Former New York City police officer Gilberto Valle, second from right, and his mother, Elizabeth Valle, second from left, leave the Southern District courthouse Tuesday, flanked by his attorneys Edward Zas and Julia Gatto. (Reuters/Carlo Allegri)
Internet conversations about torturing, raping, roasting women on a spit and eating them were more likely than not about fantasy and role-playing and not enough to support the kidnapping conspiracy conviction of former New York City Police Officer Gilberto Valle, a federal judge ruled late Monday night.
Southern District Judge Paul Gardephe (See Profile) ordered Valle released Tuesday morning after issuing a judgment of acquittal on his 2013 conviction that could have earned him as much as life in prison.
“[T]he nearly year-long kidnapping conspiracy alleged by the government is one in which no one was ever kidnapped, no attempted kidnapping ever took place, and no real-world, non-Internet-based steps were ever taken to kidnap anyone,” Gardephe said in his opinion. “While the alleged conspirators discussed dates for kidnappings, no reasonable juror could have found that Valle actually intended to kidnap a woman on the those dates.”
Valle, who spent 21 months behind bars, walked out of the courthouse at 500 Pearl St. shortly before 2 p.m. He thanked his legal team from Federal Defenders of New York, and said, “I want to apologize to everyone who was hurt, shocked or offended by my infantile actions.”
“We are thrilled with the decision,” Federal Defender Julia Gatto said. “It validates what we’ve been saying since the very beginning—that Gil Valle is entirely innocent of the crime charged.”
Valle will remain under strict home confinement while the government seeks to have Gardephe’s ruling set aside. “We think the jury got it right, and it’s our intention to appeal,” Southern District Assistant U.S. Attorney Hadassa Waxman told the judge at a morning hearing.
In his 118-page opinion, Gardephe conditionally granted Valle’s motion for a new trial made by Federal Defenders Gatto, Robert Baum and Edward Zas and James Cohen of the Fordham Law Clinic, appointed as additional counsel.
The judge said the question was whether a rational jury could have found that Valle, 30, and three alleged co-conspirators he met on darkfetishnet.com, an Internet fantasy sexual fetish website, “entered into a genuine agreement to kidnap certain women and had the specific intent to actually kidnap these women.”
“Valle’s depraved misogynistic sexual fantasies about his wife, former college classmates, and acquaintances undoubtedly reflects a mind diseased,” the judge said in United States v. Valle, 12 Cr. 847.
But Gardephe said, “None of the conspirators ever met or took steps to meet, nor did they ever speak by telephone. This is a conspiracy that existed solely in cyberspace.”
The government had contended that Valle was working to make his fantasies real, including looking up potential targets on a restricted law enforcement database; searching the Internet for how to knock someone out with chloroform and where to get torture devices and tools.
Gardephe, however, said the evidence wasn’t there.
As to Valle’s Internet research about kidnapping, a link he provided about using chloroform, computer folders he had containing Facebook images of women; “and his possession of staged images of women being roasted on a rotisserie, the government offered no evidence suggesting that these actions and material are inconsistent with fantasy role-play,” he said.
Valle, whose Dark Fetish Network profiles stated “I like to press the envelope but no matter what I say, it is all fantasy,” met three men on the site, including a New Jersey man named Michael Van Hise. Valle would transmit photos of women, including his wife, and then chat with other users, discussing rape, torture and cannibalism.
Van Hise and a second man, Christopher Asch, were convicted in March, before Gardephe, of conspiracy to kidnap, rape and kill women and children, including Van Hise’s wife. Van Hise, 24, and Asch, 61, have a joint motion for acquittal pending before Gardephe. Both men claim they were only engaged in role-playing.
A fourth man, Richard Meltz, pleaded guilty to conspiracy in January. Meltz is set to be sentenced July 23.
Alice Fontier, an attorney for Van Hise, said Tuesday she is carefully reviewing the language in Gardephe’s ruling.
“My initial reaction is that its very refreshing to see a judge do the right thing,” she said.
“Van Hise’s case is a little bit different, but [the decision] includes a finding that Mr. Van Hise did not have criminal intent and did not make a criminal agreement, at least with Mr. Valle,” she said.
Van Hise’s other conversations, Fontier said, involved fantasy role play or discussions where “they never actually intended to do any of these things” and the Valle opinion “points to the same problems.”
But Gardephe in Valle cited “the unique circumstances of this extraordinary case,” in explaining his ruling. He said it was influenced by “the fact that dates for kidnappings are repeatedly set and then passed without incident, inquiry or comment is powerful evidence that Valle and the three individuals engaged in these allegedly ‘real’ chats understood that no actual kidnapping was going to take place.”
In fact, the judge said, Valle delivered to his coconspirators “a veritable avalanche of false, fictitious, and fantastical information concerning the steps he had allegedly taken to facilitate a kidnapping,” including making up a “non-existing” van, a cabin in rural Pennsylvania with a sound-proofed basement equipped with a pulley mechanism where victims would be “cooked in a non-existent oven or using a non-existent human-size rotisserie.”
Under Rule 29 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, where a judge issues a judgment of acquittal after a guilty verdict, the judge “must also conditionally determine whether a motion for a new trial should be granted if the judgment of acquittal is later vacated or reversed.”
If the Second Circuit reverses the judgment, Gardephe would have to proceed with a new trial unless the circuit orders otherwise.
Gardephe said an “exhaustive” analysis of Valle’s Internet conversations, “both the chats that the government concedes are fantasy and the chats the government alleges are ‘real’— and a careful consideration of the circumstances surrounding those communications—including what happens and what does not happen—demonstrate the government has not met its burden.”
After the hearing, Gatto said her client was “guilty of nothing more than very unconventional thoughts.”
“But as Judge Gardephe has validated, we don’t put people in jail for their thoughts,” she added. “We are not the Thought Police, and the court system is not the deputy to the Thought Police.”
After leaving what Gatto called “the indescribable hell that is solitary confinement,” Valle will be lodging with relatives in Queens, subject to GPS monitoring, denied access to a computer or the Internet and required to undergo mental health counseling.
“[His mother] is very anxious to cook a meal for him, sit across the table from him,” Gatto said.
Gardephe let stand Valle’s conviction for conducting a computer search of a federal data base that exceeded his authorized access. The crime carries no more than a year in prison, and Valle has already served that time. So except for the consequences of violating any terms of post-release supervision, his sentencing on that charge will be a formality.