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Thursday, June 13, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Depraved Emails Shown in Rape-Murder Plot Case

MANHATTAN (CN) - A federal jury was shown torrid email exchanges between three men allegedly plotting the rape, torture, strangulation and murder of women, children and a newborn, as the first day of testimony got underway in the successor to New York's infamous "cannibal cop" case.

During the exchanges, New Jersey resident Michael Vanhise, Stuyvesant High School librarian Christopher Asch and Massachusetts Veterans Affairs police chief Robert Meltz chat casually about grisly sex murders over the Internet.

Raping and murdering family members was a common theme in Vanhise's emails, which state that he wanted to "do the newborn," his sister-in-law, and her three children.

Meltz allegedly replied to one of these messages by writing "to do family is a special treat."

Asch, who commonly referred to imagined female victims as "it," said he preferred bloodless forms of killing like choking and hanging.

"Snuff in general gets me hard," Asch wrote in one email.

Although they do not contest engaging in such chats, the threesome claims that they were engaging in morbid online fantasy role-play.

Prosecutors, on the other hand, insist they were serious.

Their cases and defenses mirror that of former New York City Police Officer Gilberto Valle, whom the tabloids dubbed the "cannibal cop" for imagining his victims roasted, cooked, barbecued and rotisseried.

Although Valle's investigation led to the arrests of the other three men, U.S. District Judge Paul Gardephe reminded the jury on Thursday that their cases are separate, and they are not alleged to be part of the same conspiracy.

Like Valle, however, the three men regularly browsed the DarkFetishNet website, where they found each other on a search for others that shared their morbid fantasies. The sordid exchanges shown to the jury on the first day of trial, however, mostly occurred on their private email accounts.

The first government witness to testify was FBI agent Kevin Ponder, who had searched Vanhise's house in October 2012 pursuant to a warrant.

At the time, Vanhise was living with his grandmother because he recently had separated with his wife, and the 23-year-old returned home shortly after the search started, Ponder said.

"This is about the emails, isn't it?" Vanhise asked the agent, according to his testimony.

Vanhise cooperated with law enforcement for more than two months until his arrest in January 2013.

Before his arrest, Vanhise allegedly told agents that he had been fantasizing, but he thought the other men were serious. He said he continued to engage with his future co-defendants to get information with the police, Ponder testified.

Prosecutors undercut that defense by calling police officers from Trenton and Hamilton, N.J., who both said that they had no record of Vanhise doing any such thing.

At the time of his arrest, Vanhise allegedly signed a written Miranda notice and confessed to his criminal intent.

"He said he was serious about raping, kidnapping and killing women," Ponder said. "It was part of his sexual desires."

Vanhise's defense attorney Alice Fontier noted that Ponder gave no details about the substance of Vanhise's alleged confession, either in his testimony or his notes.

"If someone confesses to a crime that might be relevant [to write down]?" Fontier asked.

"Yes, ma'am," Ponder replied.

Fontier showed the agent pictures of her client's bedroom, which was strewn with his toy car collection.

In a photo taken during his arrest, Vanhise looked young with his scraggly beard, unkempt hair and a black T-shirt. He dressed up for a jury on Thursday, mostly clean shaven with a small patch of hair under his lip, a neatly groomed haircut and a light purple button-down shirt.

Ponder still was easily able to identify him from the witness stand.

That afternoon, his fellow FBI agent Benjamin Langel spoke of an emails Vanhise close near his birthday to Asch, who urged his young correspondent not to get caught indulging in their alleged plots.

"You have a long life ahead," Asch told Vanhise, adding that the young man would like "to do this over and over."

Langel's testimony continues on Friday.

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