By Alec Foege
Updated March 20, 2000 12:00 PM

High stress for Megan Greenwell, 16, usually means juggling her heavy course load with fencing practice, a boyfriend and reporting for California’s Berkeley High Jacket. So when Iliana Montauk, 17, news editor of the Jacket, asked Greenwell on Nov. 30 to write a story about the death of an Indian teenager two blocks from the high school, Greenwell didn’t believe the assignment would change anybody’s life. Montauk was equally skeptical. “At first,” she admits, “I didn’t really think we would find anything.”

Yet within little more than a week, by doggedly pursuing the flimsiest of leads, the novice journalists helped expose an illegal-immigration scheme—more than a month before any other news organization. Stories about the operation made front-page news, dominated TV broadcasts in the Bay Area for days and have led to federal indictments. Greenwell and Montauk have been featured in the San Francisco Examiner and on public radio’s Morning Edition and local TV news programs. “These kids acted like professionals,” says English teacher and Jacket adviser Rick Avers, 53. “They have tenacity.”

It all started when Ayers read a local newspaper item about Sitha Vemireddy, a 16-year-old from India who had died accidentally of carbon-monoxide poisoning in her Berkeley apartment. Ayers suggested that Jacket staffers find out if the girl had been a Berkeley High student. She wasn’t. A South Asian teacher at the school then told the reporters she believed the teen might have been sold into servitude—and possibly forced to work as a virtual slave—in return for passage to the U.S., a growing problem throughout California. The teacher also mentioned a nearby restaurant, Pasand Madras Indian Cuisine, where Vemireddy was believed to have worked.

“When I told the [restaurant’s] hostess I was writing an article on Indian culture and wanted to interview a waiter,” Greenwell recalls, “the manager came out and said no.” The response made her suspicious. Greenwell and Montauk then took to the streets to question anyone they ran into who looked South Asian. “At least two different people had direct knowledge of the girl’s situation,” and they confirmed that indentured servitude was “basically what went on,” Montauk says.

Pondering the girl’s life and death gave the students new perspective. “We’re the same age, living in the same town,” says Greenwell, “but we were living completely different” lives.” That discovery prompted some anxiety. “I was fearful for her safety,” says Greenwell’s mother, Gail, 43, a divinity student at Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union. (Greenwell’s father, Jim, 56, is a flooring consultant.) “But I have faith in my daughter’s judgment.”

A determined Greenwell and Montauk worked late into the night, sometimes skipping classes to hunt down key interviews. Their tender years sometimes worked to their advantage. “People our age did not feel as threatened as they might have if I were older and scary looking,” says Montauk, who lives with her brother Dobromir, 18, and their parents, Lance, 53, a doctor, and Krystyna, 43, a high school teacher.

The story the two young women published Dec. 10 reported that the deceased teen “was probably an indentured servant” brought over from India by Vijay Lakireddy, 30, the son of prominent local businessman and landlord Lakireddy Bali Reddy, 62. She had in fact worked at Pasand Madras and as a cleaner in the building where she lived.

In mid-January, federal prosecutors, aided in their own investigation by anonymous tips, charged Reddy and son with smuggling Indian women into the country to work, some of them as prostitutes, and with encouraging others from India to enter and live in the U.S. illegally. Both men pleaded not guilty and are free on bail—$10 million for the father, $500,000 for the son.

“It is a tragedy that the girl died, but in a way her death paved the way for this whole story to be uncovered,” says Greenwell, reflecting on her article and its unexpected aftermath. “She probably saved more lives in the process.”

Alec Foege

Ken Baker in Berkeley