Back when I was going through my digital forensics training we were instructed on how to recover information on perpetrators or missing persons through a variety of means including, but not limited to, social media profiles, emails, phone logs, files or photos stored on devices, photos stored within their computer cache, deleted files – which we had tools to recover, browser history, and yes, google searches. As long as certain measures were taken in order to make sure the data we retrieved was an exact match for the data stored on the device, it is considered to be forensically sound evidence and therefore admissible within the court.

In all of the fictional scenarios we were assigned to investigate – whether it was a runaway teen, a man planning with another man to rob a bank, or someone accused of pimping out children on craigslist – there was an actual crime tied to the investigation. What if there wasn’t a crime though? What if a suspicious wife placed a piece of spyware on her family computer in order to find out what her husband was doing online all night and made a shocking discovery, buried within his chatlogs? That’s exactly what happened to the subject of HBO’s documentary Thought Crimes.

Gilberto Valle, accused of plotting to kidnap and cannibalize women after his wife recovered his online chat logs.

Gilberto Valle, accused of plotting to kidnap and cannibalize women after his wife recovered his online chat logs.

Gilberto Valle; by day a police officer, family man, friend, and son, began to grow distant within his marriage. Staying up late into the night as his wife and newborn slept just yards away from him, Valle began spending more and more time on the computer. Online Valle was no longer himself, there he could explore a whole different identity, one that led him to a disturbing fetish community where he could act out his shocking fantasies without anyone knowing who he really was – or at least that’s what Valle’s defense claims.

Growing suspicious of her husband’s late night activities, Valle’s wife placed a piece of spyware on his computer in order to record chatlogs and websites her husband was viewing. Shocked at what was discovered, Valle’s wife took the couple’s child and turned over her findings to the police. Valle had been visiting sites and chatting to others about kidnapping and cannibalizing women.

The fetish, known as “vore”, is an odd sexual fantasy, but not too odd that there isn’t entire communities devoted to it online. Convicted cannibal Armin Meiwes was also heavily involved within this community, but unlike Meiwes, Valle never ate anyone, nor did he ever kidnap anyone with the intention of eating them. Valle’s alleged crimes were based on nothing but some chatlogs and a handful of google searches.

Charged with conspiracy to commit murder and misuse of a police database, Valle was certain the case against him would be dropped. Afterall, where’s the evidence? Valle did put a disturbing amount of time into this so-called “fantasy”. He made google searches like “how to make chloroform”, looked up addresses of his potential victims at the police station he was employed at, and even went through the effort of making “blue prints”, complete with photos of former friends and his own wife, detailing his horrific plans.

What we seek out online is often an extension of our own stream of consciousness. Should we be held accountable for our thoughts, even when we don't follow through with them?

What we seek out online is often an extension of our own stream of consciousness. Should we be held accountable for our thoughts, even when we don’t follow through with them?

If Valle were a suspected terrorist, certainly this would be enough evidence to earn him a one way ticket to Guantanamo Bay. The jury agreed, and initially ruled that Valle was guilty on grounds of conspiracy. Valle claims that the “blue prints” and chats were only a work of fiction and closer examination of these so-called plans would reveal that they simply weren’t plausible. He detailed how he would set up a giant pot in his basement where he would hold the women captive, torture them, then go through the process of preparing and eating them. HBO’s documentary points out that it absolutely wouldn’t be possible. Valle lived in an apartment complex, and his “basement” was the laundry room.

Clearly if Valle went through the trouble of making extensive plans for this odd sexual fantasy, then he must have actually wanted to follow through with it through, right? I believe this question also deserves a follow up question, though. Of the people reading this right now, how many of you have had a sexual fantasy that you’ve actually followed through with? About 85% of men have the fantasy of having a threesome with two women, however, significantly less have actually followed through with that fantasy. Our sexual fantasies do not always transfer well into the real world. We have to think about the feelings of other people, how going through with such an act would compromise our relationships, or even how it may damage ourselves if we were to act upon that fantasy.

Psychologist have conducted extensive research within the realm of sexual fetishes, and have found that even those that have depraved fantasies like Valle’s have absolutely no mental disturbances. Often these otherwise normal people keep these fantasies locked away, fearful of the rejection or judgment that would be passed to them if they vocalized these thoughts. The only real difference between Valle’s fantasy and other fantasies is that Valle chose to take his a step further by pretending to live them out online.

Many men resort to online interactions in order to live out their sexual fantasies without the fear of judgment.

Many men resort to online interactions in order to live out their sexual fantasies without the fear of judgment.

Webcam models can attest that many men look to the internet to fulfill their sexual desires. While some men are just looking for an escape from their day to day lives by pretending to have some sort of sexual relationship with the girl on the other side of the computer screen, others have some pretty odd requests. Some of these requests may seem too silly or strange to ever request from a woman in the “real world”, but nothing is off limits with a stranger online that makes money off of catering to these odd-ball fantasies. It is in my opinion that what Valle was doing was no different than what these men do. By authoring these chats and “plans”, Valle was able to act out a fantasy that would be seen as too depraved to transfer into reality.

A federal judge also agreed with this opinion. Gilberto Valle, “The Cannibal Cop”, was acquitted of all charges after it was ruled that his chats amounted to little more than “fantasy role-play”. Does this case set the precedent for future cases, or are we going to have to look over our shoulders every time we make a “questionable” google search or have a conversation about a taboo subject?

Justice was served in Valle’s case, but how many others weren’t so lucky? In April of 2015, a 14-year-old British boy was convicted of planning a terrorist attack after a few social media posts and conversations between a handful of other teenagers were reported. The boy claims that he did become interested in radical Islam, but only wanted to appear as extreme as some of his associates. In one of the conversations he had with another boy, he instructed him to carry out a beheading attack in Australia. The teenager the boy was discussing the attack with was found to have an arsenal of weapons, and what would have appeared to be the intent of actually wanting to follow through with the plot, however, there is no other evidence other than circumstantial evidence that the other boy was seriously considering following through with the attack. If investigators thought the boys were a serious threat, then I agree they absolutely should have been monitored, but I don’t agree that having a conversation should warrant a person as a serious threat.

The law is supposed to be based on an irrefutable burden of proof, and when we start convicting people of crimes based on conversation or hearsay, then we enter into murky territory. Our world will slowly begin to turn into the grim reality depicted in George Orwell’s famous novel that allowed people to be locked away for their thoughts without any actual crime necessary for conviction. If that became our reality, then how many of us would be behind bars right now?