Ten Year Anniversary of Celebrated Jacket Story

By Camille Baptista

Ten years ago this month, the work of two young Berkeley High reporters made national news.

The story began in the typically quiet Berkeley High Jacket meeting room during the biweekly brainstorming. It was a rather unremarkable setting for a story to emerge that would eventually propel this paper from anonymity into the unfamiliar limelight.

The brainstorming sessions, during which the editors of the Jacket came together to discuss potential story ideas for the upcoming issue, routinely brought forth a number of easily discarded suggestions. But on a fateful day in November of 1999, a seemingly innocuous proposal was added to the discussion, accepted by a determined young reporter who, along with her editor, unearthed a shocking and nationally recognized story.

“I called it to their attention,” said Rick Ayers, CAS co-founder and faculty supervisor of the Jacket at the time. Ayers had spotted a small article in The San Francisco Examiner about a teenage girl who had died from carbon monoxide poisoning in a Berkeley apartment where she worked. Ayers noted it only because of the girl’s suspiciously young age and suggested to news editor Iliana Montauk that she look into it.

On Assignment Day a sophomore named Megan Greenwell raised her hand for the story about the girl’s tragic death.
Greenwell’s research revealed that the victim, seventeen-year-old Seetha Vemireddy, had recently immigrated to the Bay Area from India to live with her older sister. The two girls had been working for their relative, prominent Berkeley landlord and multimillionaire Lakireddy Bali Reddy, in one of his many city apartments when they were found unconscious in the building and brought to Alta Bates hospital. There,the older sister was cared for and released. Seetha Vemireddy, however, was pronounced dead from exposure to carbon monoxide gas, which had been released from a congested heating vent in the apartment.

Before long, Greenwell began looking into why this young teenage immigrant was working instead of attending school. “That was what we were curious about,” Greenwell explained. “We assumed she would have gone to Berkeley High because she lived a couple of blocks from campus, and everybody goes to Berkeley High unless they go to private school.”
Determined to know for certain, Greenwell inquired further. “I went to the registrar and asked…whether she was enrolled, and the answer, of course, was no,” said Greenwell, “So I started thinking that that was a little weird.”
Meanwhile, Berkeley High CAS media teacher and current Jacket faculty advisor Dharini Rasiah was leading a club at BHS specifically for South Asian students, particularly focused on issues faced by girls in the community. She spoke with members of the club about South Asian immigrants who worked in local businesses to pay off the costs of their transportation and the difficult conditions they faced in the workplace.

Ayers advised Greenwell and Montauk to speak with Rasiah due to her involvement with South Asian students at Berkeley High, a demographic that soon proved to hold critical information for their article. When the two reporters talked with Rasiah, she proposed the possibility of indentured servitude. It then occurred to the writers that there was a chance this story was much bigger than they had thought.

As Greenwell attempted to uncover evidence supporting Rasiah’s idea of indentured servitude in the Reddy family, she was assisted more and more by Montauk and they proceeded with the investigation together. “It seemed like it was going to be a story that needed more than one person to work on it,” explained Montauk.

Rasiah’s close connection to many in Berkeley High’s South Asian community was indeed a valuable resource. She provided them with the names of a few young women at Berkeley High who she thought could give them information on the Reddy family.

“At that point, it was mostly a matter of talking to… a bunch of advocates within the South Asian community,” Greenwell explained, “and sort of piecing it together.”

When Greenwell and Montauk went to speak with the students in the South Asian community, their attempts were initially unsuccessful. Though they agreed to be interviewed, the girls were frightened and hesitant to answer questions on the subject. Despite this setback, Greenwell and Montauk pursued the story and were eventually able to ascertain some useful information.

After making it clear they wanted to remain anonymous, the South Asian students whom Rasiah had connected them with, told Greenwell and Montauk what they knew about Reddy. He was a prominent figure in the South Asian community involved in some rather immoral business. He was known by some for his common practice of paying for the transportation of young women from India to the United States, where they worked in his apartment buildings and restaurants for little or no pay aside from food and shelter. However, when Montauk and Greenwell questioned the arrangement, the students defended it. They believed the girls had an obligation to Reddy because he paid for their transportation.

