Ex-marine, previously sentenced to 210 years in prison for raping girls in Cambodia, could walk free

A retired U.S. Marine captain whose conviction for the violent sexual abuse of young girls in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, was overturned on appeal pleaded not guilty Tuesday in downtown Los Angeles to federal sex crimes charges.

Michael Joseph Pepe was sentenced five years ago to life in prison for illegal sex acts with seven girls aged 9 to 12. Six of the girls flew to the U.S. to testify in Los Angeles federal court that Pepe, who was working as a teacher in the country at the time, had drugged, bound, beat and raped them in his compound in Phnom Penh.

Pepe was prosecuted under a federal law meant to punish people who travel overseas to engage in child sex. Although he was convicted in 2008, sentencing was postponed for six years after allegations arose that the lead investigator on the case had been sexually involved with one of the interpreters who translated for the victims at trial.

In the latest unexpected development, a divided panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Pepe's conviction last year, finding that the government hadn't shown that he was "traveling'' when he assaulted the girls.

Pepe maintained that he had relocated to Cambodia in March 2003.

The panel wrote that if Pepe is retried, the government "will need to prove that he was still traveling'' when he allegedly assaulted the girls.

Pepe, 65, pleaded not guilty Tuesday to charges of travel with intent to engage in illicit sexual conduct and aggravated sexual child abuse. U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul Abrams set trial for Oct. 15.

Pepe, whose last U.S. address was listed in Southern California, was working part-time as a professor at a Cambodian university when he was arrested by the Cambodian National Police in June 2006.

The investigation into Pepe began when a girl reported that she and several other children had been abused by him. During a search of his Phnom Penh villa, police found three girls, aged 9, 10 and 11, as well as hundreds of pornographic images, various drugs, children's clothes, and rope and cloth strips, which the children said Pepe used to bind and gag them, according to court filings.

Cambodian police arrested Pepe in 2006 and he was extradited to the United States the following year.

"Monstrous does not begin to capture the horror of the crime or the impact on the victims,'' Fischer said in February 2014 as she sentenced Pepe to 210 years in federal prison, a 30-year stretch for each of the seven girls.

In a brief statement that day, Pepe said he had spent 20 years in the Marines and suffered from organic brain damage and "psychotic effects'' from withdrawal from psychiatric medication.

As for the victims, Pepe offered an apology, of sorts, to "the girls, if you believe that I have harmed you. I ... wish you good luck in the future.''

Until his conviction was reversed last July and he was brought to the downtown federal lockup to await a retrial, Pepe was incarcerated in a maximum security prison in Tucson, Arizona.

CNS contributed to this report.