In September 2012, Kathleen Mangan-Valle made the uncomfortable discovery that her husband had used her computer to visit a fetish Web site. But a more devastating revelation was yet to come. With her suspicions heightened, Mangan-Valle began reviewing her husband’s recent electronic history. The search revealed that her husband, New York City Police Officer Gilberto Valle, had communicated with numerous people through e-mail and online chat rooms about his plans to kidnap, cook and eat women. In some of the communications that Mangan-Valle uncovered, Officer Valle had planned to cook and eat his own wife, his wife’s friends and former co-workers, and former classmates. Mangan-Valle reported the information to authorities.

The FBI took Officer Valle into custody on October 24, 2012. Officer Valle is now charged with conspiracy to commit kidnapping as well as accessing a federal database, the National Crime Information Center, to identify and research potential female targets. Prosecutors have built their case around hundreds of documents on Valle’s computer detailing potential victims and grisly plans of cannibalism.

Also central to the prosecution’s case are “thousands of chats and messages” in which Officer Valle communicated with dozens of others over chat rooms and by e-mail. In the online communications, Officer Valle plans to abduct, torture, cook and eat women in graphic detail. In other communications, he offers to abduct women and send them to another online user interested in cannibalism, identified as “Moody Blues,” for $6000.

But is sending and e-mail or communicating through a chat room on a fetish Web site a crime? Valle’s defense is arguing no. The defense goes on to argue that Officer Valle has committed no criminal act. The New York Times reported that at a hearing in October, Officer Valle’s attorney noted, “At worst, this is someone who has sexual fantasies . . . There is no actual crossing the line from fantasy to reality.”

The defense has taken a similar strategy at trial, which began on Monday, February 25, 2013 in Federal District Court in Manhattan. During cross-examination, FBI investigator Corey Walsh testified that Officer Valle communicated with over two dozen people regarding plots to kidnap and kill women. However, Walsh also testified that of those individuals, only three have been identified as actually involved in criminal activity. These communications are the basis for the conspiracy charges against Valle. The remaining communications have been determined to be fantasy role-play. Officer Valle’s attorneys have underscored that Valle’s allegedly criminal communications are indistinguishable from those amounting to fantasy role-play.

So, what do you think? Are Officer Valle’s e-mails and chat conversations enough to constitute a crime? Or, are communications like these merely bizarre, fantasy role-playing and not criminal at all?

Kathleen Meyers

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3 Responses to When an E-mail Becomes a Crime

  1. KM says:

    Update: a federal jury convicted Gilberto Valle today (3/12/13) of kidnapping conspiracy and illegally accessing a federal law enforcement database. Like Erin suggested, the prosecution argued that Valle took actual steps to further his plan. Valle could face life in prison for the kidnapping conspiracy. For more on Valle’s conviction, see the New York Times story here.

  2. Emily says:

    Wow. This is certainly a difficult topic to tackle. I think Erin’s conclusion is the inevitable legal conclusion unless the law is changed. I think this also highlights well the use of private internet communication in legal cases while many individuals think their communication is safe and off limits. While individuals have freedom of thought, what they put into words, even on the internet, can be used in prosecution.

  3. Erin Reimer says:

    While deeply disturbed by the situation, it seems hard to disagree with the defense’s argument here. From what I remember of the basic tenets of criminal law, we do not punish someone for their thoughts. Furthermore, voicing those thoughts, particularly in personal emails, seems like a perfect example of the 1st Amendment’s freedom of speech, however upsetting it might be.

    Despite that, however, I think it’s quite possible that Valle’s accessing of databases could potentially be that “overt act” needed to take mere talk/fantasy to conspiracy. It will be interesting to see how it plays out.