With the growth of the story’s significance, Greenwell realized she had to at least attempt to contact the most obvious, yet most intimidating, connection to the case. “I decided I needed to try to get a comment from Mr. Reddy himself,” she said. One day after school, armed with a paper-thin tale about researching Indian culture, Greenwell entered the Pasand Madras Indian Cuisine restaurant on Shattuck, a well-known Reddy–owned business, and asked to speak to Reddy. “The host looked at me sort of strangely and went away,” Greenwell recounted. “[He] came back a couple of minutes later and in this very menacing tone, said, ‘You need to leave right now’.” Taking this as a clear indication that their sleuthing was unwelcome, she abandoned her pursuit of Reddy and wrote the article without a comment from him.

As Ayers and the rest of the Jacket staff realized that the story held many sensitive issues, they began to fear for their legal safety. Reddy was a powerful and wealthy businessman; if he had a reason and an opportunity to sue the high school newspaper, they assumed he would do so. Ayers, Greenwell and Montauk discussed issues of liability in hopes of avoiding charges or legal attention. “We actually had an attorney who was the parent of another staff member [speak with us] because we were so scared,” Greenwell recalled.

When it came time to write, Greenwell and Montauk sat down and undertook the task together. They focused the article on information about the profusion of indentured servitude in the South Asian community and discussed how it was considered a valuable opportunity for a lower-class Indian youth to be brought to work in America. The writers worded the story carefully, choosing implicating rather than accusatory language and alluding to the fact that they did not have concrete evidence of indentured servitude.

Equipped with selective information that Greenwell and Montauk had gathered with dedication and persistence, the Jacket published its breakthrough article on December 10, 1999. However, it did not receive the public reaction that the Jacket staff had expected. A month passed without anything to suggest that anyone had even read Greenwell and Montauk’s article. “We thought it was kind of a big deal,” said Greenwell. “We were expecting somebody to care.”

When the Jacket staff parted ways for winter break, the article was essentially forgotten. It wasn’t until Reddy’s arrest in January that the story arose in the media. “I’ve never figured out if the police saw our article,” Ayers commented. “We like to think it was us.”

The San Francisco Examiner was first to announce Reddy’s arrest to its readers, the very same day it occurred. “At the time, The San Francisco Examiner was an afternoon paper, and he got arrested [in the] morning,” Greenwell recalled. “So The Examiner was able to get it into that day’s paper.” (Reddy was eventually imprisoned and released after seven years).

The Jacket’s coverage of the story was initially unnoticed. However, Greenwell and Montauk did receive their well-earned credit. In fact, they felt their article might have gotten more attention than it deserved. A BHS parent had informed The Examiner that the Jacket covered the story nearly a month earlier and journalist Matthew Yi soon contacted the two writers for an interview. The Examiner was the first newspaper to publish an article crediting the discovery of the truth behind Vemireddy’s death to Greenwell and Montauk.

The wider media’s grasp of the story took an angle that the Jacket reporters hadn’t expected, or even looked into at all. The press emphasized suspicions of sexual slavery in Reddy’s businesses as a result of indentured servitude, and hungry newspaper and magazine readers pounced on this slightly juicier tale. It was unusual, scandalous story that was socially and racially sensitive at the same time — all the features that attracted national attention and gossip.

Before they knew it, Greenwell and Montauk were becoming well-known throughout the United States and especially in the Bay Area. Television programs and radio talk shows couldn’t resist the story of two teenage girls who cracked the case that everyone else had overlooked. Curious journalists waited outside their homes and classrooms, eager for a picture or interview. “It wasn’t until I was being portrayed in ways that I didn’t agree with and it wasn’t until I had found quotes that I had said — or not said — appearing in print, that I realized how much transformation occurs or can occur between what you think is happening and how it ends up on paper,” said Montauk.

At first the young writers confessed the attention was thrilling. “There’s a certain amount of excitement that occurs when people want to talk to you,” Montauk admitted. “It was a first experience of that for us, and [it] brought a lot of attention to the Jacket, as a newspaper, that we were happy to have.”

