Last summer, a federal judge overturned the conviction of Gilberto Valle—a young ex-cop who had been found guilty of what prosecutors called “a heinous plot to kidnap, rape, murder and cannibalize a number of very real women.” It was clear to this observer, and also to the judge, that the evidence did not support their claim. Yes, Valle had fantasized about such plots, and talked about his fantasies in Internet chats. No, he never tried to act them out.
Six months later, Valle is trying to start over. He’s been fired from his job, divorced from his wife, and deprived of access to his kid. His sexual proclivities have made him both a pariah and a laughingstock, a threat to women and a freak. Now this man whose only crime was unlawful access to a law-enforcement database—a misdemeanor—wants the chance to start again. Since his ordeal began, he has decided to become a lawyer, so he can help other hapless victims of the justice system. Now that he’s out of prison, it seems he’d like to have a girlfriend. In an online dating profile on Match.com, Valle wrote, “I am spending my energy rebounding from the errors I made in my past and rebuilding my life.” He said he hoped to find a “non-judgmental” woman.
None of this is strange or dire, yet Valle’s efforts to move on from his overturned conviction have only brought another round of ogling and scorn. On Wednesday, the New York Post published details from his dating profile: “He’s really sinking his teeth into single life,” the paper said, before revealing that Valle plays basketball, drinks bourbon, goes on road trips, and—get this—likes “eating out.” Want to hear some more shocking facts from Valle’s profile? He has a dog. He follows Maryland football. He watches Jeopardy.
It took five Post staffers to report that nonstory, and at least one to ambush Valle at his home in Queens for comment. The Daily News parroted the Post in both the useless information and the sneering tone. (Valle is “trying to find the perfect recipe … for romance.”) So did New York magazine (he’s “hungry for love”) and many other publications. Jezebel, which once warned its readers to “hide your kids, hide your wife” when Valle was freed from his imprisonment, said not to worry; the profile could be fake.
Valle says his page on Match.com is real—but that’s no cause to drag his reputation once more through the mud. The man who once was called the “Cannibal Cop” wants to find a date. He’s been cleared by a federal judge of any major crime. He deserves to have a date. Please remind me what the story is, again?
If you read the Post you’d think that Valle is a monster, and one who got out of prison on a technicality. The paper’s story stacks the deck with damning verbs: The judge didn’t “rule” in Valle’s favor; he “claimed” that Valle’s plan to kill and eat his wife was all imaginary. In fact, the judge looked very carefully at all the evidence, and decided—in an 118-page opinion, after almost 18 months of deliberation—that “it is more likely than not the case that all of Valle’s Internet communications about kidnapping are fantasy role-play.” Valle was sentenced to time served for a misdemeanor charge, and set free pending the outcome of a government appeal.
This is not a loophole in the law; it’s the substance of the law. Though Valle had been convicted of conspiring to kidnap several different women, he never tried to kidnap anyone in the real world. He never met his alleged “co-conspirators” in person, nor did he speak to them by phone. He did type disturbing phrases into Google—things like “how to chloroform a girl”—but he never purchased chloroform or tried to use it, just as he never built a human-sized oven or bought a giant roasting pan. He never used an apple as a gag while roasting women on a spit. He only wrote about these dark and improbable fantasies online, and even there he changed the details with every instant-message chat.
The prosecutors said (and still contend) that Valle meant to carry out these plans—that he really was a cannibal on the hunt for person-meat. But their case took some egregious leaps of logic. For example, how did Valle think that he could kidnap three different women in three different cities on the same Monday in early 2012? Why did he claim to have a secret mountain hideaway that could be used for criminal activity? How come he gave false information about intended “victims” to his fellow cannibals?
So Valle walked, and not because he’d put one over on the legal system. He walked because the legal system put one over on him. He’s out of jail and online-dating because he was convicted of a thought crime, and his trial judge corrected that injustice.
What makes the coverage of Valle’s Match.com profile so pernicious is the way it hides these facts behind a sense of humor. It’s not only that the articles ignore his innocence. It’s that they snicker at their own mistake. The comic tone helps readers laugh off the way that Valle has been victimized. “He says he likes to cook,” ha ha ha, he deserves the 21 months he spent in prison, and all this follow-up humiliation.
In fact, many of Valle’s fantasies were silly. In one chat with a British friend he discussed a haggis made of human lungs and heart, and roasting people on a giant spit. These things never happen; they’re absurd; they have to be made-up. But if Valle’s fantasies are silly, then doesn’t that suggest they aren’t serious? The Post and other outlets need to have it both ways. The fantasies are ridiculous, they say, but also they’re real. Valle is a loser, but also he’s a danger to society. That’s not journalism; it’s bullying an outsider.
One could argue that all this shaming still supports the public good, since “freaks” like Valle should stay off Match.com even if they’ve never hurt a soul. Valle may not have tried to kidnap anyone, but he still has those sick fantasies, right? Should someone who dreams of eating women be looking for love online?
That’s wrong-headed, too. When we say that Valle has no right to post his profile, we’re adopting a dangerous standard—a vanilla test for dating. What if we banned the sexual-cannibal community from Match? Would we have to do the same for everyone who’s into S&M? Recall that more than 100 million people bought Fifty Shades of Grey, a book about a man who whips his partner with a ruler, grabs her by the throat, and engages in many other forms of “kinky fuckery” that would make a prosecutor blanch.
It’s not like Valle meant to trick his would-be dates online. He acknowledged that he’d made mistakes, and that he was trying to start over. He even put up a picture of himself that was taken by the press, on the steps of the courthouse in Manhattan. What more should he have done to show his good intentions—a photo of himself in prison garb? A list of all the women whom he didn’t really try to kill and eat?
In other circumstances, a guy like Valle might stay off Match.com, and visit more exotic sites instead. There are places, for example, where cannibal enthusiasts—both men and women—gather to discuss their interest. (The term of art is “vore.”) Many are in safe and happy relationships. But even if Valle wanted to explore this option, he never could: Under the terms of his release, he’s been prohibited from visiting any fetish website.
Match.com, for its part, seems not to trust its users to decide which men to date, and has taken on the role of judge and jury, if not the thought police. Valle’s innocence did not seem to make a difference. The company took his data off its servers. Why, exactly? A spokesman answered my inquiry with the following statement: “We received a number of complaints about this profile, alerting us to its existence, and have removed it from our site.”
It reminds me of what Valle said back in November, when he’d just been before the judge who let him out of prison. “My legacy will not be the story of the Cannibal Cop,” he told reporters. Unfortunately, it seems that’s not for him to say.