Michael Joseph Pepe, former US Marine Corps captain, was found guilty of drugging and raping multiple Cambodian children as young as 9 years old last Monday, facing over 210 years in federal prison. His crimes of raping children started during his trip to Phnom Penh in 2005.
The Marine Corps veteran, who had traveled to Cambodia originally as a civilian university teacher in Cambodia’s Phnom Penh, was originally arrested in the Asian country in 2006 and was subsequently extradited to the United States, where his cases were heard in courts from 2007 till today. By 2008, he had been convicted of 7 felony counts and has been under the custody of the Department of Justice ever since.
Cambodian police had started investigating Michael Pepe when one of his rape victims come forward in the capital, and the government informed the US authorities. It was discovered that Pepe had allegedly hired prostitutes to buy children from their respective families. He then proceeded to sexually assault them, taking explicit photographs of children naked and drugging them with sedatives so he could freely rape them. These sex crimes occurred from 2005 to 2006, with the illegal photographs being discovered in 2006 by a police raid on his Cambodian home.
However, he could not be immediately sentenced in 2008. Issues had surfaced during the trial when the lead investigator ICE Special Agent Gary J. Phillips, had been discovered to have a sexual relationship with Vietnamese interpreter Ann Luong Spiratos who spoke and translated on behalf of the Cambodian girls. This led Pepe’s defense to take advantage of the situation and argue that the relationship had tainted the testimony of the girls. It was this issue that delayed his sentencing. After an assessment, a judge found that the sexual relationship was inappropriate and could’ve contributed to the interpreter skewing the girls’ testimonies. Thus, the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the guilty conviction in 2018, and Pepe was re-tried.
“This defendant abused and exploited young people in a distant land who had no means to escape and no way to fight back. It’s entirely fitting that Mr. Pepe will spend the rest of his life behind bars since his victims will likely bear the emotional scars of his abuse for the remainder of theirs,” said the US Department of Homeland Security’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Special Agent Claude Arnold in 2014.
After another trial, he was eventually found guilty last August 2021 of two counts of traveling to a foreign country with the intent to engage in sexually illicit conduct, as well as two counts of aggravated sexual abuse of a child. On Monday, Michael Joseph Pepe was sentenced last by US District Court for Califonia’s Central District’s Judge Dale S. Fischer, now facing 210 years in prison. Pepe also owes $247,000 in restitution.
Eight victims came forward during his trial. They testified that Pepe had trapped them on several occasions, tying them up, beating them so that they could not fight back, drugged them, and proceeded to rape the Cambodian children and made child pornography as well.
The US judge stated that what Pepe had done was monstrous, with the effects of the abuse haunting the children for years to come. “No justification for a sentence that would ever allow (Pepe) to be released from prison,” said the judge after sentencing. He equated Pepe’s action with being extreme torture and abuse of children.
One of Pepe’s victims, now 25-year-old Sokha Chan, who spoke out against the veteran when she was 22, said she was sold to Pepe at just 7 years old due to poverty. It was said that she was bought because of her virginity and that she spent years being locked in illegal brothels. She was rescued when she was 12 years old and subsequently treated for her abuse.
“I [was] angry at her, and I did cry about it,” Sokha said of her mother. “I told her, ‘I can do everything for you, like go sell fruit at the market, I can do that, but please don’t sell me,” Sokha told ABC News in 2017.
According to ECPAT’s report regarding the sexual exploitation of children in Southeast Asia, it was said that sexual abuse and exploitation had been rising due to increased amounts of tourism and strides in technology which has made sexual abuse more accessible. Documented sexually abused children in Cambodia experienced a spike in number last year, totaling up to 980 children being exploited. However, this number can actually go further up to the thousands.
In the Philippines, it was determined that over 7,000,000 children had been sexually exploited every year by both tourists and locals, where 70% of the abused were aged 10 to 18 while 20% fell under 6 years old. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the country experienced a 264.6% increase in sexual abuse cases from March to May 2020. In Thailand, an average of 2 children per hour are being sexually abused in one form or another.
Pepe’s case is one of many sexual abuse cases in Asia that remains a tremendous problem for these countries to control effectively throughout the years. While laws can protect children on the ground, implementation problems and institutional problems of law enforcement in these countries have made it difficult for these children to be saved.