A jury in Los Angeles returned guilty verdicts today against a former U.S. Marine charged with molesting underage girls in Cambodia.

The federal court jury found Michael J. Pepe, 67, guilty on four counts of traveling from the U.S. to Cambodia in 2005 with intent to engage in illicit sexual conduct with minors.

As U.S. District Judge Dale S. Fischer read the verdicts aloud, Pepe blinked rapidly and his face reddened, but otherwise he remained impassive. Afterward he could be heard to say, “I’m not really surprised.”

Judge Fischer, who presided over the seven-day trial, set a sentencing hearing for Dec. 6. The former Marine Corps captain faces a maximum term of life in prison.

Meanwhile, Pepe remains incarcerated at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Downtown Los Angeles.

At trial, a series of victims, now women in their 20s, testified that Pepe raped and abused them at his villa in Toul Kork, an upscale district of Phnom Penh.

Most of the victims hailed from the slums of Svay Pak, a Cambodian village notorious for being a hotbed of child prostitution.

Last week one of Pepe’s accusers, speaking softly in English, told the jury she grew up around girls who worked in the sex trade.

“You assume and expect that your turn will be next,” she said.

The woman testified she was brought to Pepe’s house as a 9-year-old, in exchange for $30 per month paid to her family. She said Pepe fed and clothed her, sent her to nearby Newton Thilay school, and rewarded her with one dollar per sex act.

“I saved the money for my family,” she said, explaining that a dollar could buy a day’s food for her siblings.

The prosecution said that during the 2005-06 timeframe, numerous preadolescent girls were dropped off at Pepe’s villa by their mothers or by a prostitute named Sang who acted as procurer.

Some of the victims shared a second-floor room, right down the hall from Pepe’s bedroom. In an email sent to a Scottish man nicknamed “Mack,” Pepe wrote, “The sweet things I have with me have the most perfect bodies and attitudes.”

But when one of the girls screamed and fought back, Pepe threw her out. “There have been some problems with a fresh one,” read one of the emails he allegedly sent to Mack.

Vansak Sous, a Cambodian national who formerly worked at the U.S. embassy in Phnom Penh, said in an interview that the little girl, traumatized and bleeding, was spotted by an anti-trafficking investigator.

On June 17, 2006, Cambodian National Police tailed Pepe’s white Jeep Cherokee and arrested him on charges of rape and “debauchery,” Cambodian legalese for sex with an underage person.

With ICE agents standing by, the police searched Pepe’s villa and found a computer containing more than 1,000 photos of the underage victims, including pornographic images.

In chilling testimony at trial, Pepe’s victims told of being brought to his bedroom and tied up, drugged, gagged, beaten and raped.

Pastor Don Brewster, who along with his wife Bridget runs Agape International Missions in Phnom Penh, sheltered some of the girls after Pepe was arrested.

“The emotional and psychological trauma that was put onto these kids is beyond our imagination,” he told a reporter.

Pepe spent eight months inside Cambodia’s Prey Sar prison, a place swarming with mosquitos and smelling of sweat, cigarettes and sewage.

In February 2007, the Cambodian government handed Pepe over to agents from ICE, and the former Marine was flown to L.A. to face federal charges.

In 2008, Pepe’s case came on for trial in the courtroom of Judge Fischer. A jury found Pepe guilty under a federal law prohibiting any U.S. citizen who “travels in foreign commerce” from committing illicit sex acts with a minor.

After a years-long delay, during which time Judge Fischer investigated a report that the lead ICE agent carried on a secret affair with one of the interpreters at trial, the judge sentenced Pepe to 210 years in prison.

Pepe began serving what was in effect a life sentence at a maximum-security federal penitentiary in Tucson, Arizona.

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 little girls.

The government responded by indicting Pepe on charges that wouldn’t require proof he was traveling when he abused the victims, but instead would require proof he left the U.S. with intent to engage in illicit sexual conduct with a minor.

In the retrial that began last week, the government focused on a trip Pepe took to the U.S. in May 2005 to attend his son’s high school graduation, and another trip three months later to attend his daughter’s wedding. Pepe also visited family in Oxnard, where he grew up.

The prosecution said that when he flew back to Cambodia, Pepe intended to engage in illicit sexual conduct with minors, and did so soon after returning, as evidenced by metadata embedded in his digital photos.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephanie Christensen told the jury, “A dominant, significant or motivating purpose for going back was in Cambodia you could buy children for sex.”

Deputy Federal Public Defender Howard Shneider urged the jury to “put your emotions to the side” and instead to focus on Pepe’s state of mind when he boarded the return flights at LAX.

“Mr. Pepe’s purpose was to go back to his home and his life in Cambodia,” said Mr. Shneider.

But the jury, after deliberating for about five hours, unanimously found Pepe guilty as charged.

Doug Kari is an attorney and writer in Southern California

Editor’s note: This story was updated to correct Pepe’s maximum potential sentence.