By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The police officer, in lurid online conversations that would earn him the tabloid nickname "cannibal cop," said he had selected his kidnapping victim: Andria, a former college friend who lived in Ohio.
He asked one man online whether it would be "remotely possible to stick her in the oven while she is alive," and told another: "[o]verall she is the girl i would most want to eat," according to prosecutors.
On Tuesday, a federal appeals court in New York will consider whether that gruesome imagery was part of an actual criminal plot or simply the dark but harmless fantasies of an extreme fetishist.
A jury convicted New York City Police Officer Gilberto Valle in March 2013 of planning to kidnap, cook and eat several women.
But U.S. District Judge Paul Gardephe, who oversaw the trial, threw out his conspiracy conviction last year and freed him from jail where he had spent 21 months since his arrest, ruling Valle's "plans" were probably never real.
"The evidentiary record is such that it is more likely than not the case that all of Valle's Internet communications about kidnapping are fantasy role-play," Gardephe wrote.
The office of Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara will ask the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday to reinstate Valle's conviction.
None of the women Valle threatened in his online chats, including his wife, who turned him in after discovering disturbing images and emails on his computer, was harmed.
Defense lawyers contended that discussing kidnappings and searching for information such as how to create homemade chloroform and use it to knock someone unconscious were part of Valle's sexual fantasies. Prosecutors argued the FBI arrested him before he could carry out his plans.
The appeal has drawn the interest of several online free speech advocacy groups, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the court to uphold Gardephe's decision.
The case shed light on a little-known corner of the Internet, where people who share dark, morbid fetishes gather to exchange messages and images.
It also led to the arrest of three other men who frequented the same websites as Valle and were charged with conspiring to kidnap, torture and kill women.
One of the men, Richard Meltz, pleaded guilty before trial and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Christopher Asch and Michael Van Hise were convicted in March 2014 at trial. Both are appealing.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Peter Cooney)