Gilberto Valle, the man once known as the “Cannibal Cop,” walked out of a federal building in lower Manhattan on Tuesday after 21 months in prison. In March 2013, the former New York City police officer was convicted of conspiring to kidnap, cook, and devour his wife, as well as several other women, mostly on the basis of his extensive and disturbing chats on a website called DarkFetishNet. Late Monday night, the judge in that case, Paul Gardephe, overturned the jury’s verdict and set Valle loose. “He’s guilty of nothing more than having very unconventional thoughts,” said his attorney Julia Gatto, grinning on the courthouse steps. “We are not the thought police. … The government should not be in our heads.”
But even as Valle and his family celebrate, the thought police are still holding three men in custody. All were part of Valle’s online network, and each has been convicted of a similar conspiracy to kidnap and murder women. The Cannibal Cop may have been set free, but his fellow fetishists—the Sadistic Security Guard, the Murderous Mechanic, the Loathsome Librarian—remain in prison, where they await their formal sentencing and will likely spend the next few decades in prison on account of their elaborate role-plays. Even more than Valle’s, their cases show how hard it is to find the bleeding edge between thought and action. Did these men really intend to satisfy their urges with an actual killing? Or were they only playing out erotic daydreams?
Take the auto mechanic, Michael Van Hise. For months, he and Valle engaged in repetitive and aimless online dialogue over how they might abduct a woman or a child, then imprison, rape, and kill her. At Valle’s trial, prosecutors convinced the jury that the pair had settled on a plan and taken steps to carry it out. But the evidence shows that Valle and Van Hise made multiple “deals” to kidnap women and never followed through on them. The dates they’d scheduled for these crimes came and went without either one getting off his couch or bothering to call the other up. As the judge pointed out in Monday’s ruling, Valle supposedly “agreed” with cyberpals to kidnap three different women on the very same Monday in early 2012—one in New York City, one in Pakistan, and a third in Columbus, Ohio. “No reasonable juror could have found that Valle actually intended to kidnap a woman on those dates,” the judge concluded.
What about Van Hise? He was convicted in a separate trial of having schemed with two other men—former high school librarian Chris Asch and Veterans Affairs hospital police chief Rick Meltz—to rape and murder either his wife, his daughter, his sister-in-law, his sister-in-law’s mother, his sister-in-law’s daughters, an ex-girlfriend, an unnamed transsexual, or a woman called Barbi. The “co-conspirators” in that plot worked out various arrangements for the various crimes, which—depending on which online chat you happen to be reading—would have taken place in any of at least five different locations. Only one specific date was ever mentioned, and Van Hise spent that day shopping with his grandmother.
Van Hise’s lawyers have filed a motion for acquittal, and it’s possible that Judge Gardephe will rule in his favor, too. Such requests are standard practice, says Columbia Law professor and former federal prosecutor Daniel Richman, but they’re “usually made with no expectation of success, and denied with very little reason given.” No one keeps track of the success rate for these post-trial motions, but everyone agrees that Monday’s ruling in favor of Valle was an exceptionally rare event.
That means that Van Hise, whose wife (and supposed target) knew all about his fetish chats and testified on his behalf, may end up serving 20 years or more. If there’s any distinction at all between his case and Valle’s, it’s that Van Hise actually met one of his chat partners in the real world. The librarian Chris Asch visited him in New Jersey, and the two men drove around Trenton looking for hypothetical places to dispose of a hypothetical body. (“He took me to a park which he thought would be a good dumping ground,” said Asch, “but, you know, I thought … you need to go to the mountains or something.”) This was many months before the pair started talking about the “conspiracy” of which they were convicted.
As it happens, Van Hise did believe that Asch might be more serious than he was, or at least that’s what he told the FBI agents who visited his home in late 2012. By that point, the agents investigating Valle had gathered up a trove of disturbing online chats, but they had no idea how to sort out the fake murder scenarios from any “real” ones. At first they tried to separate the chats into piles: Most were clearly fantasy, they figured, but a few appeared to be quite serious. There was significant overlap between the categories: Conversations in both indulged in flagrant whimsy, with descriptions of nonexistent wilderness outposts, invented human-sized ovens, and made-up pulley systems for hoisting bodies into barbecue pits.
So the FBI asked Valle and Van Hise for help: Which of their online chat partners did they think were serious? Which members of DarkFetishNet.com might really hurt someone? Valle told investigators that “it was hard to make that distinction,” but there were a few who might be the real deal. In fact, he had no idea. The fantasy role-plays relied on members’ stubborn insistence on their own willingness to break the law. The uncertainty made the chats more exciting for everyone.
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.