The Cannibal Cop on Trial
A dispatch from Gilberto Valle’s strange first two days in court.
Photo by Jane Rosenburg/Reuters
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.
NEW YORK CITY—The Cannibal Cop sits in court, chubby-cheeked, with his chin in the palm of his hand. Though he faces life in prison if convicted—he's been charged with "a heinous plot to kidnap, rape, murder and cannibalize a number of very real women"—the former New York City police officer barely says a word. Gilberto Valle slouches forward in his seat and holds that pose for hours, while the details of his sexual sadism—plans to cook his friends alive and worse—are read off and posted to a monitor beside him. If this embarrasses Valle, we wouldn't know. If it angers him, it's hard to tell. If he's terrified, he doesn't show it. He just sits there in the courtroom. He doesn't do anything at all.
Then again, it's hard to say exactly what Valle is accused of doing in the first place. He never kidnapped anyone, or raped anyone, or murdered anyone. He was never violent to the women who will take the stand. He's never tasted human flesh. But he thought about these things, and he talked about these things. He may have even taken steps to plan them out. But did he really mean to do them? "This case is about seeing the difference between the real world and the pretend world on the Internet," said his lawyer Julia Gatto, a public defender who represented the Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, in her opening statement Monday. (Shahzad ended up pleading guilty and getting a life sentence.) "This is a really, really important case. Not for Gilberto Valle, for all of us."
The lead prosecutor for the government is Randall Jackson, who with his hulking frame and shaved head looks a bit like Tiki Barber. Jackson wants to emphasize that while Valle's online chats may have started off as fantasy—"depraved, but not true," is how he put it—they quickly turned into "detailed, strategic discussions about real women." That is to say, at some point in 2012, Valle crossed the line between masturbatory banter and criminal intent. What he thought and what he typed online bled over into what he planned to do.
The case against Valle begins with testimony from his wife Kathleen Mangan-Valle. Before she tells her story, the judge pauses to remind her of the spousal testimonial privilege: She cannot be compelled to testify against her husband. She waives this right, and then some: Over the next few hours, the former special-ed teacher in Harlem and the Bronx explains how her relationship with Valle, whom she met on OKCupid in 2009, soured not long after they had a child together in 2011. It soured further when she learned that he was trying to kill her.
Something happened in the basement of their home, she begins to say, but the judge prevents her from giving details. Same goes for an exchange they had about a piece of luggage, and some questions that he asked about the route she took while jogging. (Were there a lot of people around on her route? Perhaps she'd prefer to run at night?) Another kind of spousal privilege limits her testimony: According to a rule of law that dates back at least four centuries, what Valle said to his wife in private cannot be used against him (unless the couple had been conspiring together to commit a crime). So the government must stick to what Mangan-Valle saw her husband do, not what she heard him say (to her, at least). Meanwhile, the case against her husband relies on what he said but didn't do.
Here's what Mangan-Valle knows: In August 2012, she logged into his account on their shared computer—they share passwords, too—and found some photos from a website called darkfetishnet.com. "I know S&M is kind of popular," she says, "like 50 Shades of Grey. But this seemed different. The girl on the front page was dead." At around this point the lawyers huddle with the judge to discuss a legal matter, and Mangan-Valle begins to sob into her microphone. The quiet courtroom fills with the sound of her sobs piped and amplified through loudspeakers.
After a short break, Mangan-Valle tells the court that she installed spyware on her husband's account, and discovered that he'd been visiting "all these websites that I had never seen before. … There were pictures of feet. They were not attached to bodies." She took their baby and fled to her parents' house in Nevada, where she looked deeper into his online activities—she also had the password for his email—and discovered that he'd traded thousands of sadistic emails with online friends. (These were admissible as evidence, because he wasn't communicating with her.) She searched for her own name, as one might do, and saw that he'd been sending pictures of her to these fetish pals, and that he'd outlined a plan to tie her feet and slit her throat, so that he and his friends could "have fun watching the blood rush out." That's when she took the case to the FBI office in Reno, Nev. At her invitation, agents in New York City raided her apartment while Valle was at work, and made a copy of his hard drive.