Update, March 12, 2013: After deliberating for 16 hours, the jury found Gilberto Valle guilty of both conspiracy to kidnap several women and unauthorized access of a government database. He will be sentenced on June 19.
A year ago this month, a New York City police officer named Gilberto Valle completed a round of intensive negotiations with a young auto mechanic in Trenton, N.J., named Michael Van Hise. Would Valle consider taking some kind of payment plan, Van Hise asked over an online chat? No, the officer replied, the full $5,000 would be due upon delivery. Then Valle added one caveat, as a business courtesy: "Just so that you know she may be knocked out when I get her to you," he typed.
According to a felony complaint filed by the FBI, the two men had just worked out a plan to abduct a woman and transport her across state lines for the purposes of raping, killing, cooking, and eating her. Now both will be tried in federal court on conspiracy charges. If convicted, they face life in prison. Jury selection for Valle's trial begins Friday, with opening arguments scheduled for the end of the month.
His alleged crimes point to a ghastly plot: The FBI asserts that Valle looked up recipes for chloroform; that he created a computer document entitled "Abducting and Cooking [name withheld]: a Blueprint," which listed several "materials needed," including a rope; that he negotiated prices online, bemoaned the difficulty of dislocating a woman's jaw, and mused over the size of his oven and his "favorite cut of meat." Valle is also said to have looked up personal details of one intended victim in the National Crime Information Center database—an improper use of his law-enforcement privileges for which he is also under indictment.
The charges were a tabloid bonanza—"here's something for jurors to sink their teeth into," wrote the New York Post, and then "he's stewing behind bars," "he's hungry for some help from his fellow freaks," and "bring on the second course," among other classic ledes. But the story of Gilberto Valle seems less that of an incipient serial killer than of a hapless pervert caught up in some sadistic role-plays. His attorney will argue that Valle never intended to kidnap anyone and that his graphic Internet exchanges were nothing more than sexual theatrics, and she's probably right. It's time to defend the “cannibal cop”: He's a weirdo, not a monster, and the U.S. attorney's office means to roast him on the spit of prudery and overcaution. Gilberto Valle's fantasies are sick. His real-life prosecution may be even sicker.
The facts themselves are not particularly forgiving. The government claims that Valle used his police privileges to stalk at least one woman online. If he's guilty of that charge, he should be punished appropriately. (It looks like that could mean up to five years in prison.) The officer is also accused of being in the vicinity of one potential abductee's home and of having met with another in person. At around the same time, he was discussing these women’s violent demise with his online friends, or "co-conspirators."
Van Hise, the auto mechanic, apparently distributed photos of his nieces to Internet pals, offering them as sex slaves and naming the neighborhood in which they live. Even while he was in discussions with the FBI to testify against Valle, Van Hise allegedly went online to discuss raping his 3-year-old stepdaughter. Now he, too, claims these were all just dark fantasies—but he isn't likely to take the stand in Valle's defense. Given that he is under indictment himself, anything Van Hise said to the FBI during his cooperation—whether true or not—could come out on the witness stand.
These details suggest that Van Hise is a pedophile and into heavy S&M and that both men were enthusiastic members of an online fetish community known as "vore" (as in carnivore, from the same root as devour). Vore fetishists may be men who imagine eating women, but the interest includes those (men and women) who would rather be eaten themselves, as well as others who prefer to watch people eating animals or animals eating people.
The defense will argue that Valle's fantasies were within the bounds, broadly defined, of this community and reflective of its fondness for explicit art and theater. Step one of this legal strategy would be to inoculate the members of the jury against the not-so-niceties of his fetish by making them acquainted with the bizarre and sometimes disturbing imagery of the vore message boards. This week, Gawker published several images (NSFW) found on Valle's computer, which his attorney had asked to show prospective jurors. These included a woman hogtied with an apple in her mouth, another bound to a spit, and a cartoon depicting a naked woman named "Karyn" who chats flirtatiously with her captor while being boiled alive with a carrot stuffed into her vagina.
Whether you find these images ridiculous, disturbing, or both—they're purposefully positioned at the border— the culture behind them as a whole refutes genuine brutality against women. Like many vore fetishists, Valle spent time on a website called Muki's Kitchen (NSFW) that features pornographic (but not overtly violent) photos of adult women in scenes of mock-cannibalism—some posed as if roasting above a fire, others boiling in a cauldron.
