issue
The government and Sukhtipyaroge disagree on the applicable federal sentencing guidelines range. Assistant U.S. Attorney Laura Provinzino said if the government is correct, he faces a recommended prison term of 18 to 24 months, up to three years of supervised release, and fines ranging from $7,500 to $75,000. According to Frederick Goetz, Sukhtipyaroge's attorney, the correct recommended prison term would be six to 12 months in prison and fines of $4,000 to $40,000.
The law also requires mandatory restitution to the victim and third parties, such as counseling agencies, who assisted him. The government calculates that at $109,682.96.
Sukhtipyaroge disputes the amount, though he did deposit $60,000 into his attorney's trust account that would be available for payment once the judge decides how much he owes. Any additional restitution must be made within 60 days.
Sukhtipyaroge agreed not to appeal his sentence or seek information about the investigation and prosecution under the federal Freedom of Information Act.
U.S. District Judge Wilhelmina Wright will determine his sentence. She noted that his guilty plea might also affect his immigration status.
Goetz said the government could seek to revoke his client's citizenship and deport him, which he called a "remote possibility."
Wright denied Goetz's request to release Sukhtipyaroge pending sentencing.