The owner of a popular Thai restaurant in Columbia Heights is facing allegations that he brought a Dominican Republic teenager to America on promises of schooling and a better life only to make him work for low wages under a "debt-bondage arrangement."
Federal prosecutors in St. Paul say in a criminal complaint filed Thursday that Pisanu "Pat" Sukhtipyaroge forced the young man to work at the Royal Orchid Restaurant that Sukhtipyaroge owns and operates, and coerced him into having sex. Sukhtipyaroge also has worked as a sponsor to poor children through a nonprofit agency in Kansas City, Mo., that tries to educate them and help them get jobs.
According to the complaint, which resulted from an investigation by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Sukhtipyaroge, 71, helped an unidentified 18-year-old come to Minnesota on a student visa in 2015 but soon told him that he could no longer attend high school classes. Authorities say that Sukhtipyaroge then put the former student to work at his business, where the young man lived in an unfinished storage room and was paid less than $1 an hour.
The young man told authorities that he met Sukhtipyaroge through an organization that connects poor families in the Dominican Republic with Americans who can sponsor their children to go to school on a student visa in the United States. (The organization is not identified in court records.) Sukhtipyaroge visited the young man's family over a period of three years to befriend them, and they eventually decided their child could go to America, the complaint says.
The young man said he attended Edison High School for a time.
Soon after the student's arrival on Oct. 15, 2015, the complaint says, Sukhtipyaroge told the young man that he had to engage in sexual acts. The alleged victim said he feared immigration authorities once his student visa became invalid after he stopped attending school, and worried for the safety of his family in the Dominican Republic if he didn't do as he was told.
Federal prosecutors allege that Sukhtipyaroge used "coercion, psychological abuse, intimidation, and threats of legal process to maintain control" of the alleged victim, both as "forced laborer" and "a continued victim of Sukhtipyaroge's sexual assaults."
The complaint says the young man was promised $500 a month for working as a dishwasher, but in fact was paid just $125 for 40 hours of work at the restaurant — or 78 cents an hour. That doesn't include the time the young man said he also was forced to clean and do yard work at Sukhtipyaroge's residence.
The young man told authorities that Sukhtipyaroge travels to foreign countries to engage in sexual acts with young boys and frequently uses social media to recruit them for sex. The young man also alleges that Sukhtipyaroge records such encounters.
The restaurant owner was arrested Tuesday on suspicion of third-degree criminal sexual conduct and labor trafficking. While searching Sukhtipyaroge's home, authorities discovered pictures of young children taped to the wall as well as Ziploc bags that appeared to contain boys' or teens' underwear, according to the complaint.
They also found a number of pictures of young children who appeared to be involved in Children International, a child sponsorship nonprofit based in Kansas City, Mo. Authorities say they discovered thank-you notes for trips that Sukhtipyaroge had made to meet his sponsored children.
Children International does work in the Dominican Republic, but it's unclear from the complaint if the organization was involved in the contacts Sukhtipyaroge made with the alleged victim and his family.
Sukhtipyaroge, who lives in Maplewood, has no prior criminal records in Minnesota or federally. He could not be reached for comment Friday. An answering machine message at the Royal Orchid indicates that the restaurant closed temporarily on July 17, with plans to reopen Aug. 8.
"It's really terrible that this happened," Brittany Gelbach, a spokeswoman for Children International, said Friday. Sukhtipyaroge has been associated with the group since 1996, Gelbach said, adding that his current sponsorships of nine children would be immediately discontinued.
Children International does not arrange for visas to the United States, Gelbach said. She said she doubts that the alleged victim was one of the children in its program.
Children International filed its 2015 tax return in April, reporting revenue of nearly $152 million. It described its operations this way: "Children International creates personal, transformative and impactful relationships and offers supporters a way to invest in the holistic development of a child with the ultimate focus on employability to help its graduates break the cycle of poverty."
Children International runs all of its sponsors through a sex-offender database before they're allowed to meet with children in its programs, Gelbach said, and background checks are run randomly against all sponsors whether they visit their sponsored child or not. Sponsors always are accompanied by staff during visits, and all communication goes through both the company's headquarters and its field offices, she added. Although the complaint says that Sukhtipyaroge had letters from some of the children he sponsored, she said, nothing indicates that those communications were inappropriate.