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Supreme Court denies review of sex crimes convictions against the chief suspect in the Berman murders

Formal group photograph of the Supreme Court as it was been comprised on June 30, 2022 after Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson joined the Court.  The Justices are posed in front of red velvet drapes and arranged by seniority, with five seated and four standing.Seated from left are Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Clarence Thomas, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., and Justices Samuel A. Alito and Elena Kagan.
Standing from left are Justices Amy Coney Barrett, Neil M. Gorsuch, Brett M. Kavanaugh, and Ketanji Brown Jackson.Credit: Fred Schilling, Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States

Supreme Court denies review of sex crimes convictions against the chief suspect in the Berman murders

The U.S. Supreme Court has denied a petition for review filed by the chief suspect in the murders of Barry and Louise Berman in a remote corner of the Mojave Desert.

The petition arose from a sex crimes case in which Michael Pepe, now 70, was convicted of crossing state lines with intent to molest underage girls in Cambodia.

The Court issued a summary denial on May 20, 2024, without stating the reasons for its decision. 

In the petition filed in January, Pepe didn’t deny the U.S. government’s allegations that he raped and tortured preadolescent girls at his upscale villa in Phnom Penh.

Instead, Pepe’s attorneys argued that the government’s jurisdictional “hook” for filing federal charges against their client was fatally flawed.

The government alleged that when Pepe made two trips to the U.S. in 2005 to attend his son’s high school graduation and his daughter’s wedding, on the return trips to Cambodia he crossed state lines with the intent to molest children.

In the Supreme Court petition, Pepe’s lawyers claimed that even if Pepe intended to molest children when he returned to Cambodia, these were “innocent round trips” under a 1944 case, Mortensen v. United States.

The government initially waived its right to respond to the petition, but in February, the Court asked for a response – a move that indicated the Court was weighing whether to grant the petition.

In March, attorney Donald Falk told me: “A grant is a real possibility.”

Falk, an appellate lawyer with Schaerr Jaffe LLP in San Francisco, said that although denial remained likely, the Court might grant the petition as an opportunity to clarify the law.

“The notion that Mortensen and the holdings of other circuits could get future Pepes off the hook is a reason to grant,” he explained.

But the veteran appellate practitioner said on March 20 that the Court’s denial of the petition came as no surprise.

“The government apparently persuaded the Court that Mortensen hasn’t been extended to the statutes under which Pepe was convicted,” said Falk.

The denial follows a trial in 2021, where 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 2022, U.S. District Judge Dale S. Fischer sentenced Pepe to 210 years in federal prison, rebuffing 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 U.S. Supreme Court’s action brings the Cambodia sex crimes case to an end. But Pepe remains the chief suspect in the unsolved 1986 double murder of the Bermans.

Pepe was camping by himself at clothing-optional hot springs in Saline Valley when the Bermans, who were staying at an adjacent campsite, mysteriously vanished.

In 2017, Inyo County sheriff’s investigators identified Pepe as the alleged perpetrator, but no charges were ever filed.

Pepe is serving his 210-year sentence in the sex crimes case at a maximum-security federal penitentiary in Tucson, Arizona.

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