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Friday, May 09, 2008

Los Angeles trial under way for accused child sex tourist

LOS ANGELES (Map, News) - A retired Marine captain had sex with seven preteen girls while living in Cambodia, a prosecutor contended Friday.

Michael Joseph Pepe, 54, paid a prostitute to find girls between 9 and 15 and gave their impoverished families money to let the youngsters live with him near a Phnom Penh elementary school, Assistant U.S. Attorney Patricia Donahue told Superior Court jurors in her opening statement.

Pepe, who was extradited to Los Angeles last year, has pleaded not guilty to seven counts of engaging in illicit sexual conduct in foreign places, a federal law aimed at people who go overseas to engage in so-called child sex tourism.

He was being held without bail and faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted.

Pepe is accused of having sex with seven girls between the late fall of 2005 and his June 2006 arrest. He paid several hundred dollars to one family for access to their daughter, Donahue contended.

He supplied the girls with food and clothing and even covered some of their school tuitions but "there was a price for all of this," Donahue told jurors. "That price was sex."

Pepe drugged some before having sex with them, the prosecutor alleged.

One 11-year-old told Cambodian authorities that she woke up in a pool of blood, Donahue said.

Medical examinations found the girls had injuries that could have been caused by forced intercourse, she contended.

Rope, Viagra, children's clothing and child pornography were found in a search of his home, Donahue said.

The girls will testify at the trial and "you will hear their pain," the prosecutor told jurors.

In his opening argument, Deputy Federal Public Defender Carl Gunn suggested the assaults were committed by a prostitute and her boyfriend who had access to Pepe's house.

Perhaps the girls were abused "but they weren't abused by Mr. Pepe," Gunn said.

Parents and a teacher made frequent visits to Pepe's home and did not notice anything unusual, Gunn said.

The girls "even acted affectionately towards Mr. Pepe," Gunn said.
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