A Russian man who operates a fetish website where prosecutors say a New York police officer met others interested in killing and cooking women told a jury on Tuesday that users enjoy talking about gruesome topics including sexual asphyxiation, sex with dead bodies and cannibalism.
But Sergey Merenkov also said members like Officer Gilberto Valle also know how to draw the line between fantasy and reality. The chats, he said, are role play and photos of women being tortured are the work of "models, not real women."
The videotaped testimony came on a day Valle opted not to take the witness stand at his kidnapping conspiracy trial in federal court in Manhattan. Lawyers are due back in court on Wednesday to discuss jury instructions before closing arguments set for Thursday in a case that's made Valle a tabloid sensation.
The evidence shows that "this is all fantasy role play," defense attorney Robert Baum said outside court. "Gil had nothing to add to that really ... except to say, 'I didn't do it.'"
Valle, 28, was arrested in October after his wife discovered the chats on his computer and fled their home, turning a computer over to the FBI in Reno, Nev.
The government has conceded that Valle never met the purported Internet co-conspirators and that no women were harmed. But they argue he took concrete steps to carry out abductions of his wife and former college and high school classmates, including researching potential victims on a restricted law enforcement database.
The defense rested in the trial's second week after playing the Merenkov video and calling only two other witnesses, including a paralegal who offered examples of profiles Merenkov's website. A woman who called herself Vicious-Vixen said she fantasized about "being executed with a gun and eaten as a meat girl" but added, "I will never meet you in real life."
The testimony of Merenkov was record using Skype from Moscow after he refused to travel to New York for the trial. Sitting in a leather chair, wearing a black T-shirt and speaking in Russian, he frequently leaned back in and put his hands behind his head, and he sipped from a coffee cup as he explained how he and partners started a website in 2010 to create a Facebook-like environment for people with kinky fantasies.
"We saw a niche in the market. So we decided to jump in and create the website for these people that have similar interests," he said.
Merenkov called sexual asphyxiation the "main fetish" but said cannibalism and sex with dead people also were popular on the website, which is "oriented to people with fetishes that are not considered to be standard."
He testified of the 38,000 members, about 4,500 are active users who commonly engage in role-play on the site, such as when a woman poses as a witch and a mob of 10 or more angry villagers prepare to hang her.
"The girl could write, 'I'm shivering from fright. They're pulling me to the noose. I can feel the rope already on my neck,'" he testified.
On cross examination by Assistant U.S. Attorney Randall Jackson, Merenkov said he did not know anything about Valle when the FBI contacted him last fall. He said he tried to find communications involving Valle but they apparently were lost when Valle quit the website in September.
"Who was it that actually deleted Mr. Valle's account? Was it you or was it Mr. Valle?" Jackson asked.
"It was not me for sure," Merenkov answered. "I think it was him."
The prosecutor asked him if some subjects discussed on the website would be illegal if they were carried out, such as sex with dead bodies.
"Yes, but reality is one thing and fantasy is completely a different thing," he responded.