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Abused girls testify in U.S.

September 26, 2008|Scott Glover | Times Staff Writer

The young girl stood at the podium in a cavernous federal courtroom in downtown Los Angeles, 8,000 miles and a world away from her native Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

A prosecutor offered her a wooden footstool to stand on so she could better see the judge, but the girl declined.

She eyed the defendant, who had done unspeakable things to her and six other girls. He was seated just a few feet away with a smirk on his face.

The girl, 14, rocked back and forth, seeming to summon the courage to speak, and then, in a voice so faint it could barely be heard, she did.

"I don't want any other children to be like us," she told U.S. District Judge Dale S. Fischer through a translator. "Please don't allow this to happen again."

The girl spoke during a sentencing hearing for Michael Joseph Pepe, 55, of Oxnard, who was convicted in May of having sex with seven Cambodian girls ages 9 to 12. He faces a maximum sentence of 210 years in federal prison.

Pepe, a retired U.S. Marine captain, was working as a civilian teacher in Cambodia when he hired a prostitute to procure the children from their families in 2005 and 2006, according to testimony in the three-week trial.

The victims, six of whom were flown to the United States to testify, said Pepe drugged, bound, beat and raped them in his compound in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital.

In addition to the victims' testimony, prosecutors showed jurors restraints, sedatives and homemade child pornography seized by Cambodian National Police during a raid of Pepe's residence in 2006.

Cambodian police began investigating Pepe after one of his victims came forward. U.S. authorities joined the investigation at the request of their Cambodian counterparts.

All of the victims were in court for Thursday's hearing, but it took some coaxing from Fischer to get them to speak.

"I don't want you to be afraid," the judge told the girls, one of whom clutched a fluffy pink teddy bear. "This is a safe place."

Then, one after another, they got up and said a few words. Some stole nervous glances at Pepe as they spoke.

"What he did to me, it's very painful," said one girl in a striped dress. Another, with long black hair and a sweet voice, told the judge: "I just want to say thank you that you helped me find justice."

Each of the girls spoke through a translator.

Social workers who are helping to care for the girls in Cambodia told Fischer the youngsters probably would be traumatized for the rest of their lives, particularly in a culture in which victims of sexual abuse are stigmatized.

"The culture that they live in considers these children as refuse now," said Don Brewster, who runs a mission in Cambodia that helps sexually abused children. "They have a life sentence of overcoming what their culture thinks of them."

After Brewster spoke, Fischer again addressed the girls. "Nothing that happened to you is your fault," the judge said through a pair of translators who conveyed her message to the girls seated in the courtroom gallery. "You are all very brave and strong to come here and testify."

Pepe, who was dressed in white jail jumpsuit, did not speak during the hourlong hearing. He is expected to be sentenced Nov. 4, after Fischer has had an opportunity to weigh the victims' statements and other issues in the case, said Assistant U.S. Atty. Patricia A. Donahue, the lead prosecutor in the case.

Among the materials the judge probably will consider is a letter from the former U.S. ambassador to Cambodia, Joseph A. Mussomeli, asking that she impose the maximum sentence.

Mussomeli, who stepped down from the post last month, wrote that corruption, lack of respect for the rule of law, and the trafficking of women and children "have created a breeding ground where pedophiles can integrate into the expatriate community and prey on the weak and defenseless."

He added: "A well-publicized and strong sentence will send a clear and unequivocal signal that this illicit behavior will not be tolerated."

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scott.glover@latimes.com

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