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Verdict in key child-sex trial at risk

A costly and emotionally charged child sex case in which prosecutors traveled to Cambodia and paid to fly frightened young victims to the United States is under fire by defense attorneys amid allegations that court interpreters were biased in favor of the prosecution.

One of the interpreters assigned to the case of Michael Joseph Pepe admitted being involved in a sexual relationship with the lead investigator around the time the case went to trial in May 2008, according to documents filed in federal court in Los Angeles.

Pepe, a retired U.S. Marine captain who was working as a teacher in Cambodia, was convicted of having sex with seven girls ages 9 to 12. The girls, speaking through Vietnamese and Khmer interpreters, testified that Pepe drugged, bound, beat and raped them in his compound in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital.

After Pepe’s conviction, prosecutors discovered and disclosed the relationship between interpreter Ann Luong Spiratos and Gary J. Phillips, a special agent with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

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Following the disclosure, Pepe’s defense attorneys asked U.S. District Judge Dale S. Fischer for a new trial, arguing that the “secret … sexual relationship” between Spiratos and Phillips resulted in skewed interpretations by Spiratos and a colleague, which aided the prosecution and undermined the defense.

“Only after Mr. Pepe was convicted did the defense learn that the Vietnamese language interpreter was not the disinterested interpreter that she appeared,” wrote deputy federal public defender Charles C. Brown. “We now know that what the jury heard during the trial was not what the witnesses said but what the interpreters said they said.” Brown argued that Spiratos’ alleged bias spread to another interpreter she brought in to work on the case.

As a result of the controversy, Pepe’s sentencing has been postponed. The motion for a new trial has been pending before Fischer for nearly four months.

Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles, said prosecutors hired experts who reviewed the translations after the trial and found no substantive differences between witnesses’ testimony and what the interpreters said aloud in court. He said some of the interpretations questioned by the defense experts were done by an interpreter other than Spiratos who had no reason to put her career at risk by manipulating witnesses’ testimony.

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In a recent interview with The Times, Spiratos said her interpretations were unbiased.

In a hearing earlier this year, Fischer expressed concerns about the objectivity of a defense expert who was critical of interpretations by Spiratos and a fellow interpreter she brought on to help with the case. Fischer ordered prosecutors and defense attorneys to meet and attempt to reach an agreement about what discrepancies — if any — exist between the testimony and translations in order to help her decide how to proceed with the case.

The defense’s new trial motion also hinted at improper conduct by one of the federal prosecutors on the case. According to the court papers, Phillips, the ICE agent, said that Assistant U.S. Atty. John Lulejian encouraged him to become involved with Spiratos. [The prosecutor and agent are not named in the court filing, but sources close to the case have confirmed their identities.]

“Wait till you see who I hired … she is Vietnamese and is very hot,” Phillips said the prosecutor told him, according to a declaration he submitted to the court.

Phillips said Lulejian twice told him he should “take care” of Spiratos, an apparent reference to having sex with her, according to court papers. Phillips added that Lulejian himself was “enamored” with Spiratos and that the prosecutor showed him photographs of her that he had on his phone.

Phillips, who is the subject of an ongoing internal investigation by ICE, declined to comment through an agency spokeswoman.

Lulejian also declined to comment for this article. According to the court papers, he said he had a “professional and platonic” relationship with Spiratos and did nothing to facilitate a romantic relationship between her and Phillips.

The issue has tainted what was once a celebrated case within the Department of Justice. The prosecution team, including Phillips and Lulejian, was given distinguished service awards last year by Atty. Gen. Eric Holder for its work on the case. The situation also seems to have angered Fischer, who refused to allow defense attorneys to file their motion under seal.

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“This case received media attention — at least some of which was initiated by the government. This prosecution consumed a significant amount of public funds,” the judge wrote in July. “Concealing the basis for the motion — or the ruling — would promote distrust of the judicial process.”

Lulejian said that when he came to suspect last year that Phillips and Spiratos had been involved in a sexual relationship, he contacted the U.S. attorney’s ethics office, according court papers. Prosecutors conducted an investigation and disclosed the results to the defense.

The timeline of the relationship between Spiratos and Phillips is somewhat vague. Both filed sworn declarations with the court, but those documents are under seal, meaning they are not available for public review. According to Brown’s new trial motion, Phillips stated in his declaration that the relationship began “sometime after the start of the trial or near the end of the trial.” The agent recalled several instances of being romantic with Spiratos, including one time after he accompanied the victims to Disneyland and another that “possibly” occurred before one of the girls took the stand. Spiratos wrote that she began a friendship with Phillips during the trial but that it did not become intimate until early June, shortly after the verdict.

Brown wrote that Spiratos’ relationship with the lead investigator went “beyond creating the unsavory appearance of impropriety.” Spiratos and her colleague, he wrote, “secretly allied themselves with the [prosecution] witnesses and unfairly bolstered their testimony and at the same time sabotaged the defense.”

An expert hired by the defense to analyze the interpretations done at trial found numerous discrepancies between what interpreters said aloud and the witnesses’ actual testimony, court papers state.

In one instance, a girl’s statement: “I didn’t sleep because I was afraid of him,” was translated to: “I meant that I wouldn’t let him insert his penis in my vagina,” defense experts said.

Some of the allegedly bogus interpretations were “at times so divergent from the actual responses that they cannot simply be attributed to good faith misunderstandings,” Brown contended.

Mrozek, the U.S. attorney’s spokesman, said prosecutors will be filing a detailed response to the defense allegations regarding the interpretations in coming weeks.

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Spiratos said in an interview this week that she was unaware at the time of the trial that her relationship with Phillips outside of work represented a conflict of interest. She said she could not remember whether they had been intimate prior to the verdict.

“I would be a liar if I said, ‘no,’ ” she said.

She insisted that her relationship with Phillips had no bearing on her work or on that of the other interpreter she hired for the case. Since her relationship with Phillips was disclosed, she said, she has been denied work in the federal courts — decimating her once successful business — and that Phillips and Lulejian have turned their backs on her.

“I lost everything,” she said. “I feel like I’m a scapegoat. It takes two, right? Not just me.”

Worse, Spiratos said, is the delay in Pepe’s sentencing and uncertainty surrounding the case.

“Those little kids don’t deserve this,” she said.

scott.glover@latimes.com


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