Melinda Henneberger

After Kansas Democrat put dad who raped her in jail, uphill Senate race is nothing

Running as a not-rich and not-famous Kansas Democrat for the U.S. Senate seat her party seems inexplicably unwilling to fight for is not even the hardest thing that Usha Reddi has done this year.

“I understand it’s an uphill battle, but everything in my life has been an uphill battle,” says the 54-year-old teacher and city official in Manhattan, Kansas. “If I can put my dad away after 40 years, everything else seems OK.”

Let’s back up to that last thing she said: The odds of seeing the father who regularly raped her as a child behind bars after all this time were miniscule. Out of every 1,000 perpetrators of sexual violence, only five spend a day behind bars. And for such crimes committed decades ago, the justice that Usha Reddi sought and got is unheard of.

Yet Dr. Venkata Yeleti, a 77-year-old Texas anesthesiologist, will spend the next year in a jail in Virginia, where their family lived when she was 10 and 11. “This is a man who is a physician, who helps lots of my relatives back in India, building temples, building schools. He’s financial security for a lot of them. So he was a god of sorts.”

After Reddi gathered evidence against this builder of schools and temples, he pled guilty in a deal that required him to surrender his medical license, publicly apologize, and use the word “rape,” when he did so. Oh, and one more thing: “He may not contact me or my children ever in this life.”

“It’s been a month today” that he’s been behind bars, she said in a long interview at a Topeka coffee shop, and that’s made a difference even she could not have predicted.

“It’s been lifted,” she says, sipping her green tea. “I can speak to so many issues now, because of what happened to me,” and more to the point, because what happened is no longer a secret. “Because it’s been lifted, people know my whole story now. There isn’t a missing puzzle piece; it all fits.”

As with other survivors of abuse, this is only one piece, and not one Reddi ever thought of as limiting or defining her. “You can be a leader and have these invisible scars. It doesn’t make you less of a person.”

She moved to this country — to Youngstown, Ohio — with her parents and brothers when she was 8 and spoke no English. It was two years later, after the family had moved to Winchester, Virginia, that the abuse began. It continued for six years.

What made him finally stop? “This is more personal, but I pushed him off of me. Until then, I didn’t have the strength to do that.”

Their family was back in Ohio by then, in Columbus, where she later got a degree in behavioral psychology from Ohio State. She married right out of college and moved with her new husband to K-State, where he taught engineering and she was a community volunteer and stay-at-home mom before getting a teaching degree.

As a first-grade teacher, she saw all the unmet needs in education and became president of a local teachers’ union. Then, as the city started cutting the social services her students’ families relied on, “I saw I needed to be in policy-making,” especially as an advocate for mental health services. In her second term as a city commissioner, she’ll take her second turn as Manhattan’s mayor in January.

It was after she and her first husband divorced, about a decade ago, that their children first heard about the abuse. They were in their late teens at that point, and bemoaning the “overprotective” way she’d raised them. “When women are protective of their children, there’s a reason for that. They were never allowed to go to sleepovers, and if we all stayed with anybody, I would be right there. I was not going to let anybody enter their room, ever.”

She hadn’t planned on telling them why just then, but “when you’re a single mom, you have different challenges, survival mode every day, and the stress was so high, there was a tipping point, and I just blurted it out.”

The few relatives who knew what Reddi’s father had done said, “‘Why are you telling them now? It’s just going to distract them from their studies.’

“Should I have told them when they were children? Should I just not tell them at all?”

Her middle son, who was 18, insisted on confronting his grandfather, who met him and Usha in a hotel where they talked about the past for 90 minutes. Her son taped the conversation, in which Yeleti said something like, “I’m sorry I did something bad to you.” After that, Usha and her father exchanged emails about what he referred to as his “animalistic behavior,” and that turned into evidence, too.

In her mind, there was no turning back after that. “When you raise your children to seek justice, and you’re not doing the same thing, you feel like a hypocrite.”

The legal process took years, and it’s only because Virginia has no statute of limitations for felony sex crimes that prosecutors there could charge him. Again, her extended family let her know they disapproved.

“They say, ‘It happened a long time ago. You’re fine. Why are you doing this to him? So I had to set that record straight. He did this to me, it’s a crime, and here is the consequence for it.”

Yes, the 12 months he’ll serve seemed too little, but the prosecutor told her that if the case went to trial, the jury could still acquit him. Or if they did find him guilty, the judge might feel sorry for this older man with a frail wife and reduce his sentence.

She decided not to take any chances, and in keeping with the plea, “He looked at me and said, ‘I’m sorry that I raped you.’ And my children were in that room, and my mother, and that was enough to take the load off. It just took a few seconds, but it was dramatic.”

When speaking of her mother, Reddi talks about the older woman’s struggles rather than her failures. “Every ounce of strength I have in my body is because of my mother. She’s in a situation where she doesn’t know how to talk to me right now, and I think she’ll find her way back.”

Everyone else does seem to know how to talk to Reddi now, though, and everywhere she goes, women and some men, too, tell her their stories. “I get messages that say, ‘My husband doesn’t even know,’ and I can console them and feel good about carrying everybody else. I can say, ‘I get why you have to wait 50 years to say something,’ and I can say, ‘It’s never too late.’ ”

Her 30-year-old son, Ravi Reddi, who works in communications in New York, was the first to suggest that his wonky mom should run for the open Senate seat long held by Pat Roberts.

He said he and his younger brother and sister, who are doctors in Los Angeles and Indianapolis, have jokingly called her the Leslie Knope of Manhattan, referring to the hyper-organized, chronically over-prepared and preternaturally civic-minded character on TV’s “Parks and Recreation.”

“She doesn’t need talking points; she can write the talking points,” her son said.

What they’ve gone through as a family is something “we’re going to be processing for the rest of our lives,” but “we had a living example of how to survive and thrive, and we’re lucky to have a role model like that.”

Maybe because of all she’s been through, her ego doesn’t seem to be at stake in this race. And if no one in the party gives her a serious look, when she’s just the kind of newcomer that voters wish there were more of, then that’s both their self-fulfilling failure of imagination and their loss.

Melinda Henneberger is a columnist and member of The Star’s editorial board. She has covered crime, local and state government, hospitals, social services, prisons and national politics. For 10 years, she was a reporter for The New York Times in New York, Washington, D.C. and Rome. In 2019, she was a Pulitzer finalist for commentary and received the Mike Royko Award for Commentary and Column Writing from the News Leaders Association.