Federal Court in downtown Los Angeles
Downtown Los Angeles federal courthouse. MyNewsLA.com photo by John Schreiber.

A federal prosecutor told a Los Angeles jury Wednesday that a onetime U.S. Marine captain traveled to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, for the purpose of having sex with children, but the defense countered that Michael Pepe is not guilty of “sex tourism” because the Southeast Asian nation was his permanent home, not a temporary stop — regardless of the child rape allegations.

Pepe, 67, is facing retrial on charges of travel with intent to engage in illicit sexual conduct and aggravated sexual child abuse. He was previously convicted under a federal law that makes it a crime for Americans to rape, molest or pay for sex with children while traveling abroad. Pepe was sentenced seven years ago to life in prison after he was found guilty of committing illegal sex acts with seven girls age 9 to 13 in Cambodia. Six of the girls flew to the United States to testify that Pepe, who was working as a teacher in the country at the time, had drugged, bound, beaten and raped them in his Phnom Penh compound.

However, in 2018, a divided panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals unexpectedly reversed Pepe’s conviction, finding that the government had not shown that he was “traveling” when he assaulted the girls. Pepe maintains that he relocated to Cambodia permanently, worked as an English teacher and bought a home there in March 2003.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Damaris Diaz told the jury in opening statements Wednesday that Pepe returned to the United States twice in 2005, and traveled back to Cambodia — via Los Angeles — not because it was his home, but because poor Asian children were easily available to him there.

In the slums of Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, pedophiles “can buy children for sex,” Diaz said, telling jurors that the country is so poverty stricken that parents “sold” their children to Pepe for $30 a month to allow the girls to live with him. Pepe also allegedly paid $100 to $200 “for their virginity,” Diaz said, adding that such monetary sums are “life-changing” in Cambodia.

The prosecutor contends that Pepe traveled to Cambodia each time “so he could rape and abuse little girls. And that’s why the defendant kept going back.”

However, federal public defender Isabel Bussarakum countered that “whether these events occurred is not the real issue. The real issue is, did Michael Pepe commit a crime here in the U.S. when he boarded a plane to Cambodia (twice in 2005).”

The attorney told the panel in Los Angeles federal court that her client is “not charged with committing a crime in Cambodia. He is charged with traveling to Cambodia with the intent to have sex with children.”

Bussarakum said that when Pepe boarded flights to Southeast Asia at Los Angeles International Airport in May and September of 2005 after visiting family members in New Mexico, “the evidence will show it was simply to go home — not to have sex with minors.”

She said Pepe’s family members would testify that “Cambodia was his home.”

When the appeals court reversed Pepe’s convictions, the panel wrote that if Pepe is retried, the government “will need to prove that he was still traveling” when he allegedly assaulted the girls.

Diaz promised jurors that Pepe’s alleged victims — now young women — will come to court to tell their stories. Many are now working toward becoming American citizens, the prosecutor said.

Pepe, whose last U.S. address was listed in Southern California, was working part-time as a teacher when he was arrested by the Cambodian National Police in June 2006.

The investigation into Pepe began when a girl reported that she and several other children had been abused by him. During a search of the Phnom Penh villa, police allegedly found three girls, ages 9, 10 and 11, as well as hundreds of pornographic images, various drugs, children’s clothes and rope and cloth strips, which the children said Pepe used to bind and gag them, according to Diaz.

Pepe was extradited to the United States in 2007.

“Monstrous does not begin to capture the horror of the crime or the impact on the victims,” U.S. District Judge Dale Fischer said in February 2014 as she sentenced Pepe to 210 years in federal prison, a 30-year stretch for each of the seven girls.

In a brief statement that day, Pepe said he had spent 20 years in the Marines and suffered from organic brain damage and “psychotic effects” from withdrawal from psychiatric medication.

As for the victims, Pepe offered an apology, of sorts, to “the girls, if you believe that I have harmed you. I … wish you good luck in the future.”

Until his conviction was reversed and he was brought to the downtown federal lockup to await a retrial, Pepe was incarcerated in a maximum security prison in Tucson, Arizona.

Fischer is once again presiding over Pepe’s trial.

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