Justice Prevails: The Retrial of Michael Pepe

In 2008, Michael Pepe was convicted of seven felony counts for traveling to Cambodia to engage in illicit sexual conduct with minors between 2004 and 2006. He was sentenced to 210 years in prison. The FBI said it was the worst case of child abuse they had ever seen. During the trial in 2008, six brave girls testified against Pepe, their abuser, which played a significant part in putting him behind bars. 

Michael Pepe - Retrial
Pepe’s original arrest in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Judge Dale S. Fischer said as she read Pepe’s sentence in 2014, “Monstrous does not begin to capture the horror of the crime or the impact on the victims.” The Homeland Security investigator, Claude Arnold, agreed, “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.”

Then, in 2018, The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the conviction on a single phrase. 

Pepe was originally convicted under the PROTECT Act of 2003, which was put in place to protect children around the world by punishing U.S. citizens who traveled to engage in sex trafficking, sexual exploitation, or child prostitution. In 2013, this Act was amended (highlighted below). 

Original (2003): 
Any United States citizen or alien admitted for permanent residence who travels in foreign commerce, and engages in any illicit sexual conduct with another person shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 30 years, or both.
Amendment (2013): 
Any United States citizen or alien admitted for permanent residence who travels in foreign commerce or resides, either temporarily or permanently, in a foreign country, and engages in any illicit sexual conduct with another person shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 30 years, or both.

This amendment accounted for a loophole that had been taken advantage of by those who claimed foreign residence. Because Pepe was tried before the amendment, his defense took the opportunity to exploit the law in his favor. They claimed that since the original law did not include residents of foreign countries, Michael Pepe was outside of the law, claiming Cambodia as his permanent home at the time of the abuse. 

Pepe Retrial

When the Court of Appeals reversed the original ruling, the government (serving as the prosecutors in the case) indicted Pepe on similar charges that would focus on his intent to engage in illicit sexual conduct with minors as he traveled back to Cambodia from trips to the United States in 2005. Not only was there intent, but there was follow-through: he committed the crimes. 

After being delayed for over a year, the retrial of Michael Pepe began on August 3rd.

Eight young women testified. They explained the horrors that they underwent while living with or visiting Pepe in his rental home in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. In addition to the six that testified in 2008, two women courageously shared their stories for the very first time – one of which AIM SWAT had identified and made contact in the years since Pepe’s original conviction. 

Sitting in a courtroom a few floors above, Don and Bridget Brewster, Agape International Missions (AIM) Founders, sat with other observers to watch the trial unfold via Livestream. A box of tissues nearby, they uplifted and encouraged the survivors through prayer as each one answered the hard questions presented. All the while, their abuser was sitting mere feet away. 

Don and Bridget - Pepe Retrial
Don and Bridget Brewster, Founders of AIM, enter the court house.

“The girls have been doing an incredible job. Incredible bravery to go back into that courtroom… right in front of the guy who horribly abused them…”

Don Brewster

Family and friends around the world joined to pray for justice to prevail in the courtroom this month. As the lawyers made their closing arguments, the defense emphasized that, as Pepe traveled from the United States to Cambodia, he was going back home. The public defender asked the jury to “put your emotions to the side” as they were to pay attention to his intent on returning to Phnom Penh. The prosecution refuted, “A dominant, significant or motivating purpose for going back was in Cambodia you could buy children for sex.” 

On the morning of Thursday, August 12th, the jury agreed: Michael Pepe was traveling to Cambodia with the full intention of abusing and exploiting young girls. He will remain in prison. His new sentencing has been scheduled for December of this year, at which time he will face a life sentence. 

Court House - Pepe Retrial
Outside the United States Federal Courthouse in Los Angeles, California

He will be sentenced for two counts of aggravated sexual abuse of a child, each carrying a mandatory minimum sentence of 30 years in prison, and two counts of traveling in foreign commerce with the intent to engage in illicit sexual conduct. 

As for the incredible women who testified, they are able to breathe a sigh of relief as they have full knowledge that the man who hurt them will never be able to hurt others. They are a testament to the power of Christ and the strength that comes when we work to empower survivors in their lives of freedom. We are so proud of them, who they have become, and what God has in store for each of them. 

Don Brewster said it well; “They know who they are in Christ. They have confidence in themselves and who they are and they are amazing young women.” 

As they’re going through the prep, they were repeatedly told how brave they were and how proud people were because they were testifying. But we tried to emphasize, ‘if you never testified… If you don’t testify in this trial, you are amazing young women. You are a credit to your faith, how God is working through you as modern-day abolitionists.’

We praise a God of justice. We thank Him that, in this case, we were able to see that unfold before our very eyes. Thank you for praying with us and praising Him with us today! 

Curious to learn more about Human Trafficking Legislation in the United States? Click here!

Learn more about how to stop human trafficking here.

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