The owner of a popular Thai restaurant in Columbia Heights was sentenced Wednesday to 42 months in federal prison for luring a Dominican Republic teenager to the United States on promises of schooling and a better life, only to make him submit to the owner’s demands for sex and for working at his restaurant for low wages under a “debt-bondage arrangement.”
Pisanu “Pat” Sukhtipyaroge, 72, pleaded guilty in May to one count each of visa fraud and alien harboring. At his sentencing hearing in St. Paul, he told U.S. District Judge Wilhelmina M. Wright that he wanted to help the victim and was sorry about the crimes. He went on to say that his crimes resulted from a misunderstanding and that he had just wanted to teach the victim financial responsibility, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Laura M. Provinzino.
“I said, ‘If you want to teach him financial responsibility, please join us in our restitution request,’ ” Provinzino said in an interview Thursday.
Wright found that Sukhtipyaroge leveraged his position of power over the victim, who was dependent on him for food, money and education, and that Sukhtipyaroge had threatened to report him to immigration authorities if the victim did not comply with his demands.
Provinzino said the 3½-year sentence Wright imposed exceeds the estimated federal sentencing guidelines of 30 to 37 months. She said the judge commented that Sukhtipyaroge’s motive for bringing the victim to the United States was clear and that his denial fooled no one. The judge ordered financial restitution to be determined later.
The victim testified for more than five hours at a presentencing evidentiary hearing about the sexual abuse and threats he endured at Sukhtipyaroge’s hands. He said he feared for his family’s safety if he reported Sukhtipyaroge, but he called a national hotline to report the abuse after he broke away. The victim has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and is seeing a therapist.
Sukhtipyaroge has worked as a sponsor to poor children through a nonprofit agency in Kansas City, Mo. He befriended the teenager in the Dominican Republic and in July 2015 helped him to get an F-1 student visa so he could graduate from high school in the United States.
Sukhtipyaroge knew that an F-1 student visa is a temporary, nonimmigrant visa that does not permit employment in the United States and used false statements in preparing the visa application and coaching the teen about the visa interview, authorities said.
The victim was just 18 when he arrived in the United States on Oct. 19, 2015, according to court documents. He lived in a furnace room at the Maplewood home of the Sukhtipyaroge family and attended Edison High School until May 2016. He eventually began living and working at the Royal Orchid Restaurant in Columbia Heights.
Sukhtipyaroge told him that he would be paid $500 a month in cash for his labor but failed to pay him that amount, saying the teen needed to repay him for his expenses. Sukhtipyaroge admitted having sex with the teen but insisted he never threatened him.
The victim 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.
Sukhtipyaroge had helped other young men get visas in the past, two of whom came forward after reading reports about the investigation in the Star Tribune, Provinzino said.
Manop Kaeoka, a 32-year-old Thai immigrant who is now a legal resident, and a young Brazilian boy said Sukhtipyaroge recruited them and housed them in the furnace room at his Maplewood home for periods of time in 2006 and 2013, she said. Sukhtipyaroge forced them to look at pornography, made sexual advances and put them to work at his restaurant, she added.
Sukhtipyaroge has also been charged in Anoka County with one felony count of third-degree criminal sexual conduct and one felony count of labor trafficking. His federal sentence will run concurrent to any sentence he gets in that case.
Provinzino credited Charles Bautch, a special agent with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and Detective Mike Schantzen with the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office, for recognizing the teen’s report for “what it was” and for “doing something about it.”