Saying she was sending a message to any American who would consider traveling abroad to sexually exploit children, a federal judge on Friday sentenced a retired U.S. Marine captain convicted of having sex with young girls in Cambodia to life in prison.
Michael Joseph Pepe, 60, was convicted in 2008 of illegal sex acts with seven girls ages 9 to 12. Six of the girls flew to the U.S. to testify at trial that Pepe, who was working as a civilian teacher in the country at the time, had drugged, bound, beat and raped them in his compound in Phnom Penh.
Pepe’s sentencing had been repeatedly delayed amid allegations that a sexual relationship between a case agent and a court interpreter had affected the accuracy of the girls’ trial testimony.
“Monstrous does not begin to describe the crime and the harm done to the victims,” said U.S. District Judge Dale S. Fischer, as she sentenced Pepe to 210 years in prison, a 30-year sentence for each of his seven victims to be served consecutively.
Fischer spared no words, calling Pepe’s actions “unspeakable” and “heinous” and saying she believed the man showed “absolutely no remorse.”
Fischer said such crimes against even one child would have warranted a life sentence, and said the case should serve as a 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,” she said.
Pepe’s conviction after an emotionally wrenching and costly trial had been thrown into jeopardy when prosecutors disclosed that the lead investigator on the case had been sexually involved with one of the interpreters who translated for the victims at trial.
Pepe’s defense attorney contended the relationship between Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent Gary J. Phillips and the interpreter led to translations that were favorable to the prosecution.
After a lengthy legal fight in which experts on either side combed through the trial record, Fischer ruled that while there were small errors, they were due to inherent imprecision rather than bias. She denied the defense’s request for a new trial, saying the quality of the translation hadn’t affected the outcome “especially given the voluminous evidence of Pepe’s guilt.”
The case agent is no longer employed by ICE, Asst. U.S. Atty. Patricia Donahue said outside court Friday.
Pepe’s attorney, Charles Brown, asked that his client be housed in a federal lock-up for sex offenders, “given the risk Mr. Pepe would face at non-sex offender” prisons. Fischer said she would make the recommendation to the Bureau of Prisons.
[For the Record, 1:31 p.m. PST, Feb. 28: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that former ICE agent Gary J. Phillips was present in the courtroom at Pepe’s sentencing. He was not.]