But the attention they received wasn’t always positive. Some of the self–claimed distinguished and prominent reporters and other members of the press attempting to publish the newest lucrative story were rude, demanding and condescending toward Greenwell and Montauk. “We started having bad experiences and seeing people write things that weren’t things we had said, or misportraying or mischaracterizing what we had done,” Montauk explained.
“We realized that the story was becoming [about us] instead of [about] the girl who had died … and the indentured servitude that was taking place right in our community,” Montauk said.

Indeed, the stories published by newspapers in the following weeks were almost all focused on either the two reporters or the alleged sex scheme. The South Asian community and the “bigger spectrum” that Rasiah had helped Greenwell and Montauk explore were essentially invisible to the fourth estate. The young women of the South Asian community at Berkeley High received no recognition for the crucial information they had courageously released.

Although Greenwell and Montauk’s article and the attention they received for it did undoubtedly result in certain negative connotations, the awareness that was encouraged because of their research and investigations made a pivotal and lasting impression on all the communities connected to the story, from the Jacket meeting room to professional newspaper offices.
“I don’t think we’re the only ones who ended up trying to be sensitive to why things like this exist in the world,” says Montauk. “But I think we had really pushed that issue and that was something I was proud of.”

“I remember thinking after the media started contacting us, that I could have done so much more with the story and I could have thought about it so much more than I had,” Montauk reflects. “I was embarrassed at not having taken it more deeply. What I did feel proud about was that I felt that we had written a story that was a realistic portrayal of what happened.”

In 2000, the staff of the Jacket became the first–ever non–professional newspaper to receive the Journalist of the Year award by the Northern California Society of Professional Journalists.

Throughout their remaining years at Berkeley High School, Greenwell and Montauk had many chances to recount their story and reflect on the life–changing event. They received various acknowledgements, and attended banquets and ceremonies where they were asked to relive the profound experience. The story proved a promising and helpful feature in resumés and college applications. Besides the push it gave them in their later careers, the experience of being under the spotlight as a writer at a young age helped both students learn and grow as reporters. “I remember feeling [when we were being interviewed] how eye-opening it was to be the subject of a story instead of the one writing it,” Montauk explains.

After she graduated from BHS, Montauk spent a year abroad working in Poland before coming back to the United States to attend Harvard University.

Although some of the journalistic works she completed in college were among those she was most proud of, she chose not to dedicate her life to reporting. “I really liked writing and I felt writing could have a powerful effect on the world,” Montauk notes. “[But] I ended up deciding that was not something I wanted to pursue.” After college, she worked temporarily in different fields considering alternative career paths, unsure where she wanted to go. Today, Montauk works at EARN, a nonprofit organization based in San Francisco that aims to break the cycle of poverty by helping low-income people invest in assets that build wealth.

Greenwell chose to follow the path she had stumbled upon in high school. After graduating, she attended Columbia University in New York, and went on to write for the Washington Post where she still works today. However, she rarely credits her overall success to the article she wrote in high school. “I did write my college essay about the story, so I suppose I can thank it for my Columbia education,” she admited.

“But I rarely bring it up if I’m not asked directly. I think that’s because the story has had a strange dual influence on my life. On one hand, yes, it brought a lot of positive attention, made a difference in my community and helped me succeed personally.

But on the other hand, for a long time I was eager to prove that the story wasn’t the only reason I had gotten into college or to theWashington Post or wherever … Maybe I was also rebelling a bit against the idea that I would be defined by something I wrote when I was fifteen.”

Besides the push it gave them in their later careers, the experience of being under the spotlight as young reporters helped both students learn and grow as writers.

“It certainly showed me that journalism on any level can make a real difference,” says Greenwell. “It also convinced me of the importance of digging deep, of showing every side of an issue in a fair way. Those are goals that have stuck with me, and I’m a better journalist for it.”

Today, the experience that Greenwell and Montauk faced with such dedication and strength remains a highlight from their high school life. Still a part of them, it was certainly a valuable experience that will not be forgotten, but they don’t let it interfere with who they are now. They will remember it not for the publicity they received, but for the importance of the original story of the young woman who fell victim to ignorance and cruelty, and for the priceless concepts and realms they had the rare opportunity to explore at such a young age.