‘Thought Crimes’ Examines the ‘Cannibal Cop,’ Searching for the Line Between Fantasy and Intent

May 11, 2015 | Liam Mathews

Don’t go into Thought Crimes: The Case of the Cannibal Cop looking for answers about whether or not Gilberto Valle, the so-called “Cannibal Cop” (whose lurid fantasies about kidnapping, killing, and eating women transfixed and horrified the world) is guilty. It’s not that kind of movie. Instead, the documentary, which premieres Monday night on HBO, examines the life and character of the former NYPD officer whose disturbing posts on fetish website DarkFetishNet and Google searches were used to convict him of conspiring to kidnap and murder women.

Director Erin Lee Carr began visiting Valle while he was in prison and continued to document his life after his conviction was overturned and he was released on house arrest while awaiting sentencing on lesser charges (his conspiracy convictions could still be reinstated; an appeal by the prosecution is pending). He spent 22 months in prison, almost a year of which was in psychologically-damaging solitary confinement. Through extensive interviews with Valle, his mother, and legal experts, a fuller portrait of the complex man emerges. More broadly, the film is about how the internet gives our thoughts a paper trail, the implications of a judicial system where a search history makes those thoughts incriminating, and the nearly impossible-to-define line between thought and action. ANIMAL discussed these questions with Erin Lee Carr.

What did you see in Valle’s case that made you think this could make a great documentary?

When I first saw it in the tabs and online, I was immediately drawn to it; it was kind of my worst fear realized. As a young woman living in New York, the thought that a police officer was having these thoughts and wanted to act on them it was really, really scary. I kept sort of researching and going back to it. And because I spent like 11 hours online a day, whenever something clicks in my brain where I want to keep going back, I write it down. This is something that really interested me, it didn’t take any work to be interested in it. So it was always in the background of my mind. I was at HBO pitching ideas, and they didn’t like some of them, so Sheila Nevins, who’s the head of HBO Documentaries, said, “Okay, what else are you interested in?” She said “That’s interesting. Go and try to talk to him.”

You said you were very scared of him reading about him, but in person, or in the movie at least, he seems so normal and average.

It would have been really easy to cast Gil as a monster. I think that he says and thinks monstrous things, but one aspect of our personality does not define us. The editor Andrew Coffman and I talked about “Who is he, and what is he like?” It was really important that we didn’t typecast him as the monster.

How did your own personal interpretation of Gil and of the things that he did evolve as you got to know him, and as the case continued?

I think in any relationship there’s an evolution. I tried really hard in the film to keep the audience guessing. The audience doesn’t know how I feel or don’t feel. I wanted the audience and the people who were looking at the case closely to make their own conclusions about him and about the case. That being said, I think, that when I visited him in prison, it was a really sad story. This was somebody that I looked at, and was not sure if there were any overt acts to complete the conspiracy, and he was in prison. He’d spent serious time in solitary confinement, and it was pretty scary for him, and I felt deeply for him.

Right. One of the things that struck me about this is that the only obviously illegal thing that he did was use the police database inappropriately. But then he spends almost a year in solitary confinement. So it’s such a strange thing to see a cop punished for not really doing anything, as opposed to all these other guys who get away with it.

Yeah, I thought a lot about that. I do believe that Gil Valle as a police officer was a big fish for the U.S. Attorney’s office. Had he been a plumber or some other sort of occupation, would he have been gone after so hard? But then there’s all this stuff that’s been happening with police officers that happened while they were on duty, while they were trying to basically you know act in accordance with whatever they think. With Gil, this is something, that — I don’t want to speak for the NYPD — but it was in the privacy of his own home, and he wasn’t acting as a New York City Police Officer. It’s very interesting what is looked down upon by the New York City Police Department and what isn’t.

What was so wrong about what he did compared to, say, the pair of cops seen on video saying, “I don’t know why we pulled him over.” Why does Gil Valle spend two years in jail despite not actually committing these crimes, when cops like this get caught on video actively abusing their power and nothing happens to them?

