The stark desert site where the Bermans' remains were found
The stark desert site where the Bermans' remains were found
Doug Kari

Appellate Court Reverses Sex Crimes Conviction of Double-Murder Suspect

The sex-crimes conviction of Michael J. Pepe, who is also the chief suspect in an unsolved double murder in the Mojave Desert, has been reversed.

After Pepe was convicted on federal charges of raping seven little girls in Cambodia, an investigation by L.A. Weekly linked him to the unsolved 1986 murders of two campers in remote Saline Valley, California.

Although the L.A. Weekly story sparked a renewed homicide investigation, Pepe has never been charged with the decades-old murders.

The latest twist in the ongoing saga came on July 11, 2018, when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Pepe’s conviction on the sex crimes charges. Pepe’s victims were 10 to 12 years old when he allegedly drugged, bound and raped them in Cambodia.

In 2008, a federal court jury in Los Angeles found Pepe guilty of seven counts under a federal statute applicable to any U.S. citizen “who travels in foreign commerce, and engages in any illicit sexual conduct with another person.”

But a divided three-judge appellate panel ruled that the government didn’t prove Pepe was in the midst of “travels” when he brutalized the girls. Pepe’s lawyers argued that he wasn’t traveling because he rented a house in Phnom Penh, owned a car and worked part-time.

Circuit Judge Jacqueline H. Nguyen wrote, “We cannot uphold his 210-year sentence under a statute that he may not have violated simply because his reprehensible conduct harmed vulnerable children.” Circuit Judge Andrew J. Kleinfeld joined her in the majority opinion.

Chief Judge Sidney R. Thomas dissented, arguing that Pepe never raised his objection in the district court and that the “travels” required under the federal statute occurred when Pepe flew to Cambodia.

One of Pepe’s victims, Sokha Chan, who’s now 23 and living in the United States, went public with her story on ABC’s Nightline in 2017. She told about being sold as a sex slave to Pepe by her own mother.

Sokha, who testified against Pepe at trial, told L.A. Weekly, “I think he should stay in jail, he shouldn’t get out. I don’t want him to hurt another girl.”

Nancy B. Spiegel, an assistant U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles, had no comment on whether the government plans to challenge the Ninth Circuit’s decision. But papers she filed with the Ninth Circuit on July 16 state that the government is weighing whether to file a motion for reconsideration.

Pepe is currently incarcerated in a maximum security federal prison in Tucson, Arizona.

Meanwhile, Pepe remains the only suspect in the unsolved murders of Barry and Louise Berman in Saline Valley. On Jan. 6, 1986, the couple disappeared from their campsite at clothing-optional hot springs known as a counterculture gathering place.

In November 1988, a hiker stumbled across the Bermans’ remains about seven miles northeast of the hot springs. The murdered pair had been stripped of most clothing and buried in a shallow grave.

Other campers saw Pepe sharing a hot tub with the Bermans on the night before they disappeared.

Retired Inyo County Detective Marston Mottweiler told L.A. Weekly, “I always figured the deaths involved a sexual proposition.” Retired Deputy Leon Boyer echoed this, alleging that Pepe “came alone, hung around, ogled at girls.”

When told about the Ninth Circuit’s decision in the Cambodia sex crimes case, Boyer responded, “My concern is the Berman case. I don’t want to see Pepe skate on that.”

The Berman case sat cold for many years until an L.A. Weekly cover story in March 2015 prompted the Inyo County sheriff’s office to take another look.

In 2017, Detective Dan Williams forwarded a new homicide investigation report to the Inyo County DA’s office, expecting that Pepe would be charged with murdering the Bermans.

But in December 2017, Inyo County DA Thomas Hardy, citing a lack of hard evidence and the passage of time, declined to file charges.

Michael Westerman, the only surviving immediate family member of Barry and Louise Berman, told L.A. Weekly that he’s frustrated about Pepe’s seeming ability to evade justice.

“He’s got this crime against my mom and stepdad that Inyo County won’t prosecute. He’s found guilty of horrendous acts against children and now he gets off on a technicality. It’s ridiculous,” Westerman declared.

Pepe’s federal sex crimes case took many years to complete. Although arrested in 2006 and convicted in 2008, he wasn’t sentenced until 2014.

After the trial ended in 2008, the government discovered that the lead ICE investigator had a secret sexual relationship with a foreign-language interpreter at the trial. Pepe’s lawyers argued to the district court in Los Angeles that this sexual misconduct led the interpreter to color her translation of victims’ testimony in favor of the prosecution.

District Judge Fischer undertook a lengthy inquiry and agreed that sexual misconduct occurred. Ultimately she decided that despite the secret affair, the trial had been fairly conducted and Pepe’s sentencing could proceed.

By imposing a 210-year sentence, Judge Fischer said she intended that Pepe would spend the rest of his life behind bars. But now, only four years later, Pepe may be on the verge of being released.

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