Former professor sentenced to 210 years in Cambodia sex crimes case
A judge in Los Angeles today sentenced former university professor Michael J. Pepe, 68, to 210 years in prison for molesting underage girls in Cambodia.
U.S. District Judge Dale S. Fischer rejected the defense’s position that such a long sentence would be unduly harsh.
“Pepe confined numerous preteen girls in his home,” said Judge Fischer. “The horrors he inflicted on those girls was more than unduly harsh, it was torture.”
In papers filed before today’s hearing, the defense team, headed by veteran attorney Charles C. Brown, argued for a sentence of 25 years, saying Pepe’s “age and feeble health mitigate against the imposition of a sentence of death in prison.”
The government team, headed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephanie S. Christensen, countered that Pepe’s health problems didn’t stop him from “taking Viagra and drugging, beating, and raping children on a near daily basis in Cambodia.”
Pepe, a former U. S. Marine Corps captain, retired to Phnom Penh in 2003 and began teaching management classes at Pannasastra University and befriending Cambodian elites.
A framed photo on the wall of Pepe’s rented villa showed him being greeted by the King of Cambodia.
Former Cambodian prime minister Ung Huot testified for the defense at the August 2021 trial in Judge Fischer’s downtown L.A. courtroom.
But a series of underage victims, now women in their 20’s, told the jury Pepe beat them if they resisted his sexual assaults, and afterward left them bleeding.
In a letter to Judge Fischer, Pepe’s brother-in-law Richard Williams, a former CHP officer, suggested Pepe’s “mood swings, sleeplessness and his physical condition” contributed to his conduct in Cambodia.
Williams told Judge Fischer that Pepe is “more than welcome to live with us until he can get back on his feet.”
But at today’s hearing, the judge said “nothing less than spending a lifetime in prison” would account for Pepe’s crimes.
The government alleged that in 2005-06, at least eight preadolescent girls were dropped off at Pepe’s villa in the upscale Toul Kork district by their mothers or by a prostitute who acted as procurer.
Most of the victims hailed from the slums of Svay Pak, a Cambodian village notorious as a hotbed of child prostitution.
Pepe styled himself a philanthropist who distributed school supplies while snapping photos of the children with his Minolta digital camera.
But in dozens of photos taken with the same camera, underage girls could be seen striking provocative poses inside Pepe’s bedroom.
The digital photos surfaced after Cambodian National Police arrested Pepe in June 2006 and seized his desktop computer.
U.S. government forensics experts later recovered deleted photos showing Pepe naked with a 12-year-old victim.
At the August 2021 trial, Pepe listened as the same victim, now a dignified woman in her 20s, said in flawless English, “I want him to stay where he is right now in jail.”
After his 2006 arrest, Pepe spent eight months inside Cambodia’s Prey Sar prison, a hellish place swarming with mosquitos and smelling of sweat, cigarettes and sewage.
In 2007, the Cambodian government handed Pepe over to agents from ICE, and the former professor was flown to L.A. to face federal charges.
In 2008, a jury found Pepe guilty under a federal law prohibiting any U.S. citizen who “travels in foreign commerce” from committing illicit sexual conduct with a minor.
But in 2018, 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 molested the little girls.
The government responded by indicting Pepe on charges requiring proof he left the U.S. and traveled to Cambodia with intent to engage in illicit sexual conduct.
At trial in August 2021, the government focused on a trip Pepe took to the U.S. in May 2005 to attend his son Jason’s high school graduation, and another trip three months later to attend his daughter Andrea’s wedding.
The government alleged Pepe’s intent could be inferred from his rape and abuse of the little girls soon after returning, as evidenced by metadata embedded in his digital photos.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Demaris Diaz told the jury, “So how do you know what Michael Pepe intended to do in Cambodia? Just look at what he did.”
The jury convicted Pepe on all four counts in the indictment, leading to today’s hearing and the 210-year sentence.
Pepe is being held in a secure nursing home pending his transfer to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Doug Kari is an attorney and writer in Southern California.