While on the phone with Duncan, it occurred to me—in a moment of distress—that this latter group does not indulge in simple bondage fantasies or imagined scenes of damsels-in-distress. Instead, they're picturing a kind of murder. The woman who sinks fully into quicksand isn't just trapped; she's drowning. But in the case of quicksand, at least, the snuff fetish doesn't have much bite. "Quicksand" doesn't exist as such in nature: At worst, a victim might drop to the level of her upper torso. That may be why so far as I can tell there's never been a case of sexual assault or murder with deadly mud. The risk of one of these guys acting out his sadistic quicksand fantasy IRL is essentially zero.
So is sexual cannibalism more like pedophilia or quicksand? Real-life cases of vore murders are exceedingly rare. There's Dahmer, of course, and in a November post for Slate, Justin Peters cited the early 20th-century serial killer Albert Fish, whose quasi-religious cannibalism was intermingled with pedophilia and many other fetishes. In 2004, the German sexual cannibal Armin Meiwes received an eight-year sentence for killing and eating a fellow fetishist in a consensual encounter. Last year, the gay-porn actor Luka Magnotta was said to have murdered a young man with an ice pick and then eaten parts of his corpse—but while the details of the Magnotta murder are well-known (having been videotaped and shared online), the facts surrounding his cannibalism are in dispute. People do kill and eat each other from time to time, but it's very, very rare.
Then there's the fact that the FBI's timeline gives little evidence of a man on the verge of acting out an implausible, murderous plot. Rather, it suggests a man with a habitual, obsessive tendency to fantasize, often in cahoots with online partners and spiced up with creepy incursions into real-life stalking.*
According to federal filings, Valle and Van Hise negotiated over the details and price of a cannibal abduction on Feb. 28. Cellphone records suggest that, just two days later, Valle was on the block of the intended victim's home. The prosecutors will argue that he was conducting surveillance for his crime (though it's also true that Valle knew this woman socially). But despite this damning incursion from online talk into creepy behavior, Valle appeared to abandon the plot altogether. He did have something else cooking by the end of May, though, when, according to the bureau, he accessed a law-enforcement database for personal details of a second victim. (It's not clear whether he discussed this woman with Van Hise or anyone else.)
The second plot fizzled, too, and a few months later, Valle was on to a third. Ever the mercurial maniac, he's said to have discussed his various schemes with more than 20 people online. On July 9, Valle communicated with one of these co-conspirators—or a fellow role-player—about a plan to kill, cook, and eat another woman. (In an instant message, he described her as "tasty.") Two weeks after that, he traveled to Maryland and took the alleged victim out for lunch. As in, the two of them ate lunch together. He did not attack her over lunch.
It would in fact be another three months before the feds took the alleged kidnapper into custody. Were they afraid that he would hatch a fourth plot, and a fifth one, and on and on until he finally settled on the best? Or did they get tired of wading through elaborate, masturbatory fantasies that never went anywhere?
As for Van Hise, his plots were under the considerably more intimate scrutiny of his wife. Following a hearing in January, Bolice Van Hise told the New York Daily News that she knew all about her husband's fetish and that she had even engaged in erotic asphyxiation games with him. "I was cool with it," she said. "It's disturbing, yeah. But you have to accept your partner's flaws in a marriage." Was he serious about raping and killing multiple children—including members of Bolice's own family? She doesn't think so. "He's as hard-core as a baby," she said.
In the weeks to come, federal prosecutors will have to prove that both Van Hise and Valle are not just more hard-core than a baby but hard-core enough to eat one. They'll have to show that the defendants' troubling online banter—and occasional flirtation with real-world stalking—demonstrated a genuine plan to abduct and kill. As they make this argument, the weirdness of vore fantasies will be their most damning piece of evidence. And that's why a pair of perverts who never abducted anyone could end up in prison for the rest of their lives.
Correction, March 1, 2013: The original version of this article misrepresented the timeline of Gilberto Valle's arrest as presented in the federal complaint. The FBI did not have Valle under surveillance as far back as February 2012, and its members did not elect to wait and see what Valle would do in the months that followed. Rather, the case against him was opened in September, and the evidence of his earlier plots was uncovered after the fact. (Return)