Los Angeles: The retrial of a former U.S. Marine on charges he molested children in Cambodia opened this week in a Los Angeles courtroom.
Michael J. Pepe, 67, faces four felony counts alleging he traveled from the U.S. to Cambodia with intent to engage in illicit sexual conduct with minors.
On Thursday, a Cambodian woman testified that Pepe took her in when she was 9 years old, and paid money to her family, in exchange for erotic massages and other sexual services.
Another alleged victim told the hushed courtroom that after she was brought to Pepe’s house, the retired U.S. Marine Corps captain drugged and raped her, and when she screamed, beat her unconscious.
Six other women, who ranged in age from 10 to 13 when Pepe allegedly abused them, are slated to testify before the federal court jury.
This week’s trial marks the latest chapter in a saga that began in 2006, when ICE agents and Cambodian police received reports that an American expat was enslaving and raping underage girls.
When Cambodian police raided Pepe’s rented villa in an upscale area of Phnom Penh, they allegedly seized children’s clothes and toys, a computer with child pornography, and a stash of drugs including morphine, Xanax and Viagra.
After being jailed for eight months in Cambodia’s notorious Prey Sar prison, Pepe was turned over to ICE agents and flown to L.A. to face federal charges.
In 2008, following a jury trial where half a dozen underage victims testified against him, Pepe was found guilty on seven counts under a federal law prohibiting U.S. citizens from committing sex acts with minors while engaged in “travels in foreign commerce.”
Eleven months after the jury returned its verdict, the case took a bizarre turn. A report emerged that the lead ICE agent had been carrying on a secret affair with one of the interpreters at trial.
This resulted in a years-long delay as the presiding judge, Dale S. Fischer, investigated the report. Ultimately, Judge Fischer concluded that the “egregious misconduct” by the agent and interpreter didn’t warrant granting Pepe a new trial.
In 2014, Judge Fischer sentenced Pepe to 210 years in prison. “Monstrous does not begin to describe the crime,” said the stern-faced federal jurist.
But in 2018, in a surprise 2-1 decision, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Pepe’s conviction, reasoning that because he lived in Cambodia, he wasn’t engaged in “travels” when he sexually assaulted the girls.
Rather than petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the decision, the government indicted Pepe on related charges that don’t require proving the defendant was engaged in “travels” when the sexual misconduct occurred.
In the retrial that began this week, the government aims to prove that in May and September 2005, after visiting family in the U.S., Pepe, who is from Oxnard, boarded return flights to Cambodia with the intent to engage in sex with minors—and did so after he arrived.
“He went back because in Cambodia you could buy children for sex,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Damaris Diaz told the jury in the government’s opening statement.
Deputy Federal Public Defender Isabel Bussarakum countered that Pepe’s purpose in traveling to Cambodia “was simply to go home where he had been living since 2003.”
Doug Kari is an attorney and writer in Southern California. LBPOST