A retired New York high school librarian and a New Jersey auto mechanic were convicted Friday of scheming to carry out gruesome fantasies of kidnapping, raping, torturing and killing women and girls.
The verdicts in Christopher Asch and Michael Van Hise's conspiracy trial came a year after a conviction in a headline-grabbing case of a police officer accused of plotting abductions and cannibalism. A fourth man, a former hospital police chief, pleaded guilty in January.
Together, the cases plumbed an online underground where people share macabre fetishes, and the prosecutions hinged on the boundaries between imagining and actually intending to bring fantasies to life.
No sentencing date was set. They face the possibility of life in prison.
Asch, a former librarian at Manhattan's prestigious Stuyvesant High School, and Van Hise, a mechanic from Trenton, N.J., were accused of planning to victimize members of Van Hise's family, including girls under 10. Asch also convicted of targeting another woman, who turned out to be an undercover FBI agent.
Prosecutors said Van Hise and Asch took concrete steps across the line between pretending and plotting. They met once in Trenton and drove around talking about places to dispose of bodies, Asch searched online for tips on knockout drugs to overpower potential victims, and Van Hise emailed Asch pictures of his possible-target relatives — who included his wife, step-daughter, sister-in-law and nieces, prosecutors noted.
In the other alleged plot, Asch covertly watched the undercover agent and amassed a stock of torture tools, including a 20-million-volt stun gun, a whip, clamps, skewers and gynecological implements, according to evidence at the trial.
"None of this was fake," Assistant U.S. Attorney Hadassa Waxman said in a closing argument. "This was not sick entertainment. ... They were absolutely serious."
But defense lawyers said Asch, 24, and Van Hise, 61, were only role-playing and would never have actually hurt anyone. The notion that they would "is the government's fantasy," Van Hise lawyer Alice Fontier said.
Van Hise's supposed schemes were riddled with impossibilities, like kidnapping his sister-in-law from work when she didn't have a job, and he was so far from acting on his desires that he told his wife about them, she said.
Asch's lawyer said his client's discussions and preparations didn't amount to truly planning to do anything violent.
"That's the thrill of role-playing — collecting items, stuff like that — but it's all safe," attorney Brian Waller said.
Asch and Van Hise were charged last year along with Richard Meltz, a former police chief at the Bedford Veterans Administration Medical Center in Massachusetts. He pleaded guilty to conspiracy and is facing up to 10 years in prison at his sentencing, set for May.
The police officer who was accused of plotting cannibalism, Gilberto Valle, is awaiting sentencing. Van Hise was initially accused of scheming with Valle, but references to Valle and cannibalism were ultimately excluded from the indictment in the case against Asch and Van Hise.