“That’s Not a Fantasy That’s OK”
Inside the final days of New York City’s Cannibal Cop trial.
Jackson, the prosecutor, smacks down Gatto's two-piles defense. It's not surprising, he contends, that a real-life cannibalistic killer would indulge in fantasies about cannibalistic killing. "Cops watch cop movies," he says, "and soldiers play Call of Duty." This sounds sensible, until you remember that cannibalistic killers aren't quite as common as cops and soldiers. All throughout the trial, the government has had to argue that Valle's weird, cartoonish thoughts were plans for real-world action, no matter how improbable they sound. If Valle said he'd like to roast a girl on an outdoor spit with an apple in her mouth, then that's what he was going to do.
Some of the most damning evidence against the defendant was also the most absurd. At one point, the defense convinced the judge to exclude a portion of a chat transcript in which an online friend claimed to have purchased delicious babies from drug addicts desperate for a fix. The judge agreed that this statement, made by someone other than the defendant, might so horrify the jury that Valle would himself be blamed. But couldn't this have gone the other way? Maybe the baby-eating detail would have convinced the jury that this was nothing more than silly make-believe for cybersex.
Search terms from the defendant's browser history might have had the same effect. When Valle entered I want to sell a girl slave into Google, was he really looking for a buyer, or had he simply given voice to thoughts inside his head? (Later on, his wife put the phrase my husband doesn't love me into the same computer, another case of typing-what-you're-thinking.) Valle also looked up cases of real-life abductor-murderers, and spent some time on the Huffington Post, reading an article titled "Cannibalism Can Be Addictive, Expert Says." And in the strangest twist of the fantasy/reality conundrum, the prosecution presented evidence that Valle had searched the phrases how to abduct a girl and how to chloroform a girl on the Internet, and that he'd also viewed a 2009 blog post on Techdirt called "If You're Kidnapping Someone, Maybe Don't Search Google For 'Kidnapping.' "
Valle didn’t testify in his defense, and so he never had the chance to look the members of the jury in the eyes and tell them he's a freak. As a self-proclaimed sexual sadist and a cop who chatted about rape and murder while sitting in his squad car, his testimony would have been too risky—Valle would have been flayed on cross-examination. So Gatto chose to feed the jury more generic facts about her client's fetish. On Tuesday, she brought Sergey Merenkov to the stand. He's the webmaster of a site called DarkFetishNet. It's like an evil clone of Facebook—a social network where most of the profile pics show a woman being choked or strangled. Valle's handle on the site was "GirlMeatHunter."
Merenkov testified via video link from Moscow, a trim, balding 34-year-old in a black T-shirt, sitting in a leather swivel chair and sipping from an "I [heart] TEA" mug. Sexual asphyxiation is the main fetish among his site’s 4,500 active users, he explained, but cannibalism is also popular. He leaned back and gripped the chair behind his head with both hands. The site has tens of thousands of images, mostly pornographic, he continued, and these include "an ever-increasing flood of photos" of private individuals, pulled from Facebook, Flickr, or other sharing sites. Valle uploaded some of these to the site’s "What Would You Do to Her" forums.
Then Gatto calls her paralegal to the stand. A recent graduate from Barnard College, Alexandra Katz looks just like one of the girls that Valle dreamed of cooking and eating. (All of Valle's alleged victims resemble his wife: They're petite brunettes with long, straight hair.) To help with the defense, Katz created an account on DarkFetishNet. She visited the site "50 to 100 times," she says, and now she's testifying as to how the site actually works. Gatto's message seems to be: Even this sweet-faced college co-ed visited the site, and she's totally OK!
It's not clear how well the gambit works. Katz has a tendency to grin while on the stand, and she ends up seeming smug, not innocent. Still, she gives a sense of how members of the community interact. After setting up her profile, Katz received several dozen private messages. One user called "I Eat" wrote to her with the diction of a Muppet: "Would you like talk with cannibal?" he asked. She declined.
This is Valle's world, the defense will argue in its closing. All he ever really did was "talk with cannibal," and then "talk with cannibal" some more. Valle and his friends made plans to kidnap and eat women in online chats, but when the target dates that they had agreed upon arrived, nothing ever happened. Despite the details of his negotiations, Valle never met his DarkFetishNet friend from Asia in a Pakistan hotel, never had a Labor Day rendezvous with his British co-conspirator, and never drove a girl to New Jersey in exchange for $4,000. And no one who was involved in these "conspiracies" ever lamented the fact that these plans hadn't come to fruition. They just kept on bantering as they had before.
In the final hour of the trial, the prosecutors assure the jury that the First Amendment is not at issue here. What Valle did "goes a thousand steps beyond yelling 'fire' in a crowded theater," Jackson says. "His fantasies point to actual desires." The closing statement takes a turn, and Jackson works himself into an eloquent lather of prudery and indignation. First he likens the defendant to a 9/11-style plotter who later claimed that he only fantasized about taking down a plane. Then he starts to argue that Valle's fantasies weren't sexual at all. "There's no fun" in what Valle was doing, Jackson says. There's no pleasure in it for him or you or me.
Jackson reminds the jury that Valle looked at autopsy photos, and pictures of naked girls on spits. According to the prosecution, these images "have no sexual value" at all. "This is not normal pornography for any human being," he says. And as he did in his opening argument, Jackson reminds the members of the jury to use their "common sense." Finally, he tells them what's been at issue in the case from the very start. Gilberto Valle fantasizes about seeing women executed, Jackson announces to the court. "That's not a fantasy that's OK."