In 2008, several scared and hesitant young Cambodian girls stood before U.S. District Judge Dale Fischer to tell her what Michael Joseph Pepe had done to them.
"Please don't allow this to happen again," one pleaded in a barely audible voice. "Thank you that you helped me find justice," another told her.
Six years and a lengthy legal battle later, Fischer finally handed down a sentence Friday for the onetime U.S. Marine captain, convicted of sex acts with young girls in Cambodia: 210 years in prison, the statutory maximum, effectively a life sentence. Fischer said she was sending a message to any American who would consider traveling abroad to have sex with children.
"Monstrous does not begin to describe the crime," the judge said, calling Pepe's crimes "unspeakable" and "heinous."
Pepe, 60, was convicted under a federal law that makes it a crime for Americans to rape, molest or pay for sex with children while traveling abroad. Six of seven girls, who were between the ages of 9 and 12 when they were abused by Pepe, traveled to Los Angeles to testify at his trial.
Speaking through interpreters, the girls described for jurors how the man, who was then working as a civilian teacher in the country, had drugged, blindfolded, gagged, bound, beat, raped and forced oral sex on them repeatedly at his compound in Phnom Penh.
Jurors swiftly returned a verdict against Pepe, but the conviction was thrown into peril when prosecutors disclosed that the lead investigator had been involved in a sexual relationship with a Vietnamese interpreter who translated for some of the girls. Pepe's defense attorney contended that the relationship between Immigration and Customs Enforcement Special Agent Gary J. Phillips and the interpreter had tainted the girls' testimony.
After a lengthy legal fight in which experts on either side painstakingly compared video of the testimony with translations, Fischer ruled last month that although there were minor errors, they were due to inherent imprecision rather than bias. She denied the defense's request for a new trial, saying that errors in the translation hadn't affected the outcome "especially given the voluminous evidence of Pepe's guilt."
The judge nevertheless called the agent and the interpreter's relationship "egregious misconduct," and said she was not condoning their actions by refusing to throw out the verdict.
Phillips retired from the agency in 2011, an ICE spokeswoman said Friday.
At Friday's sentencing, Pepe showed little reaction to Fischer's remarks as he stood hunched over in a prison-issued white jumpsuit, handcuffed and chained at the waist. His attorney, Deputy Federal Public Defender Charles Brown, noted Pepe's mental health problems and said the man, a married father of three with grandchildren, regretted his actions.
Fischer disagreed. "He has absolutely no remorse," the judge said.
Anything short of life in prison would have been inadequate, the judge said, given that Pepe had "destroyed and permanently damaged seven young lives." Even more appalling was that he had held himself out to be someone who was trying to help children, Fischer noted. Pepe told a mother that he planned on adopting her two girls and sending them to school.
The judge said the case should serve as a stern warning to anyone who believes sexual exploitation of children overseas would be treated lightly.
"Such crimes are not permitted anywhere in the world, and this country will do what it can to protect children," Fischer said.
Pepe was also ordered to pay more than $247,000 in restitution to the victims. The money will go to anti-trafficking groups that are providing the girls with physical and psychiatric treatment, according to court papers.
Brown, Pepe's attorney, asked that his client be housed in a federal lockup for sex offenders, "given the risk Mr. Pepe would face at non-sex offender" prisons and so that he may receive treatment. Fischer said she would make the recommendation to the Bureau of Prisons.