John MarshallMantel forThe New York Times Gilberto Valle’s lawyer, JuliaL. Gatto, center right, said that she did not believe the prosecution had proved its case and that her client had been convicted for his “very ugly thoughts.”
ByBENJAMIN WEISER Published: March 12, 2013
A New York police officer was convicted on Tuesday in a bizarre plot to kidnap, torture, kill and eat women, ending a trial whose outcome hinged on a delicate distinction between fantasy and reality.
The trial had drawn widespread attention, in part because it involved an officer’s disturbing behavior, but also because it raised a fundamental question: When does a virtual crime, contemplated in Internet chat rooms, become an actual crime?
There was no evidence that any of the women whom the officer, Gilberto Valle, was accused of plotting to kill were harmed. But prosecutors argued that the officer took actual steps to further his plot, like conducting surveillance of potential victims.
Mr. Valle, 28, could receive life in prison for one count of kidnapping conspiracy when he is sentenced on June 19. The Police Department fired him upon conviction.
His lawyer, Julia L. Gatto, called the verdict “devastating” and said the government had not proved its case. “This was a thought prosecution,” she said. “These are thoughts, very ugly thoughts, but we don’t prosecute people for their thoughts. And we’ll continue to appeal and continue to fight for Mr. Valle.”
The trial highlighted some of the darkest corners of the Internet, where fetishists hide behind Web identities like Girlmeat Hunter — the name that Mr. Valle used — and engage in role-playing fantasy about cannibalism and sexual torture.
At the crux of the case was whether prosecutors could prove that Mr. Valle, who is married and has a baby girl, was not simply role playing, as so many of his like-minded Internet peers apparently were, but laying the groundwork for actually kidnapping, torturing and killing the women he had singled out.
The prosecutors, Randall W. Jackson and Hadassa Waxman, built their case around the chats and other online messages that Mr. Valle had exchanged with three co-conspirators and what prosecutors said were other concrete steps that he had taken to bring his plan to fruition.
The United States attorney in Manhattan,Preet Bharara, said the jury unanimously found that Mr. Valle’s “detailed and specific plans to abduct women for the purpose of committing grotesque crimes were very real.”
“The Internet is a forum for the free exchange of ideas,” he continued, “but it does not confer immunity for plotting crimes and taking steps to carry out those crimes.”
The verdict came on the 12th day of Mr. Valle’s trial in Federal District Court, where he was also convicted of illegally gaining access to a law enforcement database that prosecutors said he had used to conduct research on potential victims. He faces up to one year in prison on that count.
After the verdict, several members of the six-man, six-woman jury said an early straw poll had shown a broad split on the main conspiracy charge: about four jurors believed Mr. Valle to be not guilty, another group of perhaps five saw him as guilty, and the rest were undecided, one juror recalled.
“I did not know which way I was going to go — I was leaning toward not guilty,” another juror recalled feeling as deliberations began. The jurors, who all spoke on the condition of anonymity, said they spent about half a day reading the judge’s instructions, and outlined the case chronologically with pieces of paper on a wall.
At one point, two jurors read Mr. Valle’s chats aloud, with one reading his words and another reading his conspirators’ words. His communications with one man, who used the screen identity Moody Blues, were pivotal, a juror recalled. Without those chats, the juror said, there might have been a not-guilty verdict.
A third juror said: “I hate to see a person ruin their life — a baby, a wife, a career as a cop. And you hate to see that happen to people.”
A juror recalled wondering whether Mr. Valle had merely been “trying to make his fantasy more real.” As the jury reviewed the evidence methodically, the juror said, “the more you thought, ‘Yeah, this is for real.’ ”
In her summation, Ms. Waxman pointed to a brunch in Maryland in July 2012, where Mr. Valle, his wife and their baby visited Kimberly Sauer, a college friend of the officer’s, as an example of how he conducted surveillance of an intended victim. Ms. Waxman cited messages that Mr. Valle had exchanged with Moody Blues before and after that trip. She told jurors to “connect the dots, to look at the big picture.”
“When I see her Sunday my mouth will be watering,” Mr. Valle wrote three days before the brunch, adding that he would be “eyeing her from head to toe” and longed “for the day I cram a chloroform-soaked rag in her face.”
He had also conducted Google searches for phrases like “how to abduct a girl” and “how to chloroform a girl,” evidence showed.
After the brunch, Ms. Waxman told the jury, he wrote again to Moody Blues: “She looked absolutely mouthwatering. I could hardly contain myself.”
Ms. Waxman argued, “It is absolutely clear that this trip to Maryland was not innocent.”
Ms. Gatto, a federal public defender, contended that prosecutors had presented a distorted picture about what by all accounts had been “a lovely brunch amongst old college friends.”
“The trip wasn’t so that Gil could conduct surveillance on Kim,” she said. Her client’s fantasy role playing about Ms. Sauer made “perfect sense,” she added. “You fantasize about the people you are thinking of seeing.”
As for Mr. Valle’s Internet searches, she told the jury, he had been “Googling a host of awful things, because that’s what he fantasizes about; that’s Gil’s porn.”
Joseph V. DeMarco, an Internet lawyer and former head of the cybercrime unit in the federal prosecutor’s office in Manhattan, said the verdict underscored the fact that “as much as we like to think of things happening ‘in cyberspace,’ the reality is that Internet and e-mail are simply new methods of communication, and that when those communications involve planning crimes, the fact that the planning is done online is fundamentally no different than when they happen on the telephone — or for that matter in person.”
Mr. DeMarco said Mr. Valle was treated no differently under the law than someone conspiring to commit crimes like terrorism, drugs or insider trading.
The defense team, which also included Robert M. Baum, Edward S. Zas and John J. Hughes III, said it would ask the judge, Paul G. Gardephe, to throw out the verdict, and beyond that, pursue all appeal options.
After the proceeding, Mr. Valle’s mother, Elizabeth Valle, said brusquely: “I’m in shock. His wife perjured herself.”
Mr. Valle’s wife, Kathleen Mangan-Valle, who was not in the courtroom on Tuesday, had testified that she reported her husband’s Internet activities to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, including her discovery that he had considered her as a potential victim.
Mr. Valle embraced Ms. Gatto before being led away. Judge Gardephe observed from the bench that no defendant had “received a more vigorous defense than that presented here, and I think that is obvious to everyone in the courtroom.”