When Gilberto “Gil” Valle visited HBO’s headquarters near Bryant Park recently to watch Thought Crimes: The Case of the Cannibal Cop — the documentary about him — he didn’t like what he saw.
He saw himself, pale, with dark, baggy circles under his eyes, sitting in his mother’s living room while under house arrest. He saw TV news reporters calling him the “Cannibal Cop.” And he saw the messages, one after another, that he exchanged with another anonymous user of the Dark Fetish Network, detailing how he would do away with his victims.
Thought Crimes, directed by the late New York Times reporter David Carr’s daughter Erin Lee Carr in her feature debut and premiering on HBO tonight, tells the story of New York’s infamous “Cannibal Cop,” a former police officer who spent 21 months in Lower Manhattan’s Metropolitan Correctional Center before a judge overturned his conviction in July 2014, ruling that there was insufficient evidence to suggest Valle was planning to act on fantasies that involved raping, killing, and eating women, including his wife.
“Unfortunately, he did not like the film,” Carr says. “I think it was one of the first times he had seen those chats visually rendered.”
Carr began visiting Valle in prison in January 2014. The first time, she went with his father, and on subsequent visits, his mother. “It was very nerve-racking,” she says of the first visit. “Because of the allegations, I think Gil felt really nervous around women. I think there was a high level of anxiety on both sides. We mainly sort of talked about how uncomfortable it was, and about his life in prison, what he was doing with his time, how he felt.”
She started speaking to Valle on the phone every week, and when he was released and put on house arrest, she visited and filmed him at his mother’s house in Middle Village, Queens.
The most powerful, and sickening, moments in the film involve Valle’s chat-room messages back and forth with another Dark Fetish Net user, the two gleefully laying out elaborate plans to kidnap and torture women Valle knew personally. He had uploaded images of these women onto the fetish site, obtaining their pictures from Facebook. He kept a document with the women’s names, and gathered their information using police databases.
Carr says she tried to reach out to the women who were named as potential victims in the prosecution’s case against Valle, but they did not want to participate in the film. “It was really important to me at the outset that we reach out to the women, because I think the defense of Gil has always maintained that there were no victims,” Carr says. “But if you type these women’s names into Google — if you have a film about them — they’re implicated.”
The film circles around the question of whether Valle should be in jail. Journalists, lawyers from the ACLU, psychologists, and even Alan Dershowitz weigh in. Most of the time, when Valle’s chat-room interlocutor asks if he’d ever really do any of the things he describes, he says no, it’s just fantasy. But once or twice, he slips, and admits that yeah, he might do it if he knew he wouldn’t get caught.
The act that damned him the most at trial was a trip he took with his wife and baby to visit one of the women he fantasized about cannibalizing — an old college friend of his.
“I can 100 percent say that I do not believe Gil Valle belongs in prison,” Carr says. “The jury convicted him based on what he might do versus what he actually did.” Because Valle was a police officer, the FBI felt it didn’t have enough time to put an undercover officer on the case who could develop a relationship with Valle under the guise of being just another cannibal fetishist. “But really, that’s when you can test if people would do this or if they won’t,” Carr says. “Will he meet with the undercover agent, will he bring weapons?”
Thought Crimes juxtaposes the mundane — Valle padding around his mother’s house, bored, wishing he could at least go in the backyard — with the gruesome and bizarre details of Valle’s fantasies. The camera relishes shots of Valle cooking and eating food, although Carr points out that when you’re under house arrest, there’s not much else to do. “The first couple times we show a cutaway to eating, it’s like, oh my god, that’s crazy!” Carr says. “But then the next couple times, it’s like, oh, he’s cooking, like everyone else. It’s just a guy in his kitchen cooking. It’s like this case — sometimes it looks really dark and scary, and sometimes it’s funny.”