For a 2005 article on cannibal porn (NSFW) in the Village Voice, author Katharine Gates interviewed the proprietor of Muki's Kitchen about the limits of this fantasy. The real thing isn't sexy, "Mr. Muki" told her. "I think boobies are just great, but there's nothing edible in a boob," he said. "It's just glands and fat." He also pointed out that the real thing would involve skinning and beheading and other gross things that would be a major turn-off for most of the fetishists who visit his site.
That aversion to the real-life details of cannibalism seems to be quite common among the people who frequent cannibal-themed porn venues. The author of a letter posted to one of these sites in the late 1990s explains: "Such a messy procedure hardly conjures up an erotic image of desirable intimacy." Another says: "Confronted with real situations similar to my fantasies, I don't think I would find them erotic (and I don't plan to ever find out)."
As for the cartoon, which Gawker called "somehow the creepiest of all," that comes from a cherished collection of fetish imagery by a reclusive artist called Dolcett (NSFW), whose widely shared drawings of women being cooked or asphyxiated has made him into something like the Banksy of cannibal porn. The woman in the cartoon, Karyn, turns out to be modeled on a real person with a fantasy of being eaten. And while many of Dolcett's drawings are unquestionably disturbing, the man himself says he has no interest in violence. "The real aspects of torture and pain are not part of my fantasies even on the more heavy-handed ones," he told Karyn.
One can find probing discussions of these issues on the vore message boards, including debates on how it relates to mental illness, whether one can or should share the fantasy with people "IRL" (in real life), and the endless back-and-forth over the question of its prevalence in the general population. One user cites the recent book A Billion Wicked Thoughts, which gives a list of the top 100 sexual search terms according to Dogpile. "Vore" comes in at No. 85, just ahead of "clowns," not far below "small breasts," and 16 spots away from "unicorns."
Gilberto Valle has said that he's been a fan of cannibal porn since his sophomore year of college and that his interest in bondage goes even further back to a time when he watched Cameron Diaz get tied to a coconut tree in the Jim Carrey film The Mask. Does this long-standing fascination with tying up women and eating them (perhaps in tropical milieus) mark Valle as a potential criminal? Left undisturbed, would he have ended up another Jeffrey Dahmer?
The forensic psychiatrist who interviewed Dahmer for 18 hours thinks not. In preparation for his testimony in that trial more than 20 years ago, Park Dietz got to know the serial killer pretty well, and in the end he concluded that Dahmer's sexual paraphilias—which included both cannibalism and a desire to have sex with dead bodies—could be clearly distinguished from his drive to kill. As such, he said, Dahmer did not meet the legal definition for insanity: His nutty proclivities could not be blamed for his murderous behavior. Now Dietz, who interviewed Valle for the defense, is expected to testify on his behalf, arguing that Valle showed no signs of being inclined to act out his dark role-plays, despite the ferocity of his desires.
The FBI did not have the benefit of a face-to-face psychiatric evaluation as they investigated Valle, however, so the feds were left to look for what former prosecutor and Columbia law professor Daniel Richman calls "marks in the sand" that might distinguish between real criminal plans and strange personal fantasies. "A straight-laced prosecutor is going to be ill-equipped to recognize the odd preferences in the hearts of men," says Richman, but they still have to deal with the problem of how to sort legitimate threats from Internet daydreams.
In making these sorts of decisions, prosecutors must consider the potential magnitude of the crime and balance that against the likelihood that a stated plan would ever be carried out. That calculation—which sometimes comes out looking like Pascal's Wager—can lead to both prudent prosecutions and shameful overreaches. (For examples of the latter, see some recent battles in the war on terrorism.) In Valle's case, this calculus of risk seems to have been misapplied. His plot to kidnap and cook one woman—or to cook 100, including his wife, as has now been suggested—isn't just improbable. It's downright ridiculous.
If Valle were a pedophile, and if his alleged victims were minors, the math might be different. It may well be that that the majority of pedophiles never act out their fantasies and lead law-abiding lives replete with sessions of harmless masturbation. But there's also plenty of evidence to suggest that sexual crimes against children—a uniquely vulnerable population—are committed with startling frequency.
At the other end of the spectrum are those sexual fetishes that are virtually never acted out. A few years ago, I wrote a piece on the culture of quicksand and the surprising coterie of those who find it sexually exciting. One member of that community, a chatty, middle-aged man named Duncan Edwards, explained that "watchers" like him are subdivided according to how far they like to see a woman submerged. "It's a very personal thing," he told me. Some men like to see women sink down to their waists, others like to see them covered to their armpits, and still others prefer "grim endings" in which the women disappear into a smattering of bubbles.
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)