NEW YORK: The government has introduced jurors to women supposedly targeted by a New York police officer accused in a cannibalism plot, but their lack of knowledge of any sinister plans provided an opening for the defense to highlight claims that it was all fantasy.
Elizabeth Sauer, 29, was called as a government witness Tuesday against 28-year-old Officer Gilberto Valle on the second day of his trial on charges that he conspired to kidnap, kill and eat women he had described in chats on a fetish website.
Sauer, a former college classmate of Valle, testified that she received a disturbing Facebook message from Valle’s wife last year that sounded so “crazy” that she texted him to warn the account must have been hacked. Either that “or you’re trying to sell me into white slavery,” she recalled joking in the text.
On cross examination, Sauer told defense attorney Julia Gatto that she never felt threatened by Valle. Her testimony was similar to that of Andria Noble, a 27-year-old state prosecutor, who testified Monday that she never saw Valle to be violent when she knew him at the University of Maryland.
Maureen Hartingan, a former high school classmate of Valle, testified Tuesday as well.
The women were called by the government to show jurors that women Valle described on the Internet were real potential victims of violence.
The officer has claimed his online discussions of cannibalism were harmless fetish fantasies. However, in opening statements Monday, a prosecutor said “very real women” were put in jeopardy.
“Make no mistake,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Randall Jackson in an emotion-packed opening day of testimony that took a federal court jury in Manhattan. “Gilbert Valle was very serious about these plans.”
Gatto argued that her client “never intended to kidnap anyone.” She added: “You can’t convict people for their thoughts, even if they’re sick.”
Valle’s wife, 27-year-old Kathleen Mangan-Valle, testified for the government as the trial’s first witness that she fled their home with their 1-year-old daughter after learning about her husband’s Internet interests.
She reported her husband’s strange behavior to the FBI, and agents uncovered “a heinous plot to kidnap, rape, murder and cannibalize a number of very real women,” Jackson said.
Days later, Mangan-Valle said, she used a program she had installed to trace Valle’s keystrokes to learn that he had written hundreds of emails and instant messages chronicling how he and his Internet pals would kidnap, rape, kill, cook and eat various women. Included among the targets, she said, were his wife and their female friends.
“I was going to be tied up by my feet and my throat slit and they would have fun watching the blood gush out of me because I was young,” she said.
Mangan-Valle objected to a defense lawyer’s characterization of what she saw on her husband’s computer as pornography. “It wasn’t porn. That was dead people,” she told Gatto. “I don’t know why you keep calling that stuff porn.”
She also discovered plans to put one friend in a suitcase, wheel her out of her building and murder her. Two other women were “going to be raped in front of each other to heighten their fears,” while another was going to be roasted alive over an open fire, she said.
Gatto told jurors the 28-year-old officer wanted only to share extreme sexual fantasies on the Internet with like-minded people, some of the 38,000 registered to a website that caters to those interested in asphyxiation and cannibalism.
She tried to soften the image of her client by showing jurors pictures of a uniformed Valle and the couple’s 1-year-old daughter, a moment that caused the wife on the witness stand and eventually the officer at the defense table 30 feet away to cry out amid sobs.
She asked Mangan-Valle about good times with friends the couple had shared and their wedding last June.
“The wedding was nice. The marriage was not,” Mangan-Valle said.
Valle is accused of conspiring to kidnap a woman and unauthorized use of a law enforcement database that prosecutors say he used to help build a list of potential targets. A conviction on the kidnapping count carries a possible life sentence.
Valle is expected to take the stand to make the case that it was all role-playing fantasy. The defense also is planning to call experts to explain the fetish subculture and to show jurors the videotaped testimony of the fetish website’s co-founder Sergey Merenkov.
Merenkov called the site “a clone of Facebook, but it is oriented to people with fetishes that are not considered standard.”