(Editor's Note: This story contains details that may be disturbing to some readers)
By Chris Francescani
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A New Jersey man arrested last week on suspicion of conspiring with New York City's so-called "cannibal cop" to kidnap and rape a woman was denied bail on Monday after attorneys battled over whether he intended to commit those crimes or was only role-playing a fantasy.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Randall Jackson and an attorney for 22-year-old Michael Van Hise repeatedly clashed in an hour-long hearing over their sharply different interpretations of the intent of the suspect.
The prosecutor contends that Van Hise discussed a kidnap-for-rape scheme with Police Officer Gilberto Valle III, who was charged in October with plotting to kidnap, torture, and eat women. Defense attorneys for both men have said their clients were engaging in fantasy role play.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Henry Pitman conceded that the case was "not entirely black and white" but denied bail for Van Hise because the evidence suggested "this was going beyond the realm of fantasy."
Jackson insisted Van Hise was "serious" about an email exchange with Valle in which they discussed kidnapping and raping a woman and haggled over the price of the kidnapping.
Van Hise's attorney Alice Fontier vowed to appeal Pitman's ruling, asserting her client had been arrested to prevent him from testifying on Valle's behalf at his trial later this month. Valle's defense attorney made the same claim last week.
Fontier said that Van Hise had never intended to act on his words, and she said the New Jersey mechanic and married father of two had cooperated with investigators since he was first approached by the FBI last October.
Valle was dubbed the "cannibal cop" by New York media after prosecutors accused him of writing emails in which, they said, he discussed eating his victims.
Valle has been charged with conspiracy to kidnap and accessing a government computer without authorization. He pleaded not guilty and insisted that he, too, was only role playing.
FACT OR FANTASY?
At issue in both cases is a legal line between words, however dark, and criminal conspiracy. It has also underscored the growing complexity of criminal investigations in the digital age.
Prosecutors have said that both men put potential victims under surveillance and haggled online about the $5,000 price of the kidnapping, which Fontier pointed to as evidence of fantasy.
"My client has, literally, no money," she said. "This was not a realistic situation."
Another point of contention was Van Hise's own words.
Jackson said that after his arrest last week Van Hise "admitted he had intended to complete the actions" discussed online with Valle.
Challenged by the judge, Jackson acknowledged that Van Hise previously had characterized his actions as only role-playing fantasy.
"I'm still a little confused as to why the government waited two months to arrest Mr. Van Hise," Judge Pitman said, adding that it was "troubling" that the government had now said Van Hise "is so dangerous he needs to be detained."
Jackson said investigators had learned recently that Van Hise had sent photographs of his two young nieces and a stepdaughter to two unnamed suspects online with the message, "These are the three we can rape."
According to the prosecutor Van Hise wrote, "The 3-year old I want to keep for myself as a sex slave."
Fontier claimed that Van Hise had been tricked by investigators into saying that his intentions were criminal.
Fontier said that when Van Hise agreed to cooperate with authorities, the FBI directed him to send "pre-approved" messages to other users of an online sexual fetish website, DarkFetishNet.com.
Authorities were first tipped to the contents of Valle's home computer last fall by his estranged wife, one investigator said. They reported finding a file called "Abducting and Cooking: A Blueprint," with the names and pictures of at least 100 women.
(Reporting by Chris Francescani; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Andrew Hay)