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Ex-Marine sentenced to 210 years in sexual abuse of girls in Cambodia

Several victims testified they were drugged, gagged and raped at a house former U.S. Marines Capt. Michael Pepe rented in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — A federal judge sentenced a retired U.S. Marine captain to 210 years in prison for drugging and raping underage girls as young as nine he "bought" from their mothers in Cambodia.

Michael Pepe, 68, went on trial for a second time in Los Angeles in 2021 after the Ninth Circuit overturned his 2008 conviction because prosecutors had failed to show he had traveled to Cambodia to engage in sexual abuse of children, as the law required at the time of his offenses, rather than that he had permanently relocated there.

"Monstrous doesn't begin to describe the nature of the crimes," U.S. District Judge Dale Fischer said at Pepe's sentencing Monday.

Pepe's attorney, Howard Shneider, asked for a 25-year sentence, citing his client's poor physical health. Pepe, who uses a wheelchair and oxygen, has over 20 chronic ailments and takes over 30 medications, according to the lawyer.

"Mr. Pepe doesn't deserve to die in in prison, in pain and away from his children," Shneider told the judge.

Fischer wasn't persuaded by the request for leniency and the argument that a life sentence would be unduly harsh.

"I don't know what unduly harsh means here," she said. "Compared to the horrors he inflicted on these children, his time in prison doesn't come close to unduly harsh."

At his second trial, Pepe was found guilty of traveling twice to Cambodia in 2005 to engage in illicit sex with minors and of aggravated sexual abuse of children younger than 12. Eight of Pepe's victims testified at trial about being drugged, gagged and raped at Pepe's rented house in Phnom Penh where they were kept for weeks and months on end after he had procured them through a local prostitute.

Authorities arrested the Oxnard, California, native on debauchery charges in Cambodia in 2006. One of his victims, who was 13 at the time when she was taken to a shelter after Pepe's arrest, told a U.S. government investigator in Phnom Penh that her aunt had first taken her to Pepe's house. The aunt was the local prostitute that helped Pepe and acted as an interpreter for him. The girl lived in the house and was first told by her aunt to give Pepe oral sex and later he would rape her repeatedly. Pepe would give her and the other girls $1 each time he had sex with them, the girl said according to court filings.

After he was convicted in 2008, Pepe bribed the prostitute who had admitted she helped him, and who was imprisoned in Cambodia, to change her testimony so he could seek a new trial, federal prosecutors said. He had also bribed some of the victims' mothers who had sold their daughters to him for sex, according to court filings, to say that they knew nothing of his sexual abuse but that, through his benevolence, their children were clothed and fed and able to attend school.

When prosecutors discovered evidence that while in prison Pepe used intermediaries in Australia to facilitate the bribe payments in Cambodia, he dropped his bid for a new trial and was sentenced to 210 years in 2014.

The Ninth Circuit, however, overturned that sentence in 2018. In a split decision, the appellate panel agreed with Pepe that the law prohibiting U.S. nationals from traveling abroad for illicit sexual purposes didn't apply to him as it was on the books in 2005 and 2006 because he said he was residing in Cambodia at that time. The law was amended only in 2013 to explicitly include U.S. citizens living in a foreign country.

As a result, the prosecution had to prove at the second trial that Pepe traveled to Cambodia for the purpose of having sex with minors when he flew back there in 2005 from the U.S. where he had been to attend his son's graduation in May of that year and his daughter's wedding later that year. According to Pepe, these were "innocent" round trips that were unrelated to his alleged sexual abuse, but the jury didn't believe that argument.

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