(Note graphic language in paragraph 9-10)
By Jonathan Allen
NEW YORK For the two men charged with hatching a kidnap conspiracy on a website catering to violent sexual fetishes, their own Internet musings about abducting and brutalizing women are so outlandish, they only bolster their defense, their lawyers argued in a New York courtroom on Tuesday.
Michael Van Hise, 23, and Christopher Asch, 61, were clearly engaged in sheer fantasies, and even their most graphic online ruminations betray an obvious lack of intent to act them out, the attorneys told jurors in closing arguments at their trial.
Van Hise, a mechanic from Trenton, New Jersey, and Christopher Asch, a former New York City high school librarian, are both charged with conspiring to kidnap female members of Van Hise's family, some of them children.
Their arrests last year stemmed from the investigation of a former New York City police officer, Gilberto Valle, who was convicted of conspiring to kidnap women with the intent of cannibalizing them.
The Manhattan federal court jury was due to being deliberating the case on Wednesday. Both men face up to life in prison if convicted.
A third man accused of being part of the plot, Richard Meltz, pleaded guilty last month to two kidnapping conspiracy counts as part of a deal with prosecutors and awaits sentencing.
Summing up the defense case for Van Hise and Asch, their lawyers told jurors that their clients' online banter was at most hare-brained, and so half-hearted that many months passed without any contact between the two.
They pointed to evidence in the defendants' own email communications to counter the prosecution's case that the pair were on the verge of carrying out a real kidnapping plot, only to be foiled by the intervention of FBI agents.
Alice Fontier, a lawyer for Van Hise, read aloud from an email exchange between the defendants in which Van Hise wrote that they might kill a woman by choking her using only their penises, "like the weapons they are." Fontier argued to the jury this was a patently absurd notion.
"I can't believe I'm going to say this out loud," Fontier said, "let alone in federal court: penises aren't murder weapons. This is fantasy."
NOTHING SEXY ABOUT BLEACH
Defense lawyers also pointed that the pair met in person just once, in the spring of 2011, and only began to chat online again in March 2012. Van Hise then began sending photographs of his wife, sister-in-law and nieces to Asch.
Even some of Van Hise's seemingly less outlandish emails lack credibility as signs of true conspiracy, Fontier said.
In one message to Asch, Van Hise said his sister-in-law could be easily kidnapped as she left her office because there were no security cameras. In fact, Fontier said, Van Hise knew his sister-in-law did not have a job and no office to go to.
Similarly, Van Hise suggested his wife could be kidnapped by someone pretending to be a repair man to lure her to her basement, even though she lived in a second-floor apartment without any basement access, Fontier said.
His wife, Bolice Van Hise, testified on Monday that she learned of her husband's fetishes shortly after their wedding in 2010 and had access to his emails and online accounts. She said she knew he sent pictures of her to strange men online, though she was unhappy to learn that he had also been sharing pictures and fantasies involving her sister-in-law and nieces.
Fontier also noted that investigators did not arrest or charge Van Hise for more than two months or warn his wife, indicating that they did not believe he posed a real threat.
Asch was taken into custody after arriving at a meeting with an undercover agent with two bags filled with tools for kidnapping and torture that he believed the man was going to store in a remote location for safekeeping, prosecutors said.
Asch alone also faces a second count of conspiring to kidnap a woman in early 2013 who turned out to be another FBI agent involved in a sting operation.
In her summation, federal prosecutor Hadassa Waxman said there was clear evidence that Asch went far beyond the realm of role playing, citing his purchase of a powerful stun gun.
Waxman held up the other items Asch had bought one by one, each sealed in a plastic evidence bag, before dropping them to the floor: handcuffs, a meat mallet, skewers, alligator clamps, a leg-spreader, speculums.
But she pointedly saved the most banal items for last, saying that they showed Asch was thinking about details that he otherwise might be expected to ignore for a mere fantasy.
"These are very practical items," Waxman said, pointing to the final three exhibits: "There is nothing sexual about bleach, or paper towels, or disposable gloves."
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Lisa Shumaker)