Faced with the same question, Van Hise—whose unusually low IQ could be an issue at his sentencing—pointed the investigators to Asch and Meltz. A young FBI agent posing as an ex-military man and dark fetishist named “Darren ” reached out to both men, who are in their 60s, and gained their trust. Together, they and a second agent started working out plans to kidnap, rape, and kill a young woman (played by a third undercover agent).
Meltz, for his part, never agreed to participate in the crime; he would only give his “expert” advice. Though he role-played a veteran kidnapper in these discussions, there’s no evidence that he had any real criminal experience. A senior citizen with diabetes, he found himself at times so overwhelmed by his fantasies that he couldn’t help “plan” the kidnapping at all: “I can’t think right now,” he told one of the undercover agents in April 2013, “ ’cause every time to talk to you all, I keep thinking about, I get, I get, sorry, I get aroused.”
Though the case against Meltz might have been the weakest of all involved, he appears to have no hope whatsoever of acquittal. The government offered Meltz a plea deal: a sentence capped at 10 years if he confessed to the conspiracy. At first this may have seemed like a smart move, as he stood to be convicted of more serious crimes. But this week’s news makes the Meltz plea seem like a huge mistake. His case never went to trial, so there’s no jury verdict for the judge to overturn. Though the police had little evidence against him, Meltz will end up serving out his sentence even if both Valle and Van Hise go free.
The last defendant in the online fetish sting also has little chance of exoneration. Chris Asch did more than talk to the undercover agents: He joined them in a stakeout of their “target’s” place of work, and brought along a bag of items that he thought would be useful for the plot. Among other things, these included a ski mask, hypodermic needles, leather ties, handcuffs, chrome forceps, a meat hammer, a “leg-spreader,” and an anti-psychotic drug apparently used to induce sleep. At one point, he even traveled out of state to buy a Taser, then showed the weapon to the undercover agents.
Asch maintains that he never meant to carry out the plan and that all these real-world actions and accouterments—the in-person meetings, the surveillance, the collection of torture equipment—were part of a live-action role play. That may be true: The undercover agents never pushed Asch into a final test. They never told him that the kidnapping would take place at a specific time. They never picked him up and drove over to the “victim’s” home. They never made him prove that his posturing was real; they only nudged him closer to the edge than he’d ever gone before.
The fact that Asch was toting around the tools of tortures may seem so disturbing on its face that he should be locked up either way. Surely he’s guilty of something, even if he never really meant to kidnap anyone? That’s the logic that convicted Gilberto Valle, and it may have sunk the others, too. It’s creepy that a librarian would acquire hypodermic needles and a stun gun; it’s not against the law. He did have some illegal items in his home—the FBI found that he possessed some child pornography—but even that doesn’t make him guilty of a conspiracy to kidnap and murder.
Gilberto Valle’s lawyer said Tuesday that “the government should not be in our heads,” as if there could ever be a clear distinction between what people merely think and what they really plan to do. When the Cannibal Cop was still in jail—working in the kitchen, it turned out—we emailed back and forth about his case and how he’d ended up a convict. He told me that he’d always drawn a line with his fetish chats: He never traded any personal information, nor did he speak with anyone by phone. Van Hise, Meltz, and Asch may have had their own lines, too. None ever laid a finger on their “targets,” but each took their fantasies to different points along the spectrum of criminal behavior. Like Valle, Van Hise planned out some killings over online chats, but he also saw a fetish pal in person. Meltz did the same, plus met up with a group of guys so they could talk about their “plot” together. Asch did all of that, and then he bought equipment.
In Valle’s case, the judge has ruled there wasn’t evidence to show that the online chats were something other than a fantasy role play. What about the guys who tiptoed a little further toward the brink? They may seem a bit less innocent, but that hardly proves their guilt.