In all these cases, the police said they had physical evidence aside from e-mails to back up arrests. With the Cannibal Cop case, however, the evidence is more diffuse, difficult to interpret, and it might represent the fullest realization yet of our justice system’s march toward something out of Minority Report—the investigation and prosecution of pre-crime.
The Dark Fetish Network, or DFN, is a social network with nearly 50,000 purported users. Members use aliases and share photos and tell stories to one another as a sort of group fantasy exercise. The home page displays a disclaimer stating that everything discussed on DFN is not real (“This place is about fantasies only, so play safe!”). But, of course, the anonymity of the members makes it impossible to know the true intentions of any given person on the site.
Based on what they discovered on Valle’s computer, prosecutors said he had only started visiting DFN in late 2011 or early 2012. Valle had signed on as Girlmeat Hunter and won praise from some other members after contributing to the group chats. He started IM-ing directly with those members and exchanging e-mails for offline volleys. By the time his wife had set up spyware in September, Valle had quit DFN, but records of e-mail chats that took place outside DFN with three alleged co-conspirators remained on his computer: a 22-year-old car mechanic from southern New Jersey named Michael Vanhise; a British man Valle knew as Moody Blues, whom the FBI identified as Dale Bolinger; and someone using the username Ali Khan who apparently was logging on from Pakistan.
In January, Valle had e-mailed Vanhise photos of Alicia Frisca, the friend of Kathleen’s who teaches at the school where she once worked, and offered to kidnap her for him for $5,000. Vanhise replied, “Could we do four?” To which Valle responded: “I am putting my neck on the line here. If something goes wrong somehow, I am in deep shit. $5,000 and you need to make sure that she is not found. She will definitely make the news.” In chats happening about the same time with Ali Khan, Valle suggested taking Kathleen on a trip to India, where the two of them would kill her and prepare her for dinner. “We will take turns with her,” he wrote, after sending him a photo of Kathleen in a bikini. They also discussed killing Andria Noble, one of his college friends. “It’s personal with Andria,” Valle wrote. “She will absolutely suffer.” Later, he added that he’d found a recipe for chloroform online. “I’m in the middle of constructing a pulley apparatus in my basement to string her up by her feet.”
By summer, Valle had spent more time chatting with Moody Blues, bragging that his oven was big enough to fit a victim in it if he folded her legs and mentioning that he had a place up in the mountains (“No one around for three-quarters of a mile”) where he could bring one woman of their choice. They settled on Kimberly Sauer, a college friend of Valle’s, and Valle started planning the details: “Once she is dead, I will take her out and properly butcher her body and cook the meat right away. And that could be out on a rotisserie too.” Valle later e-mailed Moody Blues a short Word document titled “Abducting and Cooking Kimberly, a Blueprint.” He listed materials he’d need to do the job: a car, chloroform (“refer to website for directions”), rope, a gag (“duct tape?”), a tarp or plastic bags to protect the trunk from any DNA remains, more bags for Sauer’s clothes, and “cheap sneakers.”
On various occasions in the past year, Valle had used the NYPD database to search for information about Maureen Hartigan (a high-school friend of Valle’s), Andria Noble, and Kimberly Sauer. The searches typically offer basic pedigree information, such as home address, date of birth, height, weight, eye color, and criminal records. Prosecutors saw this as further evidence that Valle’s plans were serious. On July 22, Valle reported having seen Sauer in person at a brunch during a weekend trip to visit old friends from the University of Maryland. “She looked absolutely mouthwatering. I could hardly contain myself.” On August 24, they discussed ways that Valle might kidnap another woman, Kristen Ponticelli, a recent graduate of Valle’s old high school whom he never met personally (Valle’s lawyers assume he just noticed her photo on Facebook). The next day, they moved on to Andria Noble. “If Andria lived near me, she would be gone by now,” Valle wrote. “Even if I get caught, she would be worth it.”
But there was no physical evidence from Valle’s home suggesting he was getting ready to kidnap or cook anyone—no oven large enough for a human, no cleaver, no homemade chloroform. Prosecutors had no proof he had a place in the mountains. They had no proof that Valle knew the identities of the three people he was chatting with. Valle never divulged the last names of any of the people whose photos he passed along (not even his wife’s) and never gave out any of their addresses, even after Moody Blues specifically requested one, and he haphazardly switched up details about their life stories and college educations.