An appellate court in Pasadena on Monday upheld the conviction of former university professor Michael J. Pepe, 69, on charges that he molested underage girls in Cambodia.

The opinion by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Pepe’s argument that two trips he made from Cambodia to the U.S. and back again had an “innocent purpose.”

“A jury could have rationally found that one of Pepe’s primary motivations for returning to Cambodia was to sexually abuse young girls,” said the opinion authored by Circuit Judge Lawrence VanDyke.

“He had a house set up to facilitate the sex abuse, and he remained in Cambodia—a country he knew had a poor reputation for stopping child sex abuse—despite speaking ill of the country generally,” VanDyke wrote.

Circuit Judges N. Randy Smith and Kenneth K. Lee joined in the court’s unanimous decision.

The opinion follows an oral argument that took place before the Court of Appeals in June, pitting two highly regarded appellate lawyers against each other in what has been a lengthy and hard-fought case.

Elana Shavit Artson from the U.S. Attorney’s office in Los Angeles argued the case for the government. James H. Locklin from the Federal Public Defender’s office represented Pepe.

Pepe, a former U.S. Marine Corps captain, retired to Phnom Penh in 2003 and began teaching management classes at Pannasastra University.

The government alleged that in 2005 and 2006, at least eight preadolescent girls were trafficked to Pepe’s villa in the upscale Toul Kork district by their mothers or by a prostitute who acted as procurer.

In dozens of photos taken with Pepe’s Minolta digital camera, underage girls could be seen striking provocative poses inside his bedroom.

The digital photos surfaced after Cambodian National Police arrested Pepe in June 2006 and seized his desktop computer.

In 2007, the Cambodian government handed Pepe over to agents from ICE, and the former professor was flown to Los Angeles to face federal charges.

In 2008, a jury found Pepe guilty under a federal law prohibiting any U.S. citizen who “travels in foreign commerce” from committing illicit sexual conduct with a minor.

But in 2018, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Pepe’s conviction, reasoning that because he lived in Cambodia, he wasn’t engaged in “travels” when he molested the girls.

The government responded by indicting Pepe on charges that he traveled from the U.S. to Cambodia with intent to engage in illicit sexual conduct.

At trial in Los Angeles in August 2021, the government focused on a round trip Pepe took from Cambodia to the U.S. in May 2005 to attend his son’s high school graduation, and another round trip three months later to attend his daughter’s wedding in New Mexico.

The government alleged that Pepe’s criminal intent could be inferred from his rape and abuse of the girls soon after returning to Cambodia.

A jury found Pepe guilty on two counts of “traveling in foreign commerce with the purpose of committing illicit sexual acts” and two counts of “crossing a state line to sexually abuse a child under 12.”

In February 2022, U.S. District Judge Dale S. Fischer sentenced Pepe to 210 years in federal prison, rejecting the defense’s argument that a long sentence would be unduly harsh.

“Pepe confined numerous preteen girls in his home,” said Judge Fischer. “The horrors he inflicted on those girls was more than unduly harsh, it was torture.”

The Ninth Circuit’s opinion yesterday affirmed Pepe’s conviction. “Sexually abusing children was one of Pepe’s primary activities during his time in Cambodia,” the opinion stated. “A rational jury could have found beyond a reasonable doubt that Pepe committed the charged crimes.”

Doug Kari is an attorney and writer in Southern California