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—One day last summer, New York City police officer and accused cannibal-sex plotter Gilberto Valle typed this phrase into Google: sound you make with the knife before carving.
"That is not normal," assistant U.S. attorney Randall Jackson tells a packed courtroom Thursday, as this troubling two-week trial draws to a close. In the government's version of the facts, Valle had been working up "practical and strategic" plans to kidnap, rape, torture, kill, and eat several women, including his own wife. This Google search shows he was looking for audio clips of knives being sharpened, utensils clanking, or whatever else might serve to whet his violent appetite. "Officer Valle is a sexually sadistic individual," Jackson concludes. "This is a man who is sick."
But if Valle suffers from a mental illness, no one talks about a treatment. On Thursday, the jury in the Cannibal Cop case began its deliberations. If they choose to convict, the 28-year-old father may spend the rest of his life in prison. In the view of Jackson and his fellow prosecutor Hadassah Waxman, this would make the world a safer place. "That the women were not actually kidnapped is incredibly fortunate," said Waxman in the opening of the government's summation. The defendant never touched his victims, nor did he ever buy the large cooking tray, the largest cooking tray, the huge cooking tray, or the smoker grill for which he'd also searched online. He never squirreled away a coil of rope or jar of chloroform, as he said he'd do in online chats. He never built a pulley apparatus in his basement, or bought a cabin in the mountains, as he'd also claimed to his alleged co-conspirators. Yet the government saw him as a serial killer in waiting.
The fact of Valle's failure as a kidnapper and a flesh-eater has no bearing on his guilt, of course. Some laws exist to prevent crimes before they happen, Jackson explains. As an example, he cites DUI arrests: Even if a drunken driver doesn’t end up in an accident, he puts everyone on the road at risk. The jury is left to probe the limits of this analogy—is Valle really like an inebriated motorist? A driver on the highway can be tested with a Breathalyzer: If he's above a certain threshold, then he's deemed a menace. But what about the sexual sadist whose mind is full of fantasy? How do you decide when those thoughts have gone too far?
That's what makes this case so confusing and upsetting. If Valle really planned to kill his wife and friends, then he's guilty of an enormous crime. But if he didn't plan to kill them—if this was just intense role-playing, as his lawyers have alleged—then he is completely innocent. There's no hazy middle ground, no legal space in which a drunken driver, for example, might be a little buzzed but not so blitzed that he's declared a danger to society. But Gilberto Valle must be one thing or the other. He's a monster or a martyr. There is no in-between.
The defendant shows up Thursday morning in his dark-gray suit. Right before he sits he takes a breath, puffing out his cherubic cheeks in a deep exhale. On Wednesday afternoon, as his lawyers wrapped up their modest case, Valle pinched his nose and wiped away a tear. Now his lawyer, Julia Gatto, tells the jury that his life is ruined. "He's lost everything," she says, and shows a photo of the officer in his uniform, holding up the baby girl that Valle's wife has whisked away to Reno, Nev. Valle begins to cry.
Gatto's closing claims that Valle is a decent guy who has indecent thoughts. The problem is the mooks in law enforcement who aren't hip to S&M. Valle's online life is nasty, she concedes. We've seen his porn in open court—the ultimate embarrassment for any modern man—and Valle's stash is pretty gnarly: He's looked at autopsy photos of women slashed and shot; scenes of people roasting on a spit; a video of a girl who's chained at hand and foot, with a tattoo and belly-button stud, crying out as a candle-flame effect pretends to burn her crotch. "It's gross, no dispute," says Gatto, but "the government simply doesn't understand what fantasy role-play is."
She singles out FBI special agent Corey Walsh for this attack, all but calling him a square. He's the one who went through Valle's hard drive and testified last week. "[Walsh] didn't understand that stories come in different forms," Gatto says. When the agent uncovered Valle's online chats, detailing gruesome plans to rape and kill, he split the records into piles. According to his G-man logic, 21 of 24 were fake. Though the acts described therein were violent and illegal, Valle made it clear he wasn't serious. He negotiated prices for a kidnapping, and described how he would use chloroform and rope to carry out the crime. He posted photos of his wife and friends, and offered them for sale. But he also gave disclaimers: "No matter what I say, it's make-believe," Valle wrote to one fetish friend. "I just have a world in my mind," he told another, "and in that world I am kidnapping women and selling them."
But the remaining chats—three of them—didn't have those all-important caveats. At one point Valle's partner asked him, "ARE YOU REALLY RAELLY [sic] INTO IT?" Valle typed that he was. "I am just afraid of getting caught," he said. He'd kill and eat a girl if he could.
The government cites these back-and-forths as evidence that Valle meant to carry out his plans. Gatto says that fantasists are prone to fantasizing that their fantasies are real. It's like "dark improv theater," she explains: If someone asks you, "Are you for real?" then you have to say "yes" or the scene is over. Valle didn't pause to disavow his plans in these three chats, but that doesn't prove they're real. Over and over again in her summation, Gatto reminds the jury that "80 percent" of Valle's chats were designated as "fantasy." It's a funny piece of rhetoric, since it makes it sound as though the rest might be genuine. Also, it's inaccurate: Agent Walsh assigned 21 of 24 to the fantasy pile—88 percent.