PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA — Eight years after retired U.S. Marine Michael Pepe was arrested and charged for systematically and sadistically abusing young children in Cambodia, he has been found guilty and sentenced to 210 years in prison.
Pepe was leading a double life while working in Cambodia as a college professor: he would lure impoverished girls into his home, then subject them to violent sexual abuse. Though he was extradited to the U.S. and convicted in 2008, the sentence was handed down on February 28, 2014, after a multi-year legal battle.
The judge said the 210-year sentence—the statutory maximum—is meant to send a clear message to any American who would consider traveling abroad to sexually abuse children.
Perhaps most importantly, the case brings closure to the eight girls who were once terrorized by Michael Pepe. According to IJM Cambodia Field Office Director, Christa Hayden Sharpe, "Eight years later, the victims in this case are thriving survivors. They are academic achievers, sisters, friends, artists, travelers, and comforters. They have big dreams for their future and they empower others to stop trafficking and violence"
A Living Nightmare
"Eight years later, the victims in this case are thriving survivors. They are academic achievers, sisters, friends, artists, travelers, and comforters. They have big dreams for their future and they empower others to stop trafficking and violence"
—IJM Cambodia Field Office Director
The case against Pepe began in 2006, when IJM helped rescue a girl who was being trafficked to a brothel fronting as a massage parlor. This survivor shared with her counselor how a foreigner had abused her. She told how he had tied her up and blindfolded her, then abused her so violently she passed out and woke up in a pool of blood. She said this man had hurt other girls too.
IJM worked with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Cambodian National Police to investigate the information the survivor had so courageously shared. Their investigation led to Michael Pepe's house. They found three girls there, along with hundreds of pornographic images, videos, drugs, rope and cloth strips, which the victims said Pepe used to bind them during the abuse.
The survivors shared harrowing stories; by day, they had attended school, but by night, they were brutalized by Pepe. Further investigation in Cambodia would reveal a total of eight victims.
Reign of Terror Ends, Trials Begin
Cambodian authorities arrested Pepe and four others on human trafficking charges; Pepe was soon deported to the U.S. under the PROTECT Act. Enacted in 2003, the act criminalizes the sexual abuse of children by a U.S. citizen in a foreign country. It tasks U.S. law enforcement agencies to work with host countries to enact its provisions and imposes stiff penalties on pedophiles.
"The PROTECT Act is a great example of a wealthy nation taking responsibility for the violent acts of its citizens abroad," explains Blair Burns, IJM's Director of Operations in Southeast Asia. He adds that this case against Michael Pepe demonstrates a serious and sustained commitment from the United States government to stop sex trafficking at home and abroad.
In 2007, two trials began: one in a California District Court against Pepe, and one in a Cambodian courtroom against the four other suspects who had been living in Pepe's compound.
Survivors Bravely Take the Stand to Tell the Truth
The trial in Cambodia moved quickly. IJM supported the public prosecutor assigned to the criminal case, represented the victims' civil interests, and advocated for child-friendly procedures throughout the proceedings, like having the trial declared private so that the victims would not be intimidated or harassed, and ensuring a bamboo screen was erected to shield them from the suspects when they testified. Within the year, Pepe's girlfriend was convicted and sentenced to 27 years in prison for her role as his accomplice in trafficking and pimping underage girls.
Seven survivors traveled to the U.S. to participate in the criminal trial against Pepe. It was a brave decision, and social workers from the aftercare homes where they were living helped the girls prepare. The Los Angeles Times reported the words spoken by the survivors when they took the stand: "Please don't allow this to happen again," one pleaded; another told the judge, "Thank you that you helped me find justice."
The jury convicted Pepe based on the extensive evidence of sexual abuse. The judge spoke to the girls through a Cambodian translator: "Nothing that happened is your fault. You are all very brave and strong to come here and testify."
After the trial, the girls got to visit Disneyland and the San Diego zoo. They returned to their aftercare homes in Cambodia, where they continued to receive therapy and were able to take classes. Today the survivors have moved forward and are doing remarkably well—several are in high school, and one is in college. All of the survivors are planning for their futures.
Waiting for Justice
"The PROTECT Act is a great example of a wealthy nation taking responsibility for the violent acts of its citizens abroad"
—IJM Director of Operations in Southeast Asia
Pepe remained in custody, but a sentence was not declared. Because the case was sealed from the public, it was impossible to know why or what was stalling the judge. After many months of waiting, IJM staff who had been trying to follow the case discovered the frustrating setback in a news article: Pepe's defense attorney had appealed the decision based on allegations of impropriety during the trial.
"This portended disaster," explains Burns. "A new trial, with evidence and witnesses spread across two continents, years after the acts were done, could go either way. And, while the victim witnesses were quite brave, asking them to testify again would re-traumatize them. Yet, there was nothing we could do but wait. "
Finally, after years of waiting for a final decision, the Judge issued her ruling on February 28, 2014. As the Los Angeles Times reported that day, the Judge denied a new trial following a lengthy legal review. She sentenced Pepe to 210 years in prison and ordered him to pay $247,000 in restitution, adding that "he has absolutely no remorse."
IJM's Christa Hayden Sharpe summarized the incredibly collaborative effort that ultimately restrained the violent hand of this man: "This eight-year case has taken hundreds of thousands of dollars, thousands of people praying, hundreds of hours of legal and investigative work, dozens of people from two governments and three NGOs working together, seven astoundingly courageous lives giving their testimony to protect others, a trial in Cambodia, a trial in the U.S., and one revolutionary law that says U.S. citizens cannot travel to other countries to abuse vulnerable children...and it was all worth it."