This morning, Gilberto Valle, the "cannibal cop" of the New York Police Department, was found guilty of a conspiracy to kidnap his wife, his college friend, and two other women, and then to rape, torture, and eat them. It took the jurors 16 hours to reach their verdict. Valle will be sentenced in June, and could get life in prison.
What exactly did the cannibal cop do? Here's one thing: Last May, five months before the 28-year-old police officer was arrested by the FBI, Valle met up with a friend online. The friend suggested via instant message that they work together on a story. "OK, sounds fun," Valle said. They began to craft a tale about a restaurant that cooks and serves human flesh. (They'd met on a site called Dark Fetish Net, a sort of Facebook for perverts.) The imaginary business would need a boss, the friend proposed, perhaps a German woman named Serena. "Yeah," typed Valle, "I love women who help with the cooking." They chatted back and forth like this, trading notions for their project. "Nicely done, flowing very well," said the friend before signing off.
In July, Valle had another chat with a different online friend—a man called "Moody Blues." Their conversation flowed very well. Moody Blues, a male nurse who lives in England, pretended to be a connoisseur of cannibalism: He said he'd eaten lots of women and offered up his favorite recipes. Valle responded that he'd been working on a document called "Abducting and Cooking Kimberly: A Blueprint," and promised to send it over. That Word file had a photo of his real-life friend from college, Kimberly Sauer, and a list of supplies that he would need to carry out a crime. It also gave a set of made-up details about the victim: a fictitious last name, date of birth, alma mater, and hometown.
Then he and Moody Blues agreed to cook and eat Kimberly together over Labor Day, at Valle's secluded place "up in the mountains," a spot accessible via "lots of winding roads." Valle lived in an apartment building in Queens. Moody Blues never left his home in England. September came and went, and neither said a word about their killers' getaway.
Now the jury has decided that Valle's chat with Moody Blues, and several others he conducted, weren't phony stories like the one about the restaurant, but murderous plots they meant to carry out. That is to say, the jurors believed that three facts about the case had been proved beyond a reasonable doubt: First, that a genuine conspiracy existed; second, that Valle joined that conspiracy with the intent of participating in it; and third, that at least one member of the conspiracy did something substantive to carry out the crime.
On its face the verdict doesn't make much sense. Even if Valle and his friends had really meant to kill someone, then what did they do to make it happen? The government said that Valle conducted recon and surveillance. He traveled down to visit Kimberly in July, and drove past her workplace; later, they shared a meal. But Kimberly herself suggested where and when to meet for brunch. And if Valle was really on a murderous mission, why'd he bring along his wife and baby?
The government also claimed that Valle had done practical, strategic research for his crimes. He'd looked up recipes for chloroform, and downloaded photos of his victims to an "organized filing system" on his computer. He even went so far as to alphabetize the list of 80 women, and then he used that list to choose his targets.
But Valle's online records could just as well be evidence of masturbation, or research for his short stories. In covering this trial for Slate, I've looked up some horrendous things myself—my browser's cache is now a stinking pit of filth. (For the record, I'm not planning to eat anyone.) As for Valle's sophisticated record-keeping, it turns out he used the Finder app in Mac OS X. Yes, he'd alphabetized his files, but he might as well have arranged them by "Date modified" or "Size."
Then there was the second charge, that Valle used a computer in his squad car to enter names into a law enforcement database. But the cannibal cop never looked up his supposed victims while he was allegedly conspiring to kill them. (He's been convicted of looking up a high-school friend named Maureen instead. According to the government, Valle fantasized about eating Maureen but did not really intend to do so.) Even if Valle had looked up Kimberly in 2012, what would he have learned? He already knew where she lived and where she worked. He could have killed her either way.
From one perspective—from my perspective—what Valle said was horrific and disturbing, but what he did was not so ominous at all. For the jurors, though, Valle's thoughts tainted his actions. They believed his online chats were real, and that means they thought he meant to roast a woman on a spit stabbed through her womb. If you start from there, then I get how everything that came after might look like a step along the way to unspeakable violence. A weekend trip to Maryland to hang out with your college friends could be construed as a prelude to a murder.
It seems as though the jury bought into elements 1 and 2, that Valle joined a genuine conspiracy to kidnap, kill, and eat his friends. With that in place, the final leap was easy: He searched their names online, and he went to where they lived. These were real-world acts, in furtherance of his cannibal plot. Gilberto Valle should go to prison.
"His goose is cooked," proclaimed the New York Daily News. Other geese are in the fryer, too. In February, police arrested Moody Blues—real name: Dale Bolinger—in a suburb of Kent, England. Investigators dug up his backyard, presumably looking for the gnawed-on bones of children. "None of this is real," he protested. "It's all fantasy. I'm an idiot." Michael Van Hise, the New Jersey man who offered Valle $4,000 in exchange for a kidnapped sex slave, and whose wife calls him "a big teddy bear," has also been taken into custody. These three men have never met. They never exchanged money. They never knew each other's names. Yet now all three of them are implicated in the same fantasy conspiracy, to abduct and kill Gilberto Valle's wife and friends.
Dark Fetish Net, the social networking site where the cannibal cop met Bolinger and Van Hise, carries a boldface message on its home page: "Please also remember that THIS PLACE IS ABOUT FANTASIES ONLY, so play safe!" Valle's personal profile, where he went by the handle "GirlMeatHunter," had another version of the same: "I love to push the envelope," he wrote, "but no matter what I say it's all fantasy." In many of his chats he issued the same important caveat.
For a few brief chats in 2012, though, Valle abandoned this disclaimer. He indulged a darker fantasy of what it might be like to plan and do these things for real. He met other cannibal fetishists who liked to push the envelope, and they goaded each other on. No one followed through and no one got hurt, but that glimmer of possibility is what turned them on the most. Saying that they'd kill a girl got these people off. Saying that they'd kill a girl might also put them all in prison.