I think the real thing is to look at the victims. They were different skin colors. They were white, female victims, and the latter we’re speaking about are black and Latino male victims [Ed. note – the man arrested in the aforementioned video is black] As a society, we place a huge amount of importance on white women. And I am a beneficiary, as a white woman.

I don’t think he knew what he was capable of doing these things or not. Would you be willing to speculate about that?

I don’t know. I think if you were on the phone with him and asked him, he would say, “Absolutely not, it was just a fantasy.” He’s always maintained that it was just a fantasy. I do think, speaking in broad terms, that our obsessions can get the best of us. How do we control our obsessions? How do we keep them from sort of spiraling out of control? I don’t think you or I can really know what would have happened. We really can’t know. But the thing is, why we can’t know, and this is the interesting part, typically what would have happened is there would have been a sting operation and there would have been an FBI agent or another law enforcement agent who went on the website and said, “Gil Valle or his username, GirlMeatHunter, let’s meet up, let’s start making plans,” and that’s when we would have known would he have done it. But the thing is, because he’s a police officer, and because he had access to a weapon, he was never given that sting possibility.

There’s a question of: Does setting him up actually indicate that he would do it?

Yup. Exactly. Where is the line? I think that’s a line in the movie: “Where is the line between fantasy and reality?” What constitutes an overt act? Is it meeting with the FBI agent? I believe that is an overt act, that is setting it up. You can always maintain that it’s fantasy, but I believe that step in and of itself is stepping into reality.

That’s one of the things that got me while watching the movie. Thinking at first, “Oh, this is so clearly fantasy,” and then later on it’s like, “Oh, he was going to do it,” and then, “No, I think it was fantasy.” There’s no way to know.

That’s the movie. Because that’s how we feel! It’s not an editing trick. It’s so gray and so complicated and that’s why an organization like HBO would be interested in it. It keeps us guessing. Even as someone who spent two years looking at it, I still continue to think about it every day.

What do you think are people’s sort of prevailing opinions about Gil Valle? Do people think he’s guilty and a monster or a misunderstood, strange guy?

I’ve gotten very few responses that are cut and dry that he’s a monster. I think the case and Gil are more nuanced than that. I was expecting that maybe women would be harder on Gil than males, but it really has run the gamut. Everyone has their own opinion and people really keep saying different things to me. It has been an interesting response and as we’ve gotten toward the air date, May 11, I’ve been excited to see other responses as well.

Can you give me an example of something interesting somebody said?

I thought it was really interesting how the food has been treated. A lot of people have been reacting to the amount of food that’s in the film. A young woman said to me, “The first couple of times it was really shocking and uncomfortable, but then I realized, ‘Oh, he’s at home, he’s cooking, he’s like everybody else,’” and that normalized him. Some people have been like, “That made me so nervous and afraid,” and other people were like, “No, it normalized him.”

What are some of the broader implications of this case, whatever it turns out to be?

One of the huge things for me is that Google searches can be used as evidence against oneself. I think that sets a dangerous precedent. The thought that we have to moderate the things that we type into the computer is really a much more scary reality than somebody fantasizing about these things. So I think it’s really important for the law to catch up with our technologically-enabled society and realize that those shouldn’t be used as evidence because that’s us thinking. We’re typing, we’re researching, we’re looking, we’re questioning. As a free society, we need to be able to think.

So what do you think that could look like?

When Google searches are used as evidence, it has to be enabling the crime behavior versus any other sort of scenario. There needs to be room for lawyers and judges to understand that it’s an extension of the mind versus “research.” What that looks like in a courtroom, I’m not sure. I think that’s a great question for the ESF and the ACLU. I think it has to be a combined sort of effort to understand what these things mean. [Google searches] aren’t yet thought of as thought. The Slate reporter Dan Engber, who I started talking with at the beginning, in one of his articles, he said, “Googling is an extension of the mind,” and I still have that put up in a notecard in my office. I hadn’t even thought of it that way, and it really is.

Thought Crimes: The Case of the Cannibal Cop premieres May 11 at 9 PM ET on HBO.

(Photo: HBO)