A retired U.S. Marine captain who was previously sentenced to 210 years behind bars for raping young Cambodian girls in the early 2000s might still be able to taste freedom.
Michael Joseph Pepe, 65, was arrested in June 2006 for illegal sex acts involving seven girls aged 9 to 12 in Phnom Penh.
Six of the girls traveled to the U.S. and told a Los Angeles federal court that Pepe drugged, bound and raped them.
The ex-Marine, who claimed to move to Cambodia in 2003, was working as a part-time professor when he allegedly committed the heinous acts.
Pepe was prosecuted under a federal law that penalizes anyone “who travels in foreign commerce and engages in any illicit sexual conduct with another person.”
While he was convicted in 2008, sentencing was postponed until 2014 over claims that the lead investigator on the case had sexual relations with one interpreter who worked for the victims.
In July 2018, a divided three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed his conviction, ruling that the government did not prove that he was in his “travels” at the time of the crimes.
If he is retried, the government “will need to prove that he was still traveling,” the panel said.
Last week, Pepe pleaded not guilty to the charges of travel with intent to engage in illicit sexual conduct and aggravated sexual child abuse, FOX 11 reported.
In a statement, he claimed that he had spent 20 years in service and suffered from organic brain damage, as well as “psychotic effects” due to withdrawal from psychiatric medication.
One of his victims, Sokha Chan, went public with her story on ABC’s Nightline in 2017. She recalled that her own mother sold her as a sex slave to Pepe.
“I think he should stay in jail, he shouldn’t get out. I don’t want him to hurt another girl,” Chan told L.A. Weekly.
In his latest statement, Pepe offered an apology of sorts to his victims, saying, “If you believe that I have harmed you. I … wish you good luck in the future.”
U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul Abrams set his trial for Oct. 